So far, the papers I’ve looked at have been from 1992 but not of 1992. The topics and outcomes could have been from today. Air Traffic Control is still a thing people do, and it’s still a highly collaborative activity. Software can schedule operating rooms but last minute changes still happen. Software support for collaborative work is still frustratingly bad. And most organisations still have an overly rational view of how work gets done.
Today, if you want to speak to someone, you can call their mobile. But who even does that? Text them. Message them in Slack. In the unlikely event you need voice, you’ll arrange a time for a Zoom call. These days, someone’s location doesn’t matter.
In 1992, if you wanted to speak to someone who wasn’t in the same room, you called their fixed line phone from yours. If they worked in a big office and they had lots of meetings, they probably weren’t at their desk. Maybe you left them a voicemail. More likely you left a message with the receptionist. If it was urgent and you asked nicely, the receptionist would go for a walk and see if they could find the person you wanted.
At Olivetti Research in Cambridge, England, Roy Want, Andy Hopper (the lab director at the time), Veronica Felcão and Jonathan Gibbons developed the Active Badge to solve the problem of finding people in indoor spaces like offices.
The Active Badge was a box about half the size of an iPhone4 that had an infrared emitter in it. The badge was your office key and staff card. The badges sent IR signals every 15 seconds to base stations that were wired in to the office network. The system had a dashboard that showed each person’s last known location. The dashboard also displayed the probability that someone was in their last known location. Want et al note that there are some locations “where people expect to be free from being monitored!” (yes, exclamation mark in the original).
There was also a software interface that took simple commands. “FIND (name)” would give you the current location of the named badge and the locations it had been seen in over the previous five minutes. “WITH (name)” would tell you who was “in the immediate locality of that badge”. “Look (location)” could tell you which badges were in a specific area. “NOTIFY (name)” could make someone’s badge make a sound the next time it was seen by a basestation. This was used to get people to check in because they’d been out of the office and had messages to pick up. “HISTORY (name)” generated a report about the location of a badge over the previous hour.
The team installed the Active Badge system in the Olivetti Research office in Cambridge.
The paper splits its time between a semi-technical explanation of the hardware, an overview of the software, and a description of the experience of living with the Active Badge system. Some of the paper is concerned with reducing the effort of finding people. A lot of the paper is very concerned with privacy. More specifically, it’s very concerned with acknowledging that people might feel the Active Badge system is a bit creepy.
A location system has many advantages but it also raises many social fears. When people learn that a location personnel location system may be installed in their workplace, their immediate reaction is one of horror.
Any time Want et al raise the possibility of potential creepiness, they also dismiss it. They say that in the “friendly environment of a research laboratory, any initial fears that the staff had about management abuse of the system proved to be unfounded”.
The part of the paper specifically about privacy starts by acknowledging that people feel uneasy about something that explicitly tracks their location. Then Want et al say:
The system has to be worked with for a period of time before it can be judged with a clear understanding of the issues [about privacy]
But I don’t think that’s right. I think you can have an opinion whether something is desirable or useful without having used it. But making that argument is difficult. Technological innovation is often assumed to be inherently good.
If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you own at least one device that tracks your location. There’s a strong likelihood that more than one piece of software on that device is recording your location without your consent. Maybe you don’t mind. Maybe sometimes you enable location tracking and maybe even share that location tracking with others. How do you feel about location tracking and privacy? Is it worth the privacy trade-off?
Want et al anticipate some privacy-related criticisms of the Active Badge and say:
The problem is that technology itself is rarely inherently bad; it is just that it can be used for good or bad purposes.
It reminded me of Melvin Krantzberg’s first law of technology (1986!):
Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral
By that I mean that technology’s interaction with the social ecology is such that technical developments frequently have environmental, social, and human consequences that go far beyond the immediate purposes of the technical devices and practices themselves, and the same technology can have quite different results when introduced into different contexts or under different circumstances.
But Want et al ignore that “the same technology can have quite different results when introduced into different contexts”. In “the friendly environment of a research laboratory” the Active Badge wasn’t creepy or invasive. But it’s easy to imagine a situation where it would be.
Langdon Winner goes further than Krantzberg in his 1980 paper “Do Artifacts Have Politics?”. Winner argues that technologies “embody specific forms of power”. Krantzberg says you need to think about the context that a technology is in before you can judge whether it is “good” or “bad”. Winner says that technologies have a politics, or a point of view.
In our times people are often willing to make drastic changes in the way they live to accord with technological innovation at the same time they would resist similar kinds of changes justified on political grounds.
There’s an interesting tension in the Active Badge paper. It’s a lovely paper — clearly written, well-structured. It’s technically really cool. It’s prescient, but perhaps only in hindsight. But what it really does is reflect how we as technologists approach new things. It’s easy, compelling and interesting to follow something down the technically sweet path. It’s much harder to think about the point of view embedded in a technology. This type of thinking about technology is hard. The compulsion of technical innovation makes it so easy to forget that we should pay attention to other things.
In 2020, one lesson to draw from the Active Badge paper is to be aware of how our assumptions about the value of innovation generally need to be tempered by questions about the values embodied in particular technologies.
Want, R., Hopper, A., Falcao, V., & Gibbons, J. (1992). The active badge location system. ACM Transactions on Information Systems (TOIS), 10(1), 91-102.
Kranzberg, M. (1986). Technology and History:” Kranzberg’s Laws”. Technology and culture, 27(3), 544-560.
Winner, L. (1980). Do artifacts have politics?. Daedalus, 121-136.
Want et al: https://dl.acm.org/doi/abs/10.1145/128756.128759
Krantzberg: I think you can get access if you sign up for JSTOR.