Transparent life: Fusing our digital and physical selves

As more personal data is digitally scraped, it's starting to change how we're seen in the real world. By Mel Exon

Transparent life: Fusing our digital and physical selves

Billed as a dive into the "rapid evolution of data visualisation tools", Future Human's Transparent Life event last week could have lost its audience at "hello".

Data viz may have become a hot topic in recent years, but there was also plenty of healthy scepticism in the room relating to its publicity-hungry offspring, AR. Ah yes, augmented reality, which, until very recently, has had to work hard not to be dubbed "awkward reality".

Yet, a few minutes in, the journalist Ben Beaumont-Thomas had held the audience's attention, wisecracking his way through a history of human motivation behind how we portray ourselves in public.

He then moved on swiftly to focus on the issue facing us now: how we're consciously and unconsciously allowing increasing amounts of information about ourselves to be generated and left in the public domain – the "transparent life" of the event's title. And with that, the talk became less about bytes of visualised social data and, instead, about something both simpler and more profound: human identity and the blurring boundaries between our private and public selves.

Facebook’s timeline as an online record of our life history and CCTV cameras (jacked into facial recognition technology) recording our every move offline are simply the start: what trade-offs are we prepared to make between protecting our privacy and freely accessing digital services that purport to improve society and/or our social lives?

We hold on to just a few crumpled photographs of our grandparents today, but our own grandchildren, poor blighters, will be able to find out what we had for breakfast any day of any given year this millennium.

As the talk continued into a panel discussion with the film-maker Keiichi Matsuda, the chief executive of Digicave, Callum Rex Reid, and the research director at Philter Phactory Luke Robert Mason, strands of two very different futures started to emerge.

The case for dystopia

Beaumont-Thomas drew our attention to the subterranean layers of personal data used for commercial or security reasons, scraped from the places you would expect (social networks, mobile network operators) and places you might not (tollbooths, even keycard entry systems).

Not to mention services such as the "people search engine", Spokeo, a frankly creepy directory that displays any data it can find about an individual, including their estimated wealth, photos, contact details etc.

If you needed more evidence that our public personas are increasingly not our own: we heard the story of the two British tourists summarily deported from the US on arrival in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, having joked on Twitter about partying there ("@MelissaxWalton free for a quick gossip/prep before I go and destroy America?" one Tweet went).

The couple also had their luggage searched for shovels by Homeland Security agents in response to another Tweet about "diggin' Marilyn Monroe up" (a joke from 'Family Guy', in case you were wondering).

Keyword scraping for security purposes has become the norm and we may feel a mixture of amusement and despair at the tourists’ judgment or the common-sense radar of the agents in this case.

Yet questions still arise: where should the line be drawn between public good and personal privacy? Have we lost all reasonable rights to privacy once something appears outside your own home or, in fact, outside your own head? And who's watching the watchmen?

The latter gets more interesting when faced with the very early prototype bionic contact lenses recently announced by the University of Washington in collaboration with Aalto University in Finland.

With wiring a thousandth the width of a human hair, in theory these 'Terminator'-style accessories promise a route to a better augmented reality user experience, right before our very eyes.

And if the thought of "e-mails transmitted straight to your retinas" sounds like hell, it only gets more controversial when we consider the opportunity to overlay data about the person standing in front of you. Will anyone talk to you if they know your credit rating, or can evaluate your social standing just by looking at you?

As Beaumont-Thomas put it: "Will our sexy mystic evaporate?" Well, in the past few months, we’ve just inched closer to that reality.

Stepping closer to adland for a moment, you may have seen Matsudas short film 'Domestic Robocop', which portrays a future world in which a plethora of commercial messages are projected in ambient space.

Initially visually mind-blowing, it's an extreme version of a data-dominated world that would be unbearably invasive (witness Charlie Brooker's 'Black Mirror' episode, '15 Million Merits', for a similar experience).

The case for utopia

However, it's Matsuda's second film in the series, 'Augmented City', which starts to hint at the positive implications. Here he shows a user able to overlay their own data in public, customising their identity.

You’re able to switch through different layers of the augmented space on your terms and at your own pace ("you can't eat the whole thing at once"). As Matsuda said simply: "This real-time 3D future can give us agency over the city we live in."

Reid described 3D scanning technology that’s so life-like it would enable a collection such as the one in the British Museum, say, to be distributed to schools in 3D. And wearable technologies such as a next-generation Nike+ that takes into account environmental factors such as terrain.

He stressed the fact that this is absolutely about creativity, citing the Conflux Festival, which sees New York’s Museum of Modern Art filled with new work by superimposing an augmented layer of imagery on the existing work, and the "sculptural photography" created when he saw his company’s tools recently put to creative use by a high-end fashion photographer.

Mason talked about Weavrs, the bots that use web APIs to find and remix social data, effectively becoming the digital alter egos or research agents of their creators.

If that weren’t enough, he recounted how they’d placed Weavrs modelled on 'Alice In Wonderland' characters in Berlin, brought them together to enact a story ("digital replicants that ran through the streets virtually") and allowed users to interact with them via the AR app, Layar.

Flipping several years forward, the panel discussed the unimaginably rich data future historians will have at their fingertips (think Street View, circa 2050) compared with the data we have on previous centuries today.

And the questions that arise when we’re faced with what the author William Gibson describes as our generation’s "consensual hallucination" about what we consume or own: so who inherits your iTunes when you die? And if you can capture the things we don’t need to touch (eg. a picture on a wall) virtually, do you need to own them? Does more value get ascribed to things that are physically there?

Back to life, back to identity

This brought us back to an exploration of identity, specifically our human right to anonymity versus our sociocultural need for authenticity. Are data tools actually distorting human identity online or offering a better representation?

Beaumont-Thomas is quick to point out that, despite the importance of appearing authentic to one another, the "personas we create are an easily consumable version of ourselves, not the crazy thoughts in our head".

Google and Facebook would argue the latter: neither allows a user to participate on their social platforms unless they are open about precisely who they are. In their view, this improves the search experience for users, ensures fair and accurate attribution or credit to a source and helps deter trolls and spambots, whilst also, of course, protecting their own revenue streams.

Relying on "you being you", so that you can be effectively targeted and reached with advertising. 4chan’s founder, Christopher Poole, puts forward a counter-argument: "Google and Facebook sort of think of you as a mirror. That you have one reflection. And the reflection that you see in that mirror is what everyone else sees. Not true: people are multi-faceted, people are more like diamonds. Identity is very complex – we ought to allow that flexibility in a web product."

Whatever happens, this stuff isn’t going away

As Matsuda put it: "Bridges between our online persona and physical self are going to happen, it’s just a matter of how it's done and when."

And boundaries continue to be pushed at the fringes – whether that be biologists at Berkeley pioneering ways to read our minds or Anonymous' latest release of a hacked call between the Met and the FBI – providing radical provocation around data and privacy that will take society some time to come to terms with.

So why shouldn't we run for the hills? Well, we humans are programmed to seek out choice and difference.

We tend to self-regulate when backed into a corner… eventually. For the majority right now, our digital social experiences are governed by our own personal rules about how much we wish to reveal about ourselves, within a framework dictated to us by the existing mainstream social platforms.

Platforms that are, to be fair, themselves in a constant state of evolution. Together, we’re going to have to deal with what we’ve got and slowly find new ways to create more sophisticated personas to suit us.

As Mason added in closing at the event: "The tools we have today are not the tools we’ll have tomorrow – we’re naïve if we think so." To which Reid responded: "It’ll be our fault at the end of the day.

There is no swooping external force, tearing at our freedom. (The good news is) We're extremely good at surviving."