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Jiminies, Like Dust

Just about everybody in the free world was disgusted by this news story, which describes a 15-year-old Pennsylvania boy with learning disabilities who was arrested and threatened with a felony for recording a video of several bullies who were taunting him. Go back and read that again. The school did nothing to discipline the bullies, but wanted to make a felon of the victim. The Wrath of Net then fell upon the worthless school, and without admitting what they’d done, they were kind enough to let the vicious, special-needs student slide. For filming the bullies who were tormenting him.

What the hell is going on here?

My first thought was that the bullies were school sports heroes. We inexplicably idolize jocks, and cut them a great deal of slack even when they’re being insufferable jerks. Ending team sports in schools would go a long way toward eliminating this problem, as I’ve suggested before. Well, I thought about it a little more and changed my mind. No, there’s more at stake here. Much more. And this is one time where I could have predicted it 22 years ago, but didn’t. My bad.

Back when I was editing PC Techniques/Visual Developer I wrote a number of editorials describing my vision of the computing future. I scored a few hits and a fair number of misses. I pretty much predicted Wikipedia in 1994. In 1992 I also predicted wearable computing, in the form of the Jiminy, a lapel-pin computer with 256 cores and 64 TB of storage. The Jiminy has imagers, and enough storage to record literally weeks of video. And all I could think to do with it is create a P2P network for passing queries around.

Silly boy. Readers tut-tutted my failure of imagination, and in the next issue of PC Techniques I went far beyond the Jiminy, and in an essay called “Computers, Like Dirt” I postulated free-range imaging nanocomputers the size of dirt particles. I don’t have that editorial OCRed and laid out yet, but here’s the last 200 words:

“Naked” nanocomputers will certainly have their uses. Imagine a device the size of a particle of dirt with one face an image sensor. The rest of the device is a bucket-brigade image storage system that stores millions of images, clocking in a new one every second, or minute, or hour, in effect taking “movies” lasting hours, days, or years. Now imagine untold trillions of these little camcorders released into the environment and carried by the winds to every corner of the earth.

No matter where you go, the very dirt on the street is taking your picture. Even in your own home, the dust that Mr. Byte tracks in watches your arguments, your deceits, literally your every move, at 5000 X 5000 resolution.

Want to solve a crime? Go back to the murder site and dig a thimbleful of dust from several points, and you’ve got millions of movies of the murder as it happened. Rob a bank and the dirt on the floor convicts you. Cleanliness is statistical; no matter how clean an environment, the dust is there somewhere.

Nanocomputers could make it impossible to commit crimes of any sort undetected…or to keep secrets of any kind at all. Virtue imposed by the dust on the wind: How’s that for an endpoint to the evolution of computing?

Scared yet? I wasn’t back in 1992…probably because I assumed I’d be dead long before anything like this came about. But now we’ve got Google Glass, dashcams, copcams, and lots of other mechanisms that basically do nothing but sit around taking pictures all…the…time.

This is what the schools are afraid of. And as much a critic as I am of knuckleheaded public school administrators, I can almost feel their pain here. Nearly everybody has some bitch about our schools and colleges, all of them different, but every one a complaint. The schools are afraid we’ll sue them for doing something, or doing nothing, where “nothing” and “something” embrace everything. Nor are lawsuits necessary. If thousands of students each with hundreds of friends begin to engage in Internet vigilantism, the schools cannot help but lose, and lose big. If every student has a Jiminy on their lapels and a legal right to take pictures of everything that goes on around them, there will be no dodging administrator or teacher misfeasance or malfeasance. Even if the schools get such things outlawed (which they will desperately try to do, and in some places like Pennsylvania they already have) illicit videos of bullies and misbehaving admins or teachers will reach the Net and thus become eternal. Education as a whole would change radically.

As would a lot of other things, few of which I (or anyone else) can predict. I may leave it to your imagination. I will go out on a limb and postulate a quieter, more deliberate, and much more polite sort of world, because no behavior could ever be reliably hidden. I doubt it’ll happen while I’m still around, but by Jiminy, we’re moving slowly but inexorably in that direction. Better behave, guys–because everybody will be watching.


  1. Gary Schulze says:

    Jeff, when you say that ending team sports would go a long way towards ending bullying you make the same mistake that anti-gun people make. Removing guns won’t get rid of violent people and a bully will still be a bully without sports. In fact, maybe even more so if they don’t have a way to channel their aggression. I was bullied by two kids in school, neither of who were jocks of any sort. In fact, I was the jock, but not team sports: track, wrestling, and cross country.

    The whole idea of recording someone in public being wiretapping is horseshit. There is no expectation of privacy in a school class, just like there is no expectation of privacy when someone videos a policeman in public. I would bet the PA law was passed just for that reason, though. It would never pass any kind of constitutional scrutiny, at least not once it got to federal district level.

    What I want to know is what the hell was that school principal thinking? Covering up because they didn’t stop the bullying? The bullying was going to continue, so it would have been revealed at some point. How about they stop the bullying? There’s all sorts of stupid zero tolerance rules in school and they can’t stop it? And when they try, they inevitably punish the victim as well as the bully.

    1. There’s a culture inherent in team sports that goes very deep, all the way back to our prehuman ancestors. It’s tribalism, and the whole idea is to divide populations into tribes, which are further divided into alphas, priesthoods/apparatchiks, and foot soldiers. Bullying is the privilege of alphahood, and the apparatchiks maintain the tribal structure that sends resources and sexual opportunity up the ladder from the foot soldiers to the alphas, skimming off a portion for themselves. That’s how any tribal structure works, and our society is lousy with them.

      At our high school the coaches were bullies as well, which is why I suspect that the jock dynamic may be in play here, at least to some degree. Coaches are often the highest-paid functionaries at universities, which cements my suspicion that our universities are wholly invested in jock tribalism and extracting money from alumni footsoldiers who still inexplicably support the tribe.

      The school officials here are motivated by a completely reasonable terror: that being filmed by students is the greatest threat to their system that has yet to turn up. They know that the public is at best suspicious of our schools and at worst completely loathes them, and if too many videos generate too much rage among the general public, the politicians could well turn against them. Bullies might embarrass them, but it’s kids with cameras who have the power to turn the school system inside out and eliminate most of the power that administrators hold. It’s an effect I call “adverse transparency.” Once the cameras become so small that they hide inside jewelry or ball-point pens, the game is really and truly over. We’re just about there.

      1. Tom Roderick says:

        Jeff, the spy pens are all over the Internet.

        I have mixed feelings about our surveillance society on more levels than I can count. I have always thought that one of the great things about the past was the ability for people to move on and start over. Probably most of our immigrant ancestors did just that. With ubiquitous surveillance and the hive-mind of the Internet that is not as much an option any more. Although it can be abused, and is more often than not, I also think that there is a time and a place for anonymity — especially on the Internet.

        Hm, I wonder what some nice IR LED emitting jewelry or apparel would do to the every watching CMOS eyes?

  2. Alana Abbott says:

    Imagining a more polite world may require the biggest suspension of disbelief in this post. 🙂 With all the cell phone cameras already at schools, I’m not surprised that schools are… concerned. (Just like the rioters who are picketing Google employees’ houses and smashing Glass they see worn.)

    But it seems to me like the fight for privacy is a losing battle these days. And I’m not even sure that loss will be *wrong.* I’m not sure it’s right, either. If it comes with a healthy dose of respect and politeness to replace it, that almost seems to me like it’ll be worth the cost.

    1. One thing that encourages me to remain polite is a personal policy of not hiding behind screen names. What I say I say over my real name, and I assume that whatever I say will be seen by anyone who wants to see it. Privacy in public spaces–and schools certainly qualify as public spaces–is a mixed bag. If school personnel could be relied upon to do their jobs and not be vindictive jackasses, this sort of adverse transparency would not be necessary. The bullying phenomenon may lead to laws giving students the right to “kidcams” that roll whenever the kids are in public space. This process seems to be underway now in Pennsylvania. Ubiquitous kidcams in schools would have effects that go far beyond simple bullying. Administrators understand this already, and the rest of the public will soon figure it out. The next ten years are going to be mighty interesting. (Then again, every ten years I look back upon have been mighty interesting. It’s been an interesting time to be alive.)

  3. TRX says:

    > polite world

    Quite possibly, “polite” will slowly be redefined as “just below the level of actionable offense.” Sort of like “respect” has become a synonym for “fear.”

    Just like kids learn they can play their parents off against each other, they’d learn what they needed to do to avoid the video log.

  4. Erbo says:

    This reminds me of John Brunner’s seminal SF novel The Shockwave Rider, in which the protagonist releases a worm into the national “data-net” that exposes all manner of secrets…things like clandestine genetic experimentation at government laboratories, bribes and kickbacks from companies, and concealed crimes by public officials. Yes, it violated privacy, but it only violated the privacy “under which justice is not done and injustice is not seen.” The government fought back against this, attempting to assassinate him and even send a nuclear strike against the town where he lived.

    Ubiquitous cameras pose the same threat against the routine abuse of power by government and those affiliated with the government. Just look at, for instance, how Los Angeles police tampered with their in-car recording equipment in an effort to avoid being monitored while on duty, when that recording equipment is in place, in part, to deter police misconduct.

    Ultimately, the schools aren’t afraid of kids recording the abuses perpetrated by bullies; what they’re afraid of are kids recording the abuses perpetrated by teachers and other school employees.

  5. Gary Schulze says:

    Alana, haven’t you ever read 1984? I don’t disagree that it looks like we’re headed towards 24/7 surveillance, but it’s not a good thing. Yes, it will help catch criminals; it will also make criminals of us all. The US is headed down the path of a police state. One factor that people in favor of laws giving more control of our lives to the state don’t think about is that they believe politicians that say they won’t abuse those laws. “We will not confiscate your guns.” Well, maybe the person that says that won’t and hasn’t even considered doing so, but what about the next and the next and the next? Anyone going to guarantee they won’t abuse the laws? “Those who would give up Essential Liberty, to purchase a little Temporary safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” However, I am in favor of videoing police because some of them have shown a remarkable ability to abuse their authority.

  6. Lee Hart says:

    Your cameras-like dust idea was the heart of the novel “Other Days, Other Eyes” by Bob Shaw, and “A Deepness in the Sky” by Vernor Vinge. Both investigated the consequences of an eyes-everywhere society.

    Information is *power*. So who controls the data that’s gathered; you, or the government? if it’s the government, Vinge says you get a perfect police state, where Big Brother controls everything. If people have individual control, you get the opposite extreme; a form of anarchy. Neither is attractive if you value civilization.

    I suspect that some degree of privacy is necessary for freedom, progress, and happiness.

  7. Dave Thompson says:

    I read your original piece on the Jiminy concept and really thought highly of it. However, this notion of nanocomputers watching everything we do scares the Bejesus out of me! I’d like to think that such power would not be abused, but I think I understand human nature all to well to believe in such benevolence. I am convinced that such power would be abused and not for the benefit of the average citizen.

    it’s still a great piece and thanks for writing this one… and the original.

  8. Bob Fegert says:

    “Light of Other Days” is a short story by Bob Shaw. Published in 1966 in Analog Science Fiction and Fact. It introduced something called “slow glass” That is very similar to your ubiquitous nano-cameras.

  9. TRX says:

    I read the novel version. It had a bad case of the slows in the middle, so the short story might have been better.

    Two things about ubiquitous networked surveillance: first, it’s a fixed target. Sooner or later someone will crack it or steal the encryption keys. Second, it will then become a tool for the watched to watch back; when every political discussion, every interaction with police, every bureaucratic function, can be monitored by the public and archived outside the government’s jurisdiction, you have the proverbial double-ended sword. Few governmental or bureaucratic systems would care to operate in a true “sunshine” scenario.

    Uniquitous surveillance is only useful for oppression when it is one-sided. It remains to be seen whether “they” will realize that before implementing it…

  10. Rich Rostrom says:

    Illinois had an “all-parties” recording law, which said that recording without the consent of all parties was illegal eavesdropping. This law has finally been struck down after several embarrassing cases of abuse.

    I suspect the Pennsylvania law will go the same way.

    A lot of cops had the idea there was some law against recording police in the performance of their duties. This has been exploded, and the sensible ones understand it.

    But cops remain paranoid about recording. What cops do is intrinsically messy. There are “activist” groups which provoke incidents to be recorded so that the edited video will show “police brutality”. Some police are cynical about “dashcams” – they see the video being used against them, and sometimes to exonerate them of false charges, but never against those who make false accusations.

    Teachers and schools are paranoid too. They are expected to keep order among hundreds of children, some of them variously demented, some of them violent, some of them with parents that enable misconduct, some of them almost feral, and some of them as big and strong as many adults. And they fear (not unreasonably) that anything they do can be made the subject of a witchhunt or costly lawsuit.

    Which is not to say that the public school system is not infested with timeserving mediocrities whose first reaction to a problem is to cover it up. That’s what this Pennsylvania case seems to be.

  11. zeph says:

    Long ago and far away…

    I loved PC Techniques. It had the right flavor. It was a little bit Creative Computing, it engaged more than technology, but just the whole… thing we did, whatever that was. “Visual Developer” kind of crashed that, it sounded like the kind of baby only marketers could love.

    The jiminies were cool and you could relate to them. They bear no resemblance to the present but, I’d still read stories about that alternative future.

    Science fiction is not a field that predicts much. It couldn’t be, really, because the readers would have to be aliens. What sense would a modern “phone” make, 30 years ago?

    1. The Jiminies were a mid-80s thing with roots in a Clarion story I workshopped in 1973, and I haven’t really done much with the concept since 1992-ish. There’s still some ore to be mined in wearable AI, and I’ve done some short stories on it, including “Bathtub Mary” and “Sympathy on the Loss of One of Your Legs”.

      Keep in mind that nearly all print magazines exist only at the behest of advertisers, and one problem we had with PCT is that it was general-interest, and advertisers wanted more specific demographics. So as much as I was a fan of visual development, we were also triangulating where the ad dollars were, and when those went away, so did we.

  12. […] got it backwards. Those are the Feds.) This is nonsense, and the whole thing is a dodge. I made this point some time back: Governments do not want to be watched. No governments, anywhere. That’s what the whole […]

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