I actually started drafting this blog in November 2019. Originally it was intended to be a review of my ethical concerns with regards to the principle of using Immersive Technology per se; the potential pitfalls for users in terms of physiological unknowns and the possibility for large corporations to harvest extraordinary levels of personal data in real time, all the time.
However, I soon disappeared down various rabbit holes of a broad range of ethical concerns that I feel need to be covered. These range from those I just mentioned all the way through power consumption, raw material usage, sustainability of equipment, company ownership and funding, and social isolation among others.
This is such a big topic now, with the immersive, augmented and virtual worlds really taking root in mainstream consciousness, I decided that it’s best if I write on a different aspect of the subject from time to time.
The blogs are intended only as my initial thoughts; they are certainly not offered as being the fount of knowledge, nor are they meant to be the final word on each subject. Quite the opposite, in fact.
My strong belief is that we need to be having regular debates on these subjects and preferably before the horse bolts and we end up facing the issues raised, before we’ve considered them.
We can but should we?
Being able to do something, doesn’t necessarily mean that you should do that thing, but at the same time someone probably will do the thing anyway. And if we accept that truism then what potential ethical issues should we be considering right now?
I’m starting out with the obvious but it seems the best place. We humans, have a singularly terrible record on doing things just because we can; considering whether we ‘should’ is rarely the priority.
The overriding feeling is that if we don’t do it then surely our competitor, our enemy or someone else will do it, so we might as well.
You don’t have to look far for examples: Nuclear weapons, oil-based transportation, deforestation, space travel, human cloning or a Dinosaur Zoo are all good case studies.
At a more prosaic level, controls, regulation and even taxation have still not even got to grips with the internet, or the largest companies that trade on it, let alone the distribution of fake news and sometimes heinous criminal activity.
So what of Immersive Technology? It isn’t new (even if we work from 1985 and Jaron Lanier’s HMD) yet we seem, as is so often the way, to be behind the curve in terms of ethical considerations regarding what exists already and what is coming; those who can do the “Things” largely already are.
But do we know, understand, agree with, or accept the way that Immersive Technology is owned, the way that hardware and software is being designed and developed, the possible uses for some potentially invasive and certainly powerful technology?
Immersive Technology is the new computing platform. This is a central theme to talks I’ve recently given.
Audiences outside of the IMTech world, the world I inhabit on a daily basis are typically surprised by that statement and they’re even more surprised when I talk to them about the extent and impact of our work with some of the largest companies in the world.
They don’t know much about headsets let alone haptics, eye tracking, biometric analysis, data harvesting and the myriad of other integrated technologies already in use.
They’ve never heard of Facebook Horizon, they certainly aren’t aware of Facebook’s level of investment in the market and they’re shocked when I tell them about Livemaps. But these things are happening right now.
Undoubtedly this powerful technology suite can be used for the benefit of all of us; how we engage with the world around us and each other, how we take care of each other, how we improve lives.
Equally there is another side to that coin; in the same way the internet can be used for so much good, it can also be harnessed for much that is not so good; and even downright evil.
If we, our governments, and law enforcement were unprepared for the internet, then conceivably IMTech has the potential to be used, or to inadvertently, topple global political, economic, and social constructs.
Dismantling the human/computer interface might just be our dismantling. The point is nobody knows other than those who are already working on it and they are way ahead of any potential regulation that may be rendered pointless after the horse has bolted.
Each time we click ‘Agree’, we hand over our rights to privacy but in comparison to what’s coming it’s a limited problem, no matter how far it goes, when compared to the coming Immersive Technology capabilities.
When we click ‘Agree’ in the new Immersive Tech World we’re potentially handing over the keys to our self and presenting live information about the people around us (without their permission).
Surveillance Culture? We’ll be agreeing to provide CCTV access inside our homes 24/7 along with biometrics.
For those who still can’t believe people pay money for “Intelligent Personal Assistants”, such as Alexa, to snoop on them, this will be mind-blowing, but as and when IMTech becomes pervasive as the new computing platform you might not have a real choice; you’re either in or out.
In the same way that use of your smartphone and the apps within it are contingent on your acquiescence to eyebrow-raising terms and conditions so it could be with IMTech.
Facebook, HTC and a host of other manufacturers and platform builders are jockeying for position with their Terms and Conditions in hand and their increasingly sophisticated data harvesting tools in their products.
In my opinion it’s critical that we have the discussions about the application of their phenomenal capabilities before the horse gets jittery, let alone bolts.
Accepting the premise that what can be done will be done, no matter what, we need to consider ensuring that people are aware of the implications of clicking ‘Agree’.
We need to ensure that safeguards are in place for those unable to understand the power of the technology that they are using, and we need to prepare for potential mental health issues in a way that we never have previously.