Contextual Interfaces – what level of privacy do you want

This post was inspired by watching the movie trailer for ‘Her’ starring Joaquin Phoenix and reading a recent blog post by Robert Scoble this week.

Our fears about lack of privacy in a post-Snowden world seem to be increasing as devices seemingly start watching and listening to our every move. That’s the perception by many anyway.

The recently revealed Xbox One games console and Moto X smartphone are utilising ‘always on’ features where they have the ability to be always watching or listening so that you can use a voice activation feature anytime you want. You can speak to them as if they are a person that is always with you, rather than manually having to activate a function on your phone. They also offer other contextual features so that they remember information about you, your daily routine and what you recently asked them. If you ask them how long it will take to drive home they will interpret ‘home’ as your registered address. If you ask it to order a pizza it will know where you are, what local pizza company you like and what your favourite toppings are. If you ask them “When did Barack Obama become President?” and then ask “How old is he?” they will remember that you were asking about Barack Obama. They understand you more and they make your life easier.

In order to do this, however, they need to have more information about you and they need to be always on. The more you give them the more they can help you out. The first stage of this is that it can be incredibly useful and is an example of smart technology actually making our lives easier at last. Perhaps a future ‘danger’ of this going too far is portrayed in the upcoming movie ‘Her’. Joaquin Phoenix stars as a man who tries out a brand new futuristic artificial intelligence user interface. The female voice knows everything about him and what he needs and desires. In essence it becomes his ideal partner, albeit virtually. He ends up getting slightly too Siri-ious about this virtual partner (see what I did there? – I’m sure I’m not the first) and it raises the question about what is love, what is dependency and what is real in this digital age. Certainly looks like a fascinating movie.

Conspiracy theorists may also have a heart attack about all of the ‘always on’ and contextual features of these new devices, but in all honesty do you really think that these big organisations will actually always be listening, recording and monitoring every single thing that all of its users around the world are doing every minute of every day? Personally, I don’t think so. Or if they were they really aren’t going to be interested in what everyday punters like me or you are doing, apart from in ways that can help serve us info, features or ads. And it can get most of these things from the way we use the phone, not from our idle conversation. As long as you’re not breaking the law or doing something wrong then you should be alright. And if you are then you can’t really complain. If I was a paranoid conspiracy theorist who was also a celebrity or a politician in the public eye then I would perhaps be more aware and switch off the feature if I was ever doing anything that I didn’t want to get out to the public. But that is extreme paranoia.

New generations will adapt to this fully. They are growing up with social media and online sharing. They will be more savvy as it will be in their blood. They may say “Who cares who is listening to me. There is so much noise in the internet anyway”. It will be the norm for them to be part of a wider global platform where you are less shy about your activities because you’re not being scrutinised by a close village community but you’re getting lost in the herd of an online global network (obviously not including the environments where trolls rule – that’s a whole other argument and a major hate of mine).

Will there be a backlash of people, however, who ‘go dark’ and spend more time offline or on more manual devices and interfaces? Probably. In many countries there is a ‘slow movement’ where people are trying to slow down and not be forced to live at the fast pace of social media and urgent emails as described by Carl Honoré on TED. There are many things about that slow movement that I like and that I think can benefit health, relationships and communities. And more and more people are having holidays in internet blackspots to get away from the online stress. There will be many debates about the pros and cons of this contextual digital evolution too. For me it’s about working out just how it can help you in your daily life and also choosing what level of privacy you actually want.

I’m a private guy. I don’t choose to put lots of family photos on Facebook or Twitter. I keep them private to friends and family. I’m very specific about where I publicly check-in to on FourSquare. But if I think that Google or a similar company having a little bit more info on my daily habits can then serve me better with the features on their devices then I think I’m up for that. It’s a different kind of privacy. We can’t expect everything in our lives to be completely private. We’ve lost that complete freedom now. But we can be smart about our privacy. We can keep important things private whilst still allowing ourselves to benefit from features and services from this new technology.

I think we are entering a very interesting stage in the digital age and as Robert Scoble says, it could lead to the biggest digital divide we’ve seen yet. The ‘freaky line’ as he calls it. Companies like Google have to tread very carefully in order to be open and transparent about what they can and can’t see or use, in order to get as many people as possible embracing this new way of thinking. I’ll be walking into it with my eyes wide open and perhaps one eye over my shoulder just to be on the safe side, but I’m still going to give it a go. Google probably knows that. And so does my phone.

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