Tattoo surveillance

In the prior Idiocracy post I discussed the car interface, especially in terms of how it informs the passengers what is happening when it is remotely shut down. Today let’s talk about the passive interface that shuts it down: Namely, Joe’s tattoo and the distance-scanning vending machine.

It’s been a while since that prior post, so here’s a recap of what’s happening in Idiocracy in this scene:

When Frito is driving Joe and Rita away from the cops, Joe happens to gesture with his hand above the car window, where a vending machine he happens to be passing spots the tattoo. Within seconds two harsh beeps sound in the car and a voice says, “You are harboring a fugitive named NOT SURE. Please, pull over and wait for the police to incarcerate your passenger.”

Frito’s car begins slowing down, and the dashboard screen shows a picture of Not Sure’s ID card and big red text zooming in a loop reading PULL OVER.

It’s a fast scene and the beat feels more like a filmmaker’s excuse to get them out of the car and on foot as they hunt for the Time Masheen. I breezed by it in an earlier post, but it bears some more investigation.

This is a class of transaction where, like taxes and advertising, the subject is an unwilling and probably uncooperative participant. But this same interface has to work for payment, in which the subject is a willing participant. Keep this in mind as we look first at the proximate problem, i.e. locating the fugitive for apprehension; and at the ultimate goal, i.e. how a culture deals with crime.

A quick caveat: While it’s fair to say I’m an expert on interaction design, I’m Just a Guy when it comes to criminology and jurisprudence. And these are ideas with some consequence. Feel free to jump in and engage in friendly debate on any of these points.

Proximate problem: Finding the fugitive

The red scan is fast, but it’s very noticable. The sudden flash of light, the red color. This could easily tip a fugitive off and cause them to redouble efforts at evasion, maybe even covering up the tattoo, making the law’s job of apprehending them that much harder. Better would be some stealthier means of detection like RFID chips. I know, that’s not as cinegenic, so the movie version would instead use image recognition, showing the point of view from the vending machine camera (machine point of view or MPOV), with some UI clues showing it identifying, zooming in to, and confirming the barcode.

Yes, that’s a shout-out.

So we can solve stealth-detection cinematically, using tropes. But anytime a designer is asked to consider a scenario, it is a good idea to see if the problem can be more effectively addressed somewhere higher up the goal chain. Is stealth-detection really better?

Goal chain

  • Why is the system locating him? To tell authorities so they can go there and apprehend him.
  • Why are they apprehending him? He has shown an inability to regulate damaging anti-social behavior (in the eyes of the law, anyway) and the offender must be incarcerated.
  • Why do we try to incarcerate criminals? To minimize potential damage to society while the offender is rehabilitated.
  • Why do we try to rehabilitate criminals? Well, in the Idiocracy, it’s an excuse for damnatio ad vehiculum, that is, violent public spectacle based on the notion that jurisprudence is about punishment-as-deterrent. (Pro-tip: That doesn’t work. Did I say that doesn’t work? Because that doesn’t work.) In a liberal democracy like ours, it’s because we understand that the mechanisms of law are imperfect and we don’t want the state to enact irreversible capital punishment when it could be wrong, and, moreover, that human lives have intrinsic value. We should try to give people who have offended a chance to demonstrate an understanding of their crime and the willingness to behave lawfully in the future. Between incarceration and rehabilitation, we seek to minimize crime.
  • Why do we try to minimize crime? (This ought to be self-evident, but juuust in case…) Humans thrive when they do not need to guard against possible attack by every other human they encounter. They can put their resources towards the pursuit of happiness rather than the defense of encroachment. Such lawful societies benefit from network effects.

The MPOV suggestion above fixes the problem at the low level of detection, but each step in the goal chain invites design at a more effective level. It’s fun to look at each of these levels and imagine an advanced-technology solution (and even find sci-fi examples of each), but for this post, let’s look at the last one, minimizing crime, in the context of the tattoo scanner.

Ultimate problem: Preventing crime

In his paper “Deterrence in the Twenty-First Century,” Daniel Nagin reviewed state of the art criminology findings and listed five things about deterrence. Number one in his list is that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment.

Research shows clearly that the chance of being caught is a vastly more effective deterrent than even draconian punishment.

Daniel S. Nagin, 2013

How might we increase the evident chance of being caught?

  1. Fund police forces well so they are well-staffed, well-trained, and have a near-constant, positive presence in communities, and impressive capture rates. Word would get around.
  2. Nagin himself suggests concentrating police presence in criminal hotspots, ensuring that they have visible handcuffs and walkie-talkies.
  3. Another way might be media: Of making sure that potential criminals hear an overwhelming number of stories through their network of criminals being captured successfully. This could involve editorial choice, or even media manipulation, filtering to ensure that “got caught” narratives appear in feeds more than “got away with it” ones. But we’re hopefully becoming more media savvy as a result of Recent Things, and this seems more deceptive than persuasive.
  4. The other way is to increase the sense of observation. And that leads us (as so many things do) to the panopticon.

The Elaboratory*

The Panopticon is almost a trope at this point, but that’s what this scene points to. If you’re not familiar, it is an idea about the design of buildings in which “a number of persons are meant to be kept under inspection,” conceived in the late 1700s by Samuel Bentham and formalized by his brother James in letters to their father. Here is a useful illustration.

*Elaboratory was one of the alternate terms he suggested for the idea. It didn’t catch on since it didn’t have the looming all-seeing-eye ring of the other term.

Elevation, section, and plan as drawn by Willey Reveley, 1791

The design of the panopticon is circular, with prisoners living in isolated cells along the perimeter. The interior wall of each cell is open to view so the inmate can be observed by a person in a central tower or “inspector’s lodge.” Things are structured so the inmates cannot tell whether or not they are being observed. (Bentham suggested louvers.) Over time, the idea goes, the inmate internalizes the unseen authority as a constant presence, and begins to regulate themselves, behaving as they believe the guard would have them behave. Bentham thought this was ideal from an efficacy and economic standpoint.

“Ideal perfection, if that were the object, would require that each person should actually [be under the eyes of the persons who should inspect them], during every instant of time.”

—Jeremey Bentham

It’s an idea that has certainly enjoyed currency. If you hadn’t come across the idea via Bentham, you may have come across it via Foucault in Discipline and Punish, who regarded it not as a money-saving design, but as an illustration of the effect of power. Or maybe Orwell, who did not use the term, but extended it to all of society in 1984. Or perhaps you heard it from Shoshana Zuboff, who in The Age of the Smart Machine reconceived it for information technology in a work environment.

Umm…Carol? Why aren’t you at your centrifuge?

In Benjamen Walker’s podcast Theory of Everything, he dedicates an episode to the argument that as a metaphor it needs to be put away, since…

  1. It builds on one-way observation, and modern social media has us sharing information about ourselves willingly, all the time. The diagram is more dream catcher than bicycle wheel. We volunteer ourselves to the inspector, any inspector, and can become inspectors to anyone else any time. Sousveillance. Stalking.
  2. Most modern uses of the metaphor are anti-government, but surveillance capitalism is a more pernicious problem (here in the West), where advertising uses all the information it can to hijack your reward systems and schlorp money out of you.
  3. Bentham regarded it as a tool for behavior modification, but the metaphor is not used to talk about how surveillance changes us and our identities, but rather as a violation of privacy rights.

It’s a good series, check it out, and hat tip to Brother-from-a-Scottish-Mother John V Willshire for pointing me in its direction.

To Walker’s list I will add another major difference: Panopticon inmates must know they are being watched. It’s critical to the desired internalization of authority. But modern surveillance tries its best to be invisible despite the fact that it gathers an enormous amount of information. (Fortunately it often fails to be invisible, and social media channels can be used to expose the surveillance.)

Guns are bad.

But then, Idiocracy

In Idiocracy, this interface—of the tattoo and the vending machine—is what puts this squarely back in Bentham’s metaphor. The ink is in a place that will be seen very often by the owner, and a place that’s very difficult to casually hide. (I note that the overwhelming majority of Hillfinger [sic] shirts in the movie are even short-sleeved.) So it serves as that permanent—and permanently-visible—identifier. You are being watched. (Holy crap now I have yet another reason to love Person of Interest. It’s adding to our collective media impression the notion of AI surveillance. Anyway…) In this scene, it’s a clear signal that he and his co-offenders could see, which means they would tell their friends this story of how easily Joe was caught. It’s pretty cunningly designed as a conspicuous signal.

Imagine how this might work throughout that world. As people went around their business in the Idiocracy, stochastic flashes of light on their and other people’s wrists keep sending a signal that everyone is being watched. It’s crappy surveillance which we don’t like for all the reasons we don’t like it, but it illustrates why stealth-detection may not be the ideal for crime preventions and why this horrible tattoo might be the thing that a bunch of doomed eggheads might have designed for the future when all that was left was morons. Turns out at least for the Idiocracy, this is a pretty well-designed signal for deterrence, which is the ultimate goal of this interface.

Beep.


OmniBro

The OmniBro is the ubiquitous payment and identification system in Idiocracy. We see it four times in the movie.

Doc office

Idiocracy_omnibro02

Dr. Lexus asks Joe to pay for his visit, “…if you could just go ahead and, like, put your tattoo in that shit.” In this case, that shit is a barcode scanner mounted to the back of a desktop register. We don’t get to see it in use, because as described in the prior post, Dr. Lexus freaks out, realizing Joe is unscannable and hitting the panic button.

Prison

Idiocracy_omnibro04.png

Another time we see the OmniBro is in the prison. After talking his way past the guard, another guard at a checkout counter has him scan his new tattoo. The guard checks the screen and tells him, “Uh. Yeah, I don’t see you in here. So you’re going to have to…uh…stay in prison.” Joe says, “Could you check again, because I was definitely in prison. OK. I got sat on my face and everything. Maybe check those files back there?” The guard turns, and Joe runs. There’s admittedly a post in there about prison security and release (and America has a lot to improve, especially in its reprehensible prison-for-profit systems), but this post is about the OmniBro.

Carl’s Junior

The third time we see it is at the Carl’s Junior kiosk. (More on the whole system in the next post.) Though the customer appears to have already scanned, it is how anyone ordering food pays for it.

Idiocracy_omnibro24

What’s good?

If I had to note the positives of the OmniBro system, it is that it seems easy for even morons to explain, understand, and use. Wrists are more commonly pointed down, so it’s a little more deliberate to have to turn the wrist up to pay. So adding to its ease-of-use is some measure of biology against accidental activation.

Also it’s more sterile than money. (Yeah, money’s dirty.)

And it’s ubiquitous, so a citizen of Idiocracy doesn’t need a credit card totem to know whether or not a vendor accepts their money. There are airlines and even a restaurant that I know of in San Francisco that only accept credit cards, and it’s disgusting. (Yes, yes, I know what the Department of the Treasury says, but I think it’s gross, classist, and corporatist to require your customers first have a relationship with a credit card company before you’ll do business with them.) So I suppose that aspect encourages an easy-to-access marketplace.

So, the good: It’s usable, sterile, and ubiquitous.

What’s questionable?

Where to start? Well, certainly it’s horrible that participation in the economy requires a permanent body modification. I’m not at all religious, but I agree wholeheartedly with the admonishment against any totalitarian “mark of the beast” just to participate in culture, for all the body autonomy and social justice reasons that one should be against it. (Before anyone gets their apophenia into an uproar about biblical meanings, you can relax. Idiocracy’s tattoos are on the wrong hand.)

You might imagine that the mark signals some sort of ingroup membership, but if everyone in Idiocracy has one, there’s no real outgroup.

Still, it raises lots of questions about the choice of a tattoo:

  • Skin stretches and changes as time wears on. Tattoos get sun blurred (and the wrist gets a lot more sun exposure than other areas.) What happens to a citizen when their barcode no longer works? The tattoo machine (a post on this later) looks like it only tattoos in one place, so another visit won’t fix it, and likely would make matters worse. Is there some do-over machine?
  • What about people who don’t have a left wrist? (The machine can only work on left arms.) What about people who get the tattoo but later lose their left arm?
  • Where’s any other factor for multifactor authentication? Cash fails this as well, but if you are robbed of your cash, at least you still have an arm left to try and acquire some more.

What’s awful, though, is the fourth time we see it in the movie.

Rando vending surveillance

When fleeing the police with Freeto and Rita in Frito’s car, Joe accidentally makes the mistake of raising his tattooed wrist above the door frame, where it is scanned through the window by a vending machine he happens to be passing. The scan identifies Joe and the car he’s in, and something sends a shutdown signal to Frito’s car. (More on the car interface a later post.)

Ease-to-consume is concomitant with ease-to-surveil. Sure, the citizen doesn’t have to carry cash, do rudimentary math, or remember their bank balance, but in exchange they leave themselves open to constant tracking and identification. In the movie this just means it’s easy to find Joe. They’re comparatively dumb enough to make his escape the stuff of comedy.

But in our world, where the forces that market you away from your money are vastly more funded, equipped, and dedicated to their task than you, this tradeoff winds up putting Americans in a terrible debt load that may be *gasp* worse than Italy’s by 2023. (Sorry, dear Italian friends.) Combine this debt load with the health gamble and 40-year stagnant wages, and it seems like the tradeoff only an idiot would take. But hey, it’s easy to wave your phone for a fix at Starbucks, so what am I going on about, right?

Fight the Idiocracy

The Bloomberg article about American debt load includes this tasty paragraph, “While Trump and congressional Republicans raised alarms about the debt and deficit when Democrat Barack Obama was president, spending hasn’t abated with the GOP in control of the White House and Congress.

Where the GOP used to tout themselves as the party of fiscal conservatism, it’s now clearer than ever that they’re just hypocrite oligarchs; spending wildly, giving free tax passes to their insanely wealthy friends, hoping a hundred dollars a month is enough to convince you to look the other way, all the while planning to gut your “entitlement” programs like social security, medicare, and medicaid. It’s insanity. They have to be voted way, way out if we have any hope of saving our economic well being.

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Sold out womp womp

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CAH-hackselection.png

Explorer Surveillance

The Control Room of Jurassic Park has a basic video/audio feed to the Tour Explorers that a controller (or, in this case, John Hammond) can use to talk to the tour participants.  He is able to switch to different cameras using the number keys on the keyboard attached to the monitor. The cameras themselves appear to be fixed in place.

JurassicPark_FordSurveillance01

We never see the cameras themselves in the Explorers, but we do see Malcolm tap on one of the cameras during the tour while Hammond is watching it’s feed, so they are visible to the riders.

Hammond occasionally speaks through his audio link, and can hear a constant audio feed from the Explorers. He has some kind of mute button (he says a couple disparaging comments that the other characters don’t appear to hear), but the feed from the Explorers is real-time. It isn’t obvious how he switches between the different Explorers’ audio feeds, or whether he hears both Explorers simultaneously. Continue reading

The SandPhone

LogansRun037

Not everyone is comfortable giving over to the flimsy promise of Carrousel [sic]. Some citizens run, and Sandmen find and terminate these cultural heretics.

Sandmen carry a device with them that has many different uses. It goes unnamed in the movie, so let’s just call it the SandPhone. It is a thick black rectangle about 20cm at its long edge, about the size of a very large cell phone. Near the earpiece on one broad side is a small screen for displaying text and images. Below that is a white line. The lower half of this face is metallic grill that covers a microphone. On the left edge is a momentary button that allows talking. Just above this is a small red button. When not in use, the device is holstered on the sandman’s belt.

The SandPhone lets the Sandman receive information through a display that can show both image and text. The Sandman sends back information and requests by voice in a CB radio metaphor.

Notifications

Continue reading

Security and Control’s control

The mission is world-critical, so like a cockpit, the two who are ultimately in control are kept secure. The control room is accessible (to mere humans, anyway) only through a vault door with an armed guard. Hadley and Sitterson must present IDs to the guard before he grants them access.

Sitterson and Hadley pass security.

Truman, the guard, takes and swipes their cards through a groove in a hand-held device. We are not shown what is on the tiny screen, but we do hear the device’s quick chirps to confirm the positive identity. That sound means that Truman’s eyes aren’t tied to the screen. He can listen for confirmation and monitor the people in front of him for any sign of nervousness or subterfuge.

Hadley boots up the control room screens.

The room itself tells a rich story through its interfaces alone. The wooden panels at the back access Bronze Age technology with its wooden-handled gears, glass bowls, and mechanical devices that smash vials of blood. The massive panel at which they sit is full of Space Age pushbuttons, rheostats, and levers. On the walls behind them are banks of CRT screens. These are augmented with Digital Age, massive, flat panel displays and touch panel screens within easy reach on the console. This is a system that has grown and evolved for eons, with layers of technology that add up to a tangled but functional means of surveillance and control.

The interfaces hint at the great age of the operation.

Utter surveillance

In order for Control to do their job, they have to keep tabs on the victims at all times, even long before the event: Are the sacrifices conforming to archetype? Do they have a reason to head to the cabin?

The nest empties.

To these ends, there are field agents in the world reporting back by earpiece, and everything about the cabin is wired for video and audio: The rooms, the surrounding woods, even the nearby lake.

Once the ritual sacrifice begins, they have to keep an even tighter surveillance: Are they behaving according to trope? Do they realize the dark truth? Is the Virgin suffering but safe? A lot of the technology seen in the control room is dedicated to this core function of monitoring.

The stage managers monitor the victims.

There are huge screens at the front of the room. There are manual controls for these screens on the big panel. There is an array of CRTs on the far right.

The small digital screens can display anything, but a mode we often see is a split in quarters, showing four cameras in the area of the stage. For example, all the cameras fixed on the rooms are on one screen. This provides a very useful peripheral signal in Sitterson and Hadley’s visual field. As they monitor the scenario, motion will catch their eyes. If that motion is not on a monitor they expect it to be, they can check what’s happening quickly by turning their head and fixating. This helps keep them tightly attuned to what’s happening in the different areas on “stage.”

For internal security, the entire complex is also wired for video, including the holding cages for the nightmare monsters.

Sitterson looks for the escapees amongst the cubes.

The control room watches the bloody chaos spread.

One screen that kind of confuses us appears to be biometrics of the victims. Are the victims implanted with devices for measuring such things, or are sophisticated non-invasive environmental sensors involved? Regardless of the mechanisms, if Control has access to vital signs, how are they mistaken about Marty’s death? We only get a short glance at the screen, so maybe it’s not vital signs, but simple, static biometrics like height, and weight, even though the radiograph diagram suggests more.

Sitterson tries to avoid talking to Mordecai.

Communications

Sitterson and Hadley are managing a huge production. It involves departments as broad ranging as chemistry, maintenance, and demolitions. To coordinate and troubleshoot during the ritual, two other communications options are available beyond the monitors; land phone lines and direct-connection, push-to-talk microphones.

Hadley receives some bad news.