In Alastair Reynolds’ Blue Remembered Earth, humans live in one of two societies: the so-called Surveilled World on the one hand, and the Descrutinised Zone on the other. Humans in the late 22nd century are genetically modified to remove criminal proclivities and the Mechanism watches over all humans in the Surveilled World in a sort of benevolent dictatorship, intervening when any violent or anti-social tendencies manifest. In this possible civilisation everyone knows what everyone else is doing and virtually everyone’s life is open to scrutiny. The only escape is living in the Descrutinised Zone on the Moon or moving to other colonies scattered throughout the inner solar system where the Mechanism’s reach is diminished by time and distance.

Most writers would use this scenario as the basis for a dark, Orwellian dystopia. Reynolds’ future human civilisation, however, is mostly peaceful and humans have mostly acclimated to living in a largely transparent and connected society. As I read the book (which I enjoyed tremendously and recommend), I thought about recent surveillance revelations and trends towards great transparency online, coupled with more automated location-based services and I wondered if we will have to wait a century before we find ourselves living in a Surveilled World?

You already know about the ongoing Snowden revelations (yes, there is still more information coming to light and probably will for some time to come)about mass surveillance of the internet by the “five eyes” countries. Facebook’s (optional) Nearby Friends feature will automate the process of figuring out whether your friends are, well, nearby:

If you turn on Nearby Friends, you’ll occasionally be notified when friends are nearby, so you can get in touch with them and meet up. For example, when you’re headed to the movies, Nearby Friends will let you know if friends are nearby so you can see the movie together or meet up afterward.

… Sharing your location with Nearby Friends goes two ways — you and your friends both have to turn on Nearby Friends and choose to share with each other to see when you’re nearby. Your friends will only be able to see that you’re nearby if you share this info with them and vice versa.

Nearby Friends represents a step back from the more accurate services that didn’t take on a couple years ago. At the same time, that probably isn’t a retreat from the idea of making our whereabouts more publicly available but more a rethink of how to ease us into doing this more often. Here is The Verge’s take which is interesting:

More recently, Foursquare announced that it is going to split its app into two focused apps. The first new app will be called Swarm and its role is to do something similar to Nearby Friends:

We built Swarm because you’ve told us how often you still have to text your friends: “where are you?” and “what you up to later?” We wanted to build a quick way for you to know these two things for all of your friends. With Swarm, you can easily see which of your friends are out nearby, figure out who is up for grabbing a drink later, and share what you’re up to (faster and more easily than you can in Foursquare today).

The Verge’s exclusive on Swarm is revealing. Here are a couple points which stand out:

Most importantly, while you can check in with Swarm, it also passively notes your general location even if you don’t open the app. So if you come out of a subway station and look at your phone, Foursquare will understand that you’re in a new neighborhood and update your status accordingly. This might still seem creepy for some people, but in that sense Foursquare may have one big advantage over Facebook when it comes to ambient location sharing. People who download Swarm are making an explicit decision to provide this kind of data to a specific set of friends.

But how can Foursquare personalise its users’ results if they are no longer collecting check-ins, the foundation of Foursquare’s recommendation engine? Crowley smiles and says something a bit shocking. He no longer needs check-ins, the meat and potatoes of Foursquare’s entire business and data collection engine for the last five years.

Not only has Foursquare collected 6 billion check-ins, he says, but it has collected five billion signals to help it map out over 60 million places around the world. Each place is a shape that looks like a hot zone of check-ins — of times when people have said “I’m here”. Foursquare’s “Pilgrim” location-guessing engine factors in everything from your GPS signal, to cell tower triangulation, to the number of bars you have, to the Wi-Fi networks, in order to create these virtual shapes.

Now that it has this data, Foursquare can make a very accurate guess at where you are when you stop moving, even without a check-in, a technology it hopes will allow it to keep its database of places fresh and accurate. Foursquare calls these implicit check-ins “p-check-ins,” or Neighborhood Sharing. Take your phone into four or five different Japanese restaurants over the course of six months and without a single check-in Foursquare will learn that you like Japanese food and start making recommendations for you based on that data.

Swarm and Nearby Friends represent a new generation of location-based services that are better informed and smarter than the ones you may have used before. They also represent a new beginning. As we become more public about our activities in the digital space we will see many benefits and, at the same time, we are giving birth to our own version of Reynolds’ Surveilled World, albeit one driven by a sort of public-private partnership between an eager private sector and a fairly opaque public sector.

The question is whether we are jogging into this new world fully aware of what we are getting ourselves into (well, as much as we can be) or whether we have our heads down, looking at our phones as usual?

[Image – Panopticon by Paolo Trabattoni (CC BY 2.0)]