“I brought you a present,” says my friend Ben, striding confidently into the office of UEA’s student newspaper, Concrete, and presenting me a bar of chocolate. In the middle of one of our fortnightly Sunday evening takeaways – a somewhat tragic, somewhat heartwarming tradition that emerged around halfway through last term – I was surprised and happy to see him. Then again, by 8pm on a Sunday of production weekends, I am surprised and happy to see anyone who has nothing to do with newspapers.
But how did he know I would be there? Not, although you’d be forgiven for thinking so, because that’s the only place I would ever be the day before an issue goes to print. No, he knew where I was because he had tracked me there with an app on his phone.
“Aren’t you glad that you got it?” he asked me a few days later. “I would have had to wait until I next saw you otherwise!”
But the truth is, I still can’t decide whether I’m glad or not. There’s something deeply unsettling every time my housemate Steph – the only other person with an iPhone I agreed to let track my whereabouts – texts me saying things like “On your way home I see?” followed by an alarmingly sinister smiley face.
Apple’s Find My Friends app perfectly sums up where we are as a society: seduced by the utopian glow of futuristic technology but terribly aware of its possible dystopian applications. Yes, it is protected with a password and you can only locate someone after they explicitly accept your request. Sure, you can hide your whereabouts whenever you choose to do so. But there is still an openness with your personal information that teeters on the edge of danger. Never mind tweeting your every thought for the entire world to see – smart phones now allow you to be found at any instant by someone else’s whim.
It was a difficult decision downloading the app. “What if we’re out one night and we lose you in a club, or think you’ve gone home so move on without telling you?” was the dogged argument of my highly persuasive and insistent friends. “What if you’re kidnapped? We’ll be able to let the police know where you are!”
Ignoring the improbability of the latter ever happening in Norwich, on my other shoulder was housemate, cultural critic and resident paranoid, Ollie. “What if it was normal for parents to track their kids everywhere they went? Or it became mandatory to allow your boss to know where you were? Or you had a tracking chip installed at birth?”
The fear is not so sci-fi as you might think. Find My Friends was partly marketed from the “keep your children safe” angle. And the first “cyborg” Professor Kevin Warwick suggested implanting tracking devices in scared children following the Soham murders of 2002, although abandoned the idea due to moral concerns.
Warwick’s website describes a cyborg (Cybernetic Organism) as part-human, part-machine. Humans alone, he argues, are flawed. “The possibility exists to enhance human capabilities. To harness the ever increasing abilities of machine intelligence, to enable extra sensory input and to communicate in a much richer way, using thought alone.”
Finally, cyber technology is increasingly close to helping disabled people with tetraplegia, with successful trials enabling stroke survivors to move a robotic arm using brain activity and a “neural interface implant”.
Ollie’s fears over the future of tracking technology, while a little Orwellian, are not unfounded. Even if you are childless and lucky enough to be able-bodied, there is a current movement in cultural theory that considers everyone to be a cyborg anyway. Think of all the times you have used a search engine to find an answer to a question for instance. The internet is like one giant brain the entire world is able to share, and I’m not saying it’s necessarily a bad thing (although my “why would I bother to remember facts I can just google?” recall-memory and attention span may disagree). Find My Friends, and the technology it uses, is just another way we have found to digitally streamline our own lives.
In the end, I agreed to trial the app for a week, thinking I would delete it and write a scathing blog post all about it. But somehow I never did. The first night involved a highly exciting race between myself on a bus and the others in a taxi, which we tracked on our phones like a real-life Marauders Map. When we did inevitably get split up later on, I was able to get home knowing my two friends were already back safe. And a few weeks later, stuck on campus in the rain, a stroke of luck meant I knew that there was someone with a car nearby to give me a lift home. As my friends pointed out whenever I protested, I was never anywhere that I would want to keep a secret from them anyway.
But how can you stay safe? For one thing, if there is part of your life you don’t want made public, or going “off-the-grid” is one way you relax, simply don’t download the app.
If you do, be extremely careful with your passwords and who you allow to follow you. Personally, I would only ever use it with the closest friends I see every day: never family, and never even a significant other. Perhaps it says more about me than a general rule of society, but relations with parents and partners can always become more turbulent more quickly, and it’s just not worth the risk. After the app’s release, for example, there was almost immediately a story of a man who used it to uncover his wife’s alleged affair. And would you really want your father to know where you are at all times? Really?
In fact, the scariest feature of the app is not, as some might think, the ability to enable push-notifications whenever someone leaves or arrives at a certain place (what’s that, skin? You’re crawling at the very idea? I thought so). It is, in my opinion, the fact that parents can go into their kid’s device settings and disallow changes to the app – taking away the ability to hide their whereabouts.
After all, perhaps technology which allows people to know your location is not as inherently evil as I first thought. But not allowing someone the option most certainly is.
Unless, of course, you’re trying to stop Voldemort.