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Technology is not always your friend
San Francisco Chronicle


March 16, 2006

AUSTIN, Texas - Cruising the geekfest known as South by Southwest Interactive in the Texas capital, it's easy to think that technology is a wonderful thing, connecting communities and empowering individuals.

Adam Greenfield had a different message.

Greenfield, author of the new book "Everyware" from Berkeley's Peachpit Press, told a room packed with more than 200 people that an age of "ubiquitous computing" is upon us, with technology able to monitor nearly every facet of daily life and feed it all into databases.




Think about it: Computer chips can go into Band-Aid-like devices that sit on your skin and monitor your pulse, temperature and other vital signs. People in Hong Kong swipe electronic cards to get into the transit system - and can also use the cards as keys to open their home or office, or put money on them and use them to pay for things. Cameras on London streets can scan faces for identifiable features and match them to a database of suspected terrorists. A new senior citizen housing development in South Korea has sensors in the floors, so if a resident falls, paramedics are notified - and the door automatically unlocks.

Smart toilets developed in Japan can monitor waste products to gauge a person's health, Greenfield said.

"This is not blue sky, speculative science fiction," he said. These applications are being built today. "We're talking about everyday life."

Aside from the civil liberties implications - which Greenfield said are significant - he also said the technology won't always be pretty.

In fact, he said, "I see a lot of misery. I see people's toilets crashing. How much in our homes are wired and subject to the blue screen of death?"

Greenfield said he hopes his book can spur more than just nerds and geeks into paying attention to these issues. "It kills me that there hasn't been more discussion," he said. "I have no illusion that government or business are going to do it. It's going to take a lot of pressure from the bottom."

Something gained, lost

Kevin Smokler of San Francisco, a blogger and podcaster at and editor of "Bookmark This: Writing in Unreaderly Times," is at his seventh SXSW, to use the festival's own shorthand.

Smokler was stoked to attend the festival, but when he got here and saw crowds estimated at triple last year's attendance, he began to feel overwhelmed.

"For some of us old-timers," said Smokler, 32, "South by Southwest doesn't feel like it's our conference anymore. Maybe it shouldn't. It's a living, breathing organism. ... Countercultures become mainstream and spur other countercultures."

However, just because it's harder for Smokler to find his friends and have meaningful conversations amid the bustle of the newly energized Internet crowd doesn't mean he's down on the conference.

Smokler doesn't even begrudge big money making its presence felt, most obviously by Yahoo buying typical SXSW technologies like Flickr, and The founders of those firms are staying with Yahoo, and Smokler says they'll keep the flame alive.

"People like (Upcoming founder) Andy Baio and (Flickr founders) Caterina Fake and Stewart Butterfield will be around long after the second bubble has burst," he said.

Missed connection

I brought my Dell Inspiron laptop to Austin - just a stone's throw from Dell headquarters in Round Rock - and I booked a room in a bed-and-breakfast that had free Wi-Fi. I was set.

Or so I thought.

The laptop said I was connected, but I couldn't surf the Web. I spent an hour, late at night, on the phone with Dell support, opening windows, resetting functions, plugging directly into the modem. No luck.

The next morning, I told the innkeeper. "Oh," she said, "it needs to be reset. I forgot to do that. All you need to do is take the plug out of the router and modem, and plug it back in."

That really put me in the mood to celebrate technology.

Google came in for some criticism at the conference in a panel on book digitization. To be fair, Microsoft shared the stage and also took some heat, but because Google's book project is already online, most of the fire was aimed at Daniel Clancy, engineering director for the Google Book Search Project, which is working with publishers and libraries to bring books online in a searchable fashion.

Elizabeth Lane Lawley, director of the Lab for Social Computing at the Rochester Institute of Technology, cited several major concerns about Google's book-scanning project. Among them: If Google scans the books, who owns the content once it's online? Can Google require a login to search the books? Why don't the books link to libraries, instead of just bookstores?

Clancy said that the program is evolving and that Google is listening to concerns. But it also needs to protect its business, he said.

He said the program is needed because people are searching online, not in libraries. "They say the information on the Internet is good enough," he said, so Google is making it its mission to improve that information.

Clancy said that if the government were to scan the books, it would cost $1.5 billion. "You don't like corporate America owning it," he said. "Are you comfortable with the U.S. government owning it?"

"Why does it have to be centralized control?" Lawley shot back. "It would have been expensive for one company to write Wikipedia," but was much more affordable to have users collaborate on the authorship.

Using that model, she said, "I can scan one book. That's doable for me. A small library can scan a few books." Multiply that by librarians across the country, and you could have an open-source book scanning project.


E-mail Dan Fost at dfost(at)
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