The medium and the monitor

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Humans are communicative beings. From Nüshu to TikTok, we need to express our thoughts, feelings, jokes, joys, and fears. Over millennia, our intimate and intellectual selves have spread across various media. And, over millennia, the media for communicating our selves have evolved with technological capabilities — from cave walls to bamboo scrolls, semaphores, and party lines. Even paper, with all its fantastic sensory experiences, is just another technological invention — one medium for human communication among a list of many.

As broad and deep as the history of communication, a complex and somewhat dark history of surveillance and monitoring runs in parallel. The Spanish Inquisition. The Cultural Revolution. Watergate wiretapping. Occasionally, it’s been necessary, as with letter censorship during WWI.

The popular medium has evolved again. No longer a passive tool or objet d’art, the medium has become an active and legal transference of information — monitoring — with both intended recipients and anonymous others participating in that transfer. Millions of smartphone users have given tacit approval. We communicate all sorts of things to both intended and unintended recipients, with all sorts of implications. The medium has become sticky, often lacks privacy, and is almost never just between individuals. Which means the stakes are high. Are current data-gathering scenarios fair? Has human communication become a lopsided proposition? Does it even matter?

Yuval Noah Harari — historian, philosopher, and author of the books Sapiens and Homo Deus — is an outspoken proponent for a better framework to regulate technology and data. He describes the current human-technology relationship in knowledge economies as “asymmetrical,” with tech holding a massively unfair advantage. In interviews, he offers the example of doctors who — because of regulatory frameworks — are prevented from being predatory and exploiting their knowledge advantage over those who depend on it. Within a framework, a level of trust can be established. It means we can trust a doctor not to swipe a kidney during heart surgery.

Has a parallel framework of trust been established in newer communication media? Citizens of the EU have the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) and the “right to disappear.” Now that the personal vehicle is poised to become a medium for communication, and the vehicle-to-everything (V2X) economy is gearing up, will those statutes hold? In economies without data regulation, where will all our data go? Read up on car in-cabin monitoring and let me know what you think.

For a less “high stakes” read, check out the “3 Questions” with Microdrones, a company that’s made a fun reality show out of lidar and data. Edmund Optics explains key differences between hyperspectral and multispectral imaging. DenseLight Semiconductors offers a look at a flip-chip approach to hybrid integrationof III-V on silicon photonics. Photonics Industries International discusses next-generation lasers for military applications. And Photonics Media’s Joel Williams reveals imaging trends in surgical robotics.

Be well,

Published: April 2020

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