Re-coding Black Mirror Part III

This is part III of our tour through the papers from the Re-coding Black Mirror workshop exploring future technology scenarios and their social and ethical implications.

(If you don’t have ACM Digital Library access, all of the papers in this workshop can be accessed either by following the links above directly from The Morning Paper blog site, or from the WWW 2018 proceedings page).

Shut up and run: the never-ending quest for social fitness

In this paper we explore possible negative drawbacks in the use of wearable sensors, i.e., wearable devices used to detect different kinds of activity, e.g., from step and calories counting to heart rate and sleep monitoring.

The core of the paper consists of three explored scenarios: Alice’s insurance, Bob’s mortgage, and Charlie’s problem.

Alice is looking to buy health insurance, which requires completing a screening process with potential insurers. Company A scanned Alice’s social media, found out that her mother has diabetes, adjusted risk upwards and hence offered a costly plan beyond what Alice can afford. Company B has built a geo-model of different areas of the country using geo-tagged posts in social media, coupled with textual analysis of posts from those users (e.g., looking for the word cancer), and sentiment analysis. They find a higher than average level of aggressiveness in Alice’s location, suggesting a high risk of developing heart disease. Again, the cover offered is outside of Alice’s budget. Company C offer a much more affordable plan, but require their customers to wear a fitness device to track them, much like a plane’s ‘black box’ (we already see analogies to this in the car insurance market). Alice must exercise for at least 30 minutes twice a day, and compile and submit an eating diary. This is how company C deal with the diabetes risk: they prescribe a diet for Alice to follow.

However, the company does not blindly trust Alice: in fact, they will continue to scan her and her friends social media, in order to find discrepancies between Alice’s reported diet and her actual behaviour…

With few options, she surrenders her privacy, her free time, and her free will to company C.

Bob entered a pilot program aiming at making fitness trackers mandatory for all adults. Many of his friends and colleagues are also part of the pilot. Bob is a perfectly healthy person, who normally sleeps just seven hours night. The fitness tracking program recommends a minimum of eight hours, which his friends all manage to achieve easily. Bob consults a clinician, who concludes that Bob has no sleeping problems whatsoever. But the social pressure from seeing his friends’ posts cause him to worry. “Bob begins to stress himself, and develops irritability, tiredness, and attention and memory problems.”

Bob is moving house for work and needs to apply for a mortgage. His financial advisor tells him he is not eligible at the moment, due to potential health issues detected by his fitness tracker.

The information provided by Bob’s fitness tracker, both voluntarily (i.e., shared by Bob on social media) and involuntarily (i.e., as part of the deal between his bank and the NHS) reveal his sleep problems, which have deteriorated over time, and his now frequent anxious outbreaks.

As his stress levels increase, Bob is finally diagnosed with orthosomnia, a recently discovered illness where patients develop stress and anxiety problems trying to match the expectations of their trackers. Bob is forcibly removed from the pilot program and put on mandatory psychological support.

Charlie is an eight-year child whose parents are both in full-time work. Thus he attends a school offering afternoon lessons, and has less ability to take part in other afternoon activities such as sport or music, making his fitness rank lower than expected in his neighbourhood. Charlie eats a well-balanced lunch at school, meanwhile his parents often rely on a fast food restaurant near their offices for their lunch for expediency, and balance this with a light and healthy meal at home in the evening. Because of their work pressure and observed unhealthy eating patterns at lunchtime (via the social ranking system connected to their bank account), their fitness rank is also quite low.

Charlie has been discovered with a kidney condition which remained silent for the majority of his life…. Charlie is very low in the scheduled surgery list, due to his apparently unhealthy behavior.

Charlie is being penalised both by his parent’s unhealthy lunchtime eating habits (which in the absence of any other data, are assumed to extend to Charlie), and for his comparative lack of exercise compared to his peers. Charlie’s parents were able to successfully overturn the component of the judgement based on Charlie’s eating habits, by submitting written testimony from the school. This earned him a few points on the surgery list. “However, people with the possibility of having a healthier and supposedly fitter health style are still ranked higher than him.

In order to prevent these scenarios, governments which want to preserve the privacy and the free choice of their citizens should forbid the possibility of building or using social and fitness profiles to discriminate patients or customers in all health-related markets.

(Though it would take a pretty broad definition of ‘health-related market’ to include mortgages?)

May I have your attention please? Building a dystopian attention economy

This short paper explores ideas from the episode “Fifteen Million Merits,” focusing on treating the attention of a user or consumer as a commodity. In Fifteen Million Merits, people do not get anything in return for watching advertisements, instead they have to pay to skip them. The adverts are also often intrusive and obnoxious…

… we already see this happening in practice. It seems that some advertisers try to attract our attention by any means: better to annoy or insult than not to get attention at all. Manson argues that “advertisements get zanier and more nonsensical – like the Geico gecko or the Old Spice guy – because the goal of advertisements is no longer information but simply attention.”

A quick calculation shows that the video walls in the episode can be built today at a price of from $400 to $1000 per square meter. Furnishing small rooms with video walls is not out of reach in the near future. Paying to skip adverts with multiple parties involved could perhaps be supported by a blockchain. Assuming one advert every ten minutes for every user and everyone watching video streams for 16 hours a day, that’s 96 adverts per person per day. If half of these are skipped we’d have 48 transactions per day per person. A permissioned blockchain based on Hyperledger Fabric at 10,000 tps would be able to support ad-skipping for 18 million users. Smart contracts could be used to implement and automate the ad-skipping conditions and payment, acting as an escrow service.

In ‘Fifteen Million Merits,’ adverts follow the users gaze and switch to a different set of screens if the user looks away, so that adverts can’t be escaped. If the ‘user’ covers their eyes, an annoying sound is played telling them to resume viewing. A basic setup supporting this can be built with five infrared light-emitting diodes and two cameras per wall.

…certain aspects (of ‘Fifteen Million Merits’) could very well be integrated into our society and economy. For example, the reversal of the advertisement schemes, in which a consumer pays to skip an advertisement, could be implemented once micropayments become ubiquitous, fast, and reliable. While being constantly monitored and fed video streams seems extreme from today’s point of view, the proliferation of smart speaker systems and other smart home devices could lead to much subtler forms of surveillance and attempts by advertisers trying to attach our attention.

Perhaps we will voluntarily give up our privacy and allow ourselves to be distracted in return for a comfortable and convenient lifestyle. The paper closes with a quote from Josh Cohen:

“Privacy provides a shelter for imaginative freedom, curiosity, and self-reflection. So to defend the private self is to defend the very possibility of creative and meaningful life.”