Find a Comfortable Seat for the Future

The surface of BRC Designs' Binary Chair is completely covered with a collage of motherboards, computer chips, lcd screens and hard drive disks held in place by sheet metal screws. The chair also has an interactive quality as the hard drive disks can be spun, the telephone keys and other buttons can be pressed, and the antennae raised and adjusted.Credit: Benjamin Caldwell, BRC Designs

The surface of BRC Designs’ Binary Chair is completely covered with a collage of motherboards, computer chips, lcd screens and hard drive disks held in place by sheet metal screws. The chair also has an interactive quality as the hard drive disks can be spun, the telephone keys and other buttons can be pressed, and the antennae raised and adjusted.
Credit: Benjamin Caldwell, BRC Designs

A couple of years ago Benjamin Caldwell of BRC Designs introduced us to his Binary Chairs.

Arguably more sculpture than furniture, they are constructed entirely of second-hand computer guts – things like circuit boards, CPUs, hard drives, wires and data ribbons. While the chairs are inexplicably beautiful they don’t look particularly comfortable.

The Binary Chairs are wonderfully emblematic of our modern world. Just as they are totally built of tech detritus, so is technology itself now built into everything. It’s naturally part of the daily fabric of our world.

And while that fine weave of life and technology can be a beautiful thing, it’s also full of jagged edges and unexpected sharp surfaces.

That harmonious conflict between humanity and technology will be under the microscope at an important conference in Toronto this June.

The 2013 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society will address “the social implications of wearable technology and augmediated reality in everyday life.”

Holy crap, sorry, that was a mouthful. So I’ll just paraphrase it a bit: as technology integrates itself ever deeper into our lives and alters our view of reality itself, how do we adapt to it and manage its effects?

Let’s start investigating that question with something familiar: the smartphone.

The smartphone has already established itself as something most of us can’t physically be without.

It defines us. It’s part of our identity.

So in a sense, technology has already leapt an important psychological boundary. It is a key part of the “self” that we each inhabit.

That’s exactly why we’re now fertile for a new crop of devices that we’ll wear rather than carry. It’s an easy way to improve our “self.”

This upcoming technology will take all forms. The first generation will be obvious devices that we’ve attached to ourselves, like the upcoming Google Glass.

As I wrote a couple of weeks back, though, it will all fast become invisible and an intrinsic part of our state of being.

That idea represents a sea change in the way we live, though. It hovers above the quaint seaside village of our contemporary reality like a giant tsunami ready to crash down.

It will destroy the world we know and wash us away unless we begin to work at understanding the force it represents and the implications it poses.

Think about it.

Our social, legislative and judicial systems are already struggling to manage the challenges posed just by existing smartphones and internet social media.

Smartphones can be put away or turned off, though. Social media can be tuned out.

How will we adjust to a world in which devices capable of gathering, processing, and transmitting information can’t even be recognized or identified, much less disabled?

In a way, we already inhabit this world, a technology-rich environment of surveillance. Security cameras are everwhere, monitoring us and collecting information about our actions and behaviours.

All of that media is gathered and used by third parties, usually governments and businesses. To what end?

Wearable computers will have a democratizing effect by enabling us to conduct something that’s now commonly called, “sousveillance”.

The word surveillance is based on two French words: sur, meaning “from above”; and veiller, to watch. So under the current regime of near-total surveillance, we are constantly “watched from above.”

Sousveillance turns that concept upside down, replacing sur with sous (for “under,” in case you skipped a few French classes back in grade 6). Wearable technology enables us to capture events from below, from our own perspective.

But will Wal Mart let us shop while wearing a sousveillance device? Can I walk into the gallery of the Legislative Assembly next Thursday afternoon while sporting a Google Glass?

We know the answer to both of these questions is, “no.” But why not? And what will happen when that answer is formally challenged?

Sousveillance, in a sense, is a method of improving memory. So how is a video-enabled device any different than, say, a hearing aid?

More to the point, who owns reality anyway? Don’t we each own our own perspective on it? Or does its collection, storage, and reuse belong only to accredited organizations?

Wearable computers, beyond collecting information, will also enhance and improve our daily experience by decorating our view of the world with all variety of media from – you guessed it – the internet.

So when you look at a house for sale, for example, you might immediately be told its list price.

When a student is presented with a final exam, the answers could appear before their eyes, ready to be copied down.

Suffering through a boring meeting? Just fire up YouTube on your Google Glass.

We’re duly freaked of individuals with minds distorted by drugs like bath salts. What happens when we’re all perma-stoned on the internet?

But, wait. Let’s combine those two concepts: if I am conducting sousveillance of my participation in a public event while the police are conducting surveillance, and both our views are augmented with online information, which collected version of reality is “true”.

Will truth even exist anymore?

These are just some of the issues that are soon to confront us constantly as citizens. Businesses will live and die by them. Courts will be bogged down by them. Governments will drown in them.

That’s where this year’s International Symposium on Technology and Society comes in.

The total societal impact of wearable technology and its promised future of augmediated reality will be open for discussion by the very best academic, political, business, and military minds currently addressing these matters.

Surprisingly, though, that group is relatively small in light of the extreme forces of change that these evolving issues represent.

Anyone involved in law enforcement, public policy, education, or even business marketing would be well advised to attend the conference if for no other reason than to get a basic grip on the issues before they drown in them.

The conference will be a collection of largely academic sessions. Which means they’ll be full of questions that really only lead to more questions.

But hidden within the conference’s master quandary will be the one answer we all want to know: what’s the most comfortable way to sit in the Binary Chair of our collective future?

The 2013 IEEE International Symposium on Technology and Society takes place June 27-29 at the University of Toronto. More information is available online at veillance.me.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, March 15, 2013.