The accelerating and invasive conquest of our human activities’ field by digital technologies surprises us unceasingly. It requests from us a fast adaptation, which brings a lot of stress, but also new excitements, and even addiction. Actually those individual reactions are nothing in comparison of the new ethical and democratic issues we have to face. Here are a few examples.
The objects of our daily life are more and more tagged with invisible meta data, indexed and wired into digital networks. We don’t refer only to cookies, to robots slaved to research engines, or to spyware which nest secretly in the programs and hard disks of our computers. I don’t mention only the bar codes which are everywhere on our manufactured products, readable on our personal bank accounts and medical files, and even used now to identify molecules in biotics. I don’t speak only of radio frequency identification devices (RFID), which are introduced into so many objects of daily use. I don’t just point out our GSP devices, which follows the movements of our cars, or our own changes of location, nor the satellites, which watch and register constantly images of our habitats and any visible modification on the surface of our planet. We could say that all these techniques provide mainly a passive remote cybersurveillance.
But let’s consider the next step which is on the move. We enter now an even larger and much more active digital invasion of our public and private spaces. It will happen for the best and for the worst, like any move ahead of CyberPrometheus. I don’t speak here only of the Bluetooth systems of wireless networks which link the objects point-to-point in relation with computers able to control not only printers or other peripherics of computers, but also the whole domotic management of a house, or a series of webcams and identification’s libraries. We discover that the financial crisis which rage in the US in relation with the abuses of mortgage credits and the so called subprimes, has given rise to an important commercialisation of remote spydevices. Of course the houses of owners unable to continue paying the mortgage don’t move and are easy to foreclose. But this situation has extended to car leasing. The financial institutions have discovered an efficient way to constrain their clients who fail to pay their monthly due amount. They install in the cars on loan a digital device which changes its green light to a flashing red one when time has come to pay, and which will even stop the car thanks to a distant signal given by the loan company, if the user don’t pay. As soon as he does it, he receives a pass word which he may enter on the keyboard of the device, and which will allow the engine to start again. Of course, for safety reasons, the system is programmed to give a series of warnings before stopping the car. And the GPS box of the car will eventually allow the lender to know where the car has been stopped and to get it back. This new market of digital control devices knows a fast expansion for the benefice of its manufacturers, such as Payteck in Ohio, or Sekurus International L.L.C, a leading payment protection and fleet telematics products and services provider based in California. Such corporations have already equipped some 250 000 cars and start selling on the car-rental markets of Asia, Europe and UAE. They may extend in the future to markets of professional printing or photocopy machines, or even domestic television sets, electric household appliances, refrigerators or dishwashers, and even sound, heating or air conditioned systems, and finally any electrical wireable object, which people are used to rent or buy on credit .
We may call hyperobjects all these objects which are wireless connected to digital networks and are therefore linked to remote control computers able to activate or stop them running and consequently to control their human end-users. In our consume societies, this new system of hyperobjects - an appellation enlarging the well known title of a book of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard* - will soon reach not only the manufactured equipments, but also the industries of contents and services. We observe already a fast generalization of smart chip cards programmed to pay services such as the use of the subway, of highways, of cell telephones, or TV connections. The users just need to reload the credit chip by internet transaction or cash payment. And we are getting about the same habits to access contents on line, such as software, music, films, archives, encyclopedias and any kind of digital commercial content. A few lines of program, introduced in any file on line and even of line in a DVD, allow to activate a time limitation, or to renew the access on line by entering a password which you get in exchange of a payment. The commercial system to which we are more and more bound and often agree with, is setting up efficient digital devices and programs on line linking objects, services and contents to remote powerful central control servers. Most of our usual objects, such as beds or tables, may have a chance to keep inert (although we may still imagine strange digital designs in the future). But an increasing number of daily objects will get smart and hyper, which means under remote control. We will have to adapt ourselves to this hybrid new nature of our environment: a mix of matter and digital.
Of course, these changes will confront us also to a challenge which may seem every day more volatile and difficult to master. I speak from the necessary laws which may limit the inevitable abuses of such new powerful digital control technologies. We encounter a kind of new electronic horizon or frontier. How fast shall we be able to regulate this sort of virtual no man’s land which not only emerges but extends more and more and links us privately to it? Consumer protection groups watch; but they inevitably react slowly. They cannot perform as rapidly as the digital technology developers. We need a Lucky Lucke of the Far Digital, faster than its virtual shadow! I am not ready to sink under any digital paranoia. It seems to me that entering the age of the digital is even more fascinating that discovering the New world or sending men to the Moon (an exploit which would never have be possible without computing). I have no doubt that we shall adapt ourselves quickly. Just see how younger generations do! We should not forget that these new technologies did not fell from the sky suddenly, but that we are their inventors. We are the one who have programmed these powerful electronic machines, and go on programming and inventing algorithms. It is very creative part of our humanism.Hervé Fischer