Big Brother or “Big Mother?”

A few years ago Coca-Cola ran a promotion called “The Unexpected Summer.” In it a combo cellphone GPS device was rigged to look like a can of Coke and placed in over a hundred 12-packs around the country. A companion Web site allowed people to watch the blips as satellites tracked the lucky winners within 50 feet of anywhere the US.

Recently a few news items reminded me of this and the role of technology in keeping track of our whereabouts. Hitachi has developed a Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) “powder.” The chip measures .05 millimeters square and 5 microns thick, about the size of a grain of sand. Another interesting development in the world of RFID was a patent taken out in February by Kodak for an edible RFID chip. Among other potential uses is for nurses to know if you’ve taken your medicine.

Less invasive might be the GPS sneakers now on sale from Isaac Daniel. The sneakers work when the wearer presses a button on the shoe to activate the GPS. In some emergencies — such as lost child or Alzheimer’s patient — a parent, spouse or guardian can call the monitoring service, and operators can activate the GPS remotely.We could add to this list the cell phone services and GPS car units designed to let parents know where their children are – out of harms way, one hopes. What will be very interesting as these technological developments continue is who monitors them and for what purpose.

In 1984, Orwell invoked a Fascist “Big Brother,” representing the power and interests of the state. In “Big Brother – the TV series,” a house and voyeuristic citizens take the role of omniscient observer of our every move. As Web 2.0 technologies converge with mobile communications, multi-nationals and corporate marketers anticipate the day when our physical location and long tail of previous purchases unite in an endless stream of opportunities to “impulse buy.”

Stopping this movement isn’t within our means. What might be – for those of us who are parents and teachers – is to advocate and champion a human side to this potential. In other words, demand educational applications that side-step Big Brother in favor of “Big Mother.”

  • We know what people surf for, but do we have an algorithm to help us match students’ learning to their interests?
  • Databases keep track of what we buy online, but can teachers access a similar tool that provides information about an individual’s knowledge, skills and attitudes?
  • Social networking sites match us up with thousands of “friends,” but can the software also help us reflect on the wisdom of our choices?
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