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Designing the Public Sphere: Information Technologies and the Politics of Mediation

Onlife Technologies

After a few decades of living with Information and Communication Technologies, we have got so much used to their presence in our daily lives, that we hardly realize that the societal and cultural revolution they are causing has only just begun. While most of the social and political discussions regarding ICTs still focus on privacy issues and on the impact of social media on interpersonal relations, a whole new generation of ICTs is currently entering the world, with potentially revolutionary impacts that require careful analysis and evaluation.

Two examples of this new generation of technologies can illustrate this. First of all, there is the rapid development of 'embedded' information technology. ICTs are starting to merge ever more intricately with our physical environment. Walls, beds, doors, cars—many everyday objects are currently being equipped with forms of 'ubiquitous computing' or 'ambient intelligence', as a large electronics multinational has come to call it (Aarts and Marzano 2003). Objects in our lifeworld, in other words, are becoming intelligent. Hospital beds can detect if patients fall out of their bed or step out of it. Doors in geriatric homes can determine who is allowed to go outside and who is not. Cars are increasingly taking over tasks that used to be reserved to humans, like lane parking, making emergency stops, and refusing to change lanes if it is too dangerous to do so.

This intelligification of our material world will have important implications. Public space will literally become space with a public character—the more it becomes aware of us, the more we need to become aware of the fact that that is the case. Moreover, intelligent objects are increasingly equipped with explicitly persuasive abilities. Smart mirrors in waiting rooms of medical doctors can give us feedback on our lifestyle when entering the waiting room. Smart training equipment in gyms can persuade people to exercise just a bit more. Smart websites attempt to persuade users to buy specific things, or to become a member of specific organizations. Our material world is developing into an active and intelligent counterpart, rather than a mute, stable and functional environment.

At the same time, our own access to the world is rapidly changing. With the advent of technologies like Google Glass, the phenomenon of 'augmented reality' is rapidly gaining influence. Google Glass consists of a pair of small, transparent monitors and a camera. The device provides an extra layer of information about the people, objects and images one sees. It has the potential to recognize the faces of people you meet, and provide all information available about them instantaneously—without these people noticing this. It makes it possible to send and receive messages, than can be composed with eye movements, voice input, or touch. This will enable people to communicate with each other in new ways, again without other people noticing it.

If this type of augmentations becomes widespread, this will have enormous implications for virtually all dimensions of society. Educational processes will need to be reinvented, when all information is available to anybody all the time. The boundaries between the public and the private will need to be drawn again, when a quick glance at somebody's face reveals all their activities on the internet. Security policy, privacy legislation, commercial activities—it is hard to imagine a sphere of society that will not be affected by the advent of augmented realities. Our lives get increasingly interwoven with online realities—we get 'onlife', as the contributors to this book have come to call it.

New information technologies, in sum, put us potentially at the dawn of a new era. While many people are focusing on the biotechnological revolution, and the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science, companies like Google and Philips are redesigning the world. How to understand these changes? And how to evaluate them?

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