Panopticon blueprint by Jeremy Bentham, 1791

Do you know when you follow the rules? Will your smart meter give you cancer and/or reveal your deepest secrets to PG&E? Will facebook’s facial recognition technology peg you as a terrorist? Will the GPS in your smart-phone map your commute for Big Brother? The below article from WIRED magazine celebrates the potential for cheap sensors to provide real-time information to enhance feedback loops and change the bad behaviors  (from not taking our pills to driving over the speed limit) we engage in all the time. It asserts that fixing those behaviors may lead to all kinds of personal and public goods, from weight-loss to better elder care.

If you’re anything like me, the idea of sensors that track your actions, feed them back to you in real time, and inspire immediate behavior modification (think of those roadside displays that list the speed limit and tell you how fast you’re going), raises questions about panoptic control and internalized docility. When we know we are being watched, we begin to watch ourselves.

This is great when the result is slowing down to avoid an auto accident. I wouldn’t argue that driving faster than the designated speed limit is a great infringement on personal freedom. The point of such rules is to enhance the public good, which in turn, balances out to a better, freer life for everyone and less risk of being struck by automobiles while crossing the street. However, an acceptance feedback loops that teach us to internalize the rules so that we follow them before we think to question them, places a huge amount of trust in whoever it is that defines those rules.

Internalized norms might help us fight climate change by showing us household energy use in real time on a plug-in sensor or a glowing orb that flashes orange when we’re using the curling iron and the blender at the same time. But internalized discipline and feedback loops have also allowed humans to normalize some of history’s most destructive mass movements and collective acts of violence.

The question is, whose watching whom? And to what end? If you’re watching yourself, are you aware that you’re doing it? Do you accept that you are a creature of habit, and assume it is best to modify your habits in order to comply with the latest recommendations from the bastions of laws and science? Probably so. We generally assume that democratic society allows us to elect the best people to make our rules and set our norms.

I advocate a life of discipline and self regulation, but I’m also something of an anarchist at heart. I don’t believe that these values live in opposition, and I’m not afraid of cheap sensors, per se. I do, however think that we should evaluate the norms just as closely as how our behaviors conform to them.

Feedback Loops Are Changing What People Do
By Thomas Goetz, WIRED July 2011

With its savvy application of feedback loops, though, GreenGoose is onto more than just the latest fad. The company represents the fruition of a long-promised technological event horizon: the Internet of Things, in which a sensor-rich world measures our every action. This vision, championed by Kevin Ashton at Belkin, Sandy Pentland at MIT, and Bruce Sterling in the pages of this magazine, has long had the whiff of vaporware, something promised by futurists but never realized. But as GreenGoose, Belkin, and other companies begin to use sensors to deploy feedback loops throughout our lives, we can finally see the potential of a sensor-rich environment. The Internet of Things isn’t about the things; it’s about us.