In early February I went to hear Paul Dourish when he was visiting the University of Illinois. He’s a professor of Informatics at the University of California, Irvine, with courtesy appointments in Computer Science and in Anthropology. In addition to the Informatics program, he also teaches in the interdisciplinary graduate program in Arts, Computation, and Engineering (ACE). His research lies at the intersection of computer science and social science, with a particular interest in ubiquitous and mobile computing and the practices surrounding new media. His rather long title, “Accountabilities of Presence and the Commoditization of Location: Getting Beyond Privacy in Location-Based Systems,” didn’t mean much to me, but his talk was very interesting.
Here’s his abstract:
The development of mobile and ubiquitous computing applications is typically attended by concerns about privacy and disclosure. However, despite much effort over many years, the problems of privacy seem as difficult as ever. Opinions differ greatly. To some, privacy is a major obstacle to the development of location-based technologies; to others, privacy simply doesn’t matter. Perhaps the problem is that the term “privacy” isn’t very useful? In order to ground these questions empirically — and to see our way past the problems of privacy as a concept — colleagues and I have been studying a group for whom it is not a useful conceptual framework. Paroled sex offenders tracked via GPS have, as far as the law is concerned, forfeited any right to privacy — and yet the ways in which they are accountable to various other groups for their movements and their presences highlight the complex, contingent, and fluid practices that lie behind a simplistic notion of privacy.
He gave a clear presentation, with a graphically elegant power point.
He started by talking about privacy being a performance, in that it is what we do, how we interact, rather than something we have. The concept of privacy obscures other social relations that may be more relevant or important.
Dourish introduced the term technocorrections to describe the uses of databases to track sex offenders using lifetime monitoring with GPS units. In California, where Dourish conducted his study, two sets of laws–labeled Megan’s law and Jessica’s law—were passed based on emotional responses to victims of violent sexual crimes and not on whether the spatial monitoring of sex offenders was effective. With Jessica’s law, the definition of “sexual” offender became quite Draconian, so that many more people are now being monitored. There is no gradation of risk for sex offenders in California: all are labeled high risk. Parole officers are overwhelmed with data and have very little face-to-face time with the people they are monitoring. There is no rehabilitation, just surveillance.
The experiences of the parolee wearing the device are remarkable. For example, wearing a GPS anklet disciplines the body: people wear multiple socks to pad the device and/or to hide the device. It is easily damaged and any damage is a parole violation. The wearer cannot take it off, cannot get it wet, and must recharge it while wearing it, so those things affect the jobs that the wearer can get, the way in which the wearer can get clean, and how long the wearer can be away from an electrical outlet. The battery can be damaged by overcharging it, so one cannot charge it while sleeping! This device, then, affects the ways a person carries their body, marks a person (like the Scarlet Letter), if it is visible, serves as a constant reminder of a conviction, and, for some, has the positive aspect of providing an alibi, since the person’s whereabouts is always known. The device structures a person’s time, through the necessity of battery recharging.
Space is also structured by forcing people to wear a GPS unit. There are prohibited spaces, and spaces of danger and safety for the wearer. Many end up living near prisons, because there are no schools in the vicinity, so they are not in violation of their parole conditions. Sex offenders are not allowed to get online, so they have to rely on physical maps or circumstance to learn the locations of parks, playgrounds, and schools.
Dourish then moved into broader issues related to the spread of locative technologies, and social contexts that lend location meaning: legibility of space, from within, as lived; and from without, as representational schemas, or presence and traces; technology and the body where locative devices affect comportment, among other things; commodification (actually he called it “commoditization”) of location in which relationships are dissolved (ie, between parolees and officers); transforming data to location, and transforming location to intent (why were they there?); and recovering accountabilities; accountability of presence that is beyond a “privacy” debate; heterogeneous accountabilities that are productive of space rather than responsive.