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Authors: Thomas P. Keenan


BOOK: Technocreep
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To my parents, Ruth and Joseph, for allowing me to have white rats and cancer viruses in our basement at the age of fourteen. To the love of my life, Keri, who inspires me every day with her amazing Australian wit and wisdom; and to my wonderful son, Jordan, who bounces ideas around with me like a pro and is navigating his own amazing path in life.

Published by arrangement with OR Books
, New York
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas P. Keenan

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior written consent of the publisher or a license from The Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency (Access Copyright). For a copyright license, visit
or call toll free to 1-800-893-5777.

Greystone Books Ltd.

Cataloguing data available from Library and Archives Canada
978-1-77164-122-7 (pbk.)
978-1-77164-123-4 (epub)

Front cover design by Bathcat Ltd.
Distributed in the U.S. by Publishers Group West

We gratefully acknowledge the financial support of the Canada Council for the Arts, the British Columbia Arts Council, the Province of British Columbia through the Book Publishing Tax Credit, and the Government of Canada through the Canada Book Fund for our publishing activities.
























Figure 1. IBM 1620 computer like the one at Bronx Science. Erik Pitti, via Flickr/Creative Commons Attribution License.


I wrote my first computer program in 1965, while I was a student at the legendary Bronx High School of Science. Tech pioneers such as Marvin Minsky, Robert Moog, and Martin Hellman once walked its halls, which sometimes reeked of chloroform. In those days, students were actually allowed to perform surgery on small mammals. I remember coming in early one morning to help my friend Mark remove the spleens from several hapless white rats.

Bronx Science had a computer, then a rarity in all but the largest businesses and almost unheard of in a school. It was a cranky card-munching monster that we regarded with a combination of veneration and lust. In retrospect, jockeying for time on a computer seems like a bizarre hobby for a group of normal teenagers. However, the students at Bronx Science were anything but normal. Eight alumni have gone on to win the Nobel Prize. Two of the Nobel laureates in physics, Russell Hulse and Hugh David Politzer, were in my graduating class. I was in good company.

Access to the school's computer was strictly controlled. Only seniors were allowed near the hallowed IBM 1620 console. We juniors were forced to sit for hours in front of whirring calculators, doing endless numerical analysis calculations and writing down the answers. Our teachers hoped that this would help us appreciate the magical day when we finally got to put our little deck of carefully punched cards into the whirring IBM 1622 Card Reader/Punch. The computer would then do the calculations we had slaved over for the last term in mere minutes, or even seconds.

Driven to get my hands on a computer sooner, I discovered a special youth training program at New York University. If we were willing to give up our evenings and weekends, the folks there would teach us all the computer programming we could possibly absorb. We were even allowed to leave our card decks, secured with rubber bands, for the computer operators to run when they had nothing better to do.

The door of the building that housed NYU's computer had a sign that said “United States Atomic Energy Commission.” There was a curtain to shield the IBM 7094 from prying eyes when it did secret work. The Soviets had launched Sputnik in 1957, leading to fears that they would dominate the world from space. The 1962 Cuban missile crisis had us doing air raid drills in school. Clearly computers were going to play a role in saving America, and we were being trained to play a part in that drama.

Under the leadership of professors including Max Goldstein and Jacob T. (“Jack”) Schwartz, and coached by a kind-hearted and energetic NYU researcher named Henry Mullish, there were no limits to what we could accomplish. We created whole new computer languages, fixed bugs in existing ones, and wrote emulators for computers that were still on the drawing boards. I wound up programming everything from the statistics for numerous PhD dissertations to particle physics calculations to some of the structural engineering data for the original World Trade Center. I earned my keep on that last project by catching a glitch that might have caused the two 110-story towers to collide in high wind conditions.

Back then, computers spat out their results in 132 column-wide format on oversized continuous sheets of paper. When I pulled out a printout while riding the Bx40 cross-town bus in the Bronx, I always got strange looks from the other passengers. I was proud that I had something special and almost magical in my hands. I now realize they probably thought I was a very creepy kid.

Years of being a computer programmer, a computer science ­professor, and a technology journalist have helped me realize that almost every new technology can be misused and often become deeply disturbing. In 1984, I had the great fortune to co-write and host a CBC IDEAS series called
Crimes of the Future
, in collaboration with Dr. Duncan Chappell, then head of the Criminology Department of Simon Fraser University; and Dave Redel, a very talented CBC Radio Producer.

Those programs marked the first time many people heard about identity theft, except perhaps in the context of someone going to a graveyard to copy the name and birth date of a deceased infant. We talked about crimes that have now become real, such as trafficking in human body parts, and others that are only now surfacing, like “wireheading”—the direct stimulation of the pleasure centers of the brain. Back then, we had to use the work of science fiction writers like Larry Niven and Spider Robinson to introduce this intriguing practice. Today there are detailed, instructions for brain self-stimulation on the Internet.

For almost five decades now, I have been watching as everybody else gets on the tech bandwagon, sometimes adroitly, sometimes clumsily, and often without fully understanding the implications of what they are doing.

This work has taken me to conferences like DEF CON; Black Hat; Computers, Freedom, and Privacy; and led to unexpected adventures such as being allowed to scrub in on a liver transplant operation. I have had the privilege of talking to thousands of academics, visionaries, and technology creators, and come away with the strong sense that we need to raise the bar in our thinking about technocreepiness, and sooner rather than later.

Over half the people on that Bronx bus today would now be glued to their smartphones, connecting with friends, checking sports scores or enjoying celebrity gossip. Would any of them be thinking about the next chapter in technology, and how it is going to change their lives?

This is a book about the creepy pioneers of technology: what they are doing and why we need to know about it. In the pages that follow we will go on a journey into some of the disturbing ways our lives are unfolding, often behind the scenes and without our knowledge or permission. Not all of these incursions are necessarily bad. The benefits of knowing you are prone to a certain disease, for example,
outweigh the risks of having genetic tests on your medical record. And what seems creepy today may be the accepted norm in the future.

Still, there is this nagging feeling that decisions we make today may come back to haunt us in the future, in ways that are hard to envision. Yet that is precisely what we should be doing.


Modern technology is not what it seems. Or rather it is much more than it seems. Digital wheels are turning in the background that most people do not even know exist. Increasingly, we are getting an uneasy feeling about this … a sense that things are not quite what they seem.

So much is happening that is out of our view and beyond our control. Like a network of mushroom spores sending out subterranean tendrils to silently exchange genetic material, our technological systems are increasingly passing information back and forth without bothering to tell us. They are parsing and analyzing it to squeeze out the deep meaning of what we say and do, sometimes before we are even aware of our own intentions.

Technocreep is quietly but relentlessly invading our daily lives:

  • You use your smartphone to take a photo, and it auto-uploads it to Facebook. Without your knowledge, metadata such as the type of camera you use and the precise location where you took the photo is also being uploaded. Facebook may remove that information before making your photos public, but the company certainly has access to all of that metadata for its own purposes. Facebook now has the world's largest known database of personal information and photos, many of them conveniently labeled with your real name. How deep is the analysis of your words and photos by Internet giants like Facebook and Google? According to an article in
    , the computers at Facebook can use artificial intelligence to tease out the emotions in your ramblings and figure out when you are being sarcastic.
    That same article says that Google can distinguish the facial features of a cat from a human.
  • You decide to check your email, which, like most people, you are now getting for free from a provider like Google, Yahoo, or Microsoft. Hmm, no new mail has been delivered for the past few hours. Do their servers get backed up like the post office at the holidays? Or is something more sinister going on? Is your mail being siphoned off for some sort of deep-level human or computer analysis? Given the revelations of Edward Snowden and others, your concern might be justified. What should certainly disturb you is the fact that you have no way to really know how your web-based email is processed, and virtually no tools to investigate it; while others seem to have many tools to investigate you.
  • Before heading to bed, you peruse the electronic catalog of an upcoming estate sale, lingering on the image of a nice chandelier. An advertisement for the website
    pops up on your screen. How did they know what you were thinking about? Perhaps it was because the sale image was saved as chandelier.jpg. But perhaps not. Image recognition technology is progressing at an amazing pace. Again, the wheels are turning in the background in a creepy fashion.
  • Late at night, you hear the hard drive whirring on your computer. The monitor is flickering even though nobody is using it. Perhaps it makes a few of those strange “bonging” sounds that signify someone is sending you a message. You look. But there is nobody there, and the computer, as if sensing your presence, has ceased its frantic activity. All is calm. But you are not sure if it was Microsoft doing software patches, a hacker trying to steal your information, or … something else.
  • Bars in several cities have installed cameras that silently watch their clientele and make inferences about them from their physical characteristics. Armed with the free smartphone app SceneTap, prospective patrons can check out how full the place is (“chillin” to “hoppin”) as well as the average age and percentage of males and females there.
  • “Suggestion algorithms” are popping up on shopping and social networking sites. It is no surprise that Amazon is trying to sell me the last few things I price-checked there (and bought elsewhere). But when it suggested “adult size disposable diapers” as a good purchase for people buying certain video games, did it “know too much”?
  • Google's Regina Dugan has suggested with a straight face that you may soon swallow a password pill or sport a digital tattoo to log on to computer systems.
    Both ideas are technologically feasible right now, but should our employer be allowed to brand us or make us take a pill?
  • Next generation wearable computers such as Google Glass may start regularly tracking where you are looking.
    That information will then be sold to advertisers and others who are seeking a window into your mind. Based on where your gaze lingers, they will suggest things you want to buy even before you know you want them.
  • Your phone may listen for audio cues about where you are. Is that a football stadium announcer it hears? Perhaps you would like a discount coupon for the team's store, or, if you are slurring your words, a connection to a “drive me home in my car” service.
BOOK: Technocreep
8.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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