This morning while running (and breathing heavily) I listened to a fascintating story on NPR about a facility that cares for the elderly using a very sophisticated monitoring system. The clients in this care home wear a badge that transmits minute by minute data about what they are doing, what they have eaten, their heart rate, their breath rate, God only know what other data this badge collects.

This story brought out a lot of thoughts as I trudged around my usual route dragging my lazy yellow lab over the last mile.

The first was that I predicted this kind of data gathering and monitoring at least 10 years ago when I used to teach web design for the College of the Redwoods Community Education Program. What seemed self-evident to me at the time, must have sounded crackpot to the students trying to learn the basics of HTML. I said back then that the Internet would become a conduit for all kinds of data and that the web sites they wanted to build would be just a tiny slice. I didn’t think it would take this long. And I didn’t imagine the first real world application of this this concept would flourish among the elderly. Now, though it makes sense. It’s only a matter of time until we are all wearing clothes that monitor our vital signs, our slightest activities, the data gathered in some vast database monitored by the NSA and powered by solar panels woven in to the sleeves and back panels of our shirts and jackets. We are moving to a world connected everywhere and through everything at all time to the greater network.

Is this a good thing or bad? What freedoms do we give up? Gosh, remember Richard Brautigan?:

“All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”
I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

We can be swaddled in technology, but do we really want that? Do we have a choice?

My mother died of Alzheimer’s last year. She lived in a care home right up until she died. It was a lovely, comforting place with a good staff. Still, I never felt I had enough information about her condition. Though the home was only a 6 minute drive from where I lived, I still couldn’t get over there often enough. And when I did, I never felt I had the whole story. In the NPR story, one of the people profiled cut his daughter off from receiving his data because she was using it to interfere with his daily life.

So enough about others. Again, my thoughts turn back to…me. What will I want when I need to have 24 hour care? Will I want the comfort of knowing someone is monitoring every heartbeat, each step, each breath? Or will I wish to toss off the the web of care and fade off in to oblivion? If I would accept this level of attention then, why not now in case I develop something way before I need to go to a care home. And what about the children? What level of scrutiny will they accept? What level of monitoring will we permit in the name of safety?

These questions aren’t future based. They are immediate. They go to heart of the government’s arguement over warrantless wiretapping and wholesale gathering of phone call data. All necessary to protect us from terrorists they say.