We make judgments on people all the time.

March 11, 2009inf2241_classfi22410

We make judgments on people all the time.  I suspect that it’s equal parts survival mechanism (know your surroundings), curiosity, and sexual drive (in my case, at least). Not only to we judge people, everyday people, but we now have interactive technologies that allow us to judge, evaluate, rate, and classify their Internet creations as well. Digital tagging networks such as Flickr, blog rating schemes, and social networks like Facebook provide easy access to judgment and fodder, so that we may judge with abandon.

Imagine a near future where we could combine both this human characteristic with emerging technologies in order to evaluate and tag people. We could tag anyone: gramma (“cookies!”), that hot guy who buys coffee at Second Cup on his way to work who we see every morning (“smexy!”, the freak who turned right in his hummer just as we were crossing the street (“a$$hole!”). What’s more, we could also access the tags others have used to see if that hot guy, for example, is a freak, serial killer, or just a really nice guy.

To accomplish this, we would need both a device for tagging and a device to be tagged. I think cell phones and PDAs would accomplish the job perfectly. We would simply a text message or email to phone of the tagged person with our tag, which would then relay it to a website to be added to the other tags he or she have already received. The taggee would be assigned unique identifier would allow us to check these tags later and enjoy a richer and more robust judgement of the individual.  Technology is awesome…

On that note, here is Arduino code (many thanks to Matt) which hacks a TV remote with which a tagger can ‘point and shoot’ a tagee of interest.  In this version of the design, the device has been rigged to to control a servo ‘tag dial’ which the tagee would wear on his or her lapel (decorative brooches never really go out of style).

#include <Servo.h>
Servo myservo;  // create servo object to control a servo

int servo_val = 0;      //servo position variable

int ir_pin = 7;        //Sensor pin 1 wired through a 220 ohm resistor
int led_pin = 13;    //”Ready to Receive” flag, not needed but nice
int debug = 0;        //Serial connection must be started to debug
int start_bit = 2000;    //Start bit threshold (Microseconds)
int bin_1 = 1000;    //Binary 1 threshold (Microseconds)
int bin_0 = 400;        //Binary 0 threshold (Microseconds)

void setup() {
myservo.attach(9);  // attaches the servo on pin 9 to the servo object

pinMode(led_pin, OUTPUT);         //This shows when we’re ready to receive
pinMode(ir_pin, INPUT);
digitalWrite(led_pin, LOW);     //not ready yet

void loop() {

myservo.write(servo_val);       // sets the servo position to val

int key = getIRKey();         //Fetch the key
if (key != -1) {
//Serial.print(“Key Received: “); //uncomment this and next line to look at values received
switch (key) {
case 16:
//do something when 1 is pressed
servo_val = 20;
Serial.println(“1 was pressed”);
case 2064:
//do something when 2 is pressed
servo_val = 40;
Serial.println(“2 was pressed”);
case 1040:
//do something when 3 is pressed
servo_val = 60;
Serial.println(“3 was pressed”);
case 3088:
//do something when 4 is pressed
servo_val = 80;
Serial.println(“4 was pressed”);
case 528:
//do something when 5 is pressed
servo_val = 100;
Serial.println(“5 was pressed”);
case 2576:
//do something when 6 is pressed
servo_val = 120;
Serial.println(“6 was pressed”);
//if nothing else matches…
Serial.println(“a button was pressed”);

int getIRKey() {
int data[12];
digitalWrite(led_pin, HIGH);     //Ok, i’m ready to recieve
while(pulseIn(ir_pin, LOW) < 2200) { //Wait for a start bit
data[0] = pulseIn(ir_pin, LOW);     //Start measuring bits, I only want low pulses
data[1] = pulseIn(ir_pin, LOW);
data[2] = pulseIn(ir_pin, LOW);
data[3] = pulseIn(ir_pin, LOW);
data[4] = pulseIn(ir_pin, LOW);
data[5] = pulseIn(ir_pin, LOW);
data[6] = pulseIn(ir_pin, LOW);
data[7] = pulseIn(ir_pin, LOW);
data[8] = pulseIn(ir_pin, LOW);
data[9] = pulseIn(ir_pin, LOW);
data[10] = pulseIn(ir_pin, LOW);
data[11] = pulseIn(ir_pin, LOW);
digitalWrite(led_pin, LOW);

if(debug == 1) {
for(int i=0;i<=11;i++) {             //Parse them
if (debug == 1) {
if(data[i] > bin_1) {             //is it a 1?
data[i] = 1;
}  else {
if(data[i] > bin_0) {         //is it a 0?
data[i] = 0;
} else {
data[i] = 2;               //Flag the data as invalid; I don’t know what it is!

for(int i=0;i<=11;i++) {             //Pre-check data for errors
if(data[i] > 1) {
return -1;                   //Return -1 on invalid data

int result = 0;
int seed = 1;
for(int i=11;i>=0;i–) {            //Convert bits to integer
if(data[i] == 1) {
result += seed;
seed = seed * 2;

return result;                     //Return key number

There are, of course, drawbacks to this kind of social tagging. Van den Hoven and Vermaas note that there are privacy concerns associated with any kind of wearable identifying device. Nissenbaum note that it is difficult to come with a legal viewpoint on privacy in the public sphere since the two concepts appear to contradict one another. While I agree that privacy is indeed a concern, I think that looking at it from simply a legal or technological standpoint misses what this particular technological item is: a device that not only allows to a meta-level of social space but permits us to manipulate it as well.

For this reason, I think that examining the implications of this technology from the standpoint of visibility is important. Brighenti explores the notion of visibility and its importance to sociological theory, but this exploration provides insight into issues surrounding the hypothetical people tagger. Noting that visibility in a social sphere is related to power relationships, the results are not clear cut. While it’s true, for example, that institutionalized racism and lack of visibility food off one another, resulting in diminished public services, minorities also experience high visibility in social discipline in the form of heightened police intervention whether it is merited or not. High visibility may result in increased social capital, but is it grows it may also result in heightened social constraints, as experienced by well known public figures like movie and pop stars and politicians, or by media representations of migrant and immigrant workers (p. 330).

An extreme version of visibility, Brighenti cautions, is institutionalized surveillance as described by Foucault and Grantham’s panopticon.  It is here that the relationship between power dynamics/imbalances and visibility are at their most visible. In the panopticon, those doing the surveillance wield disciplinary powers for the surveilled, protected and enabled by their invisibility.

However, Brighenti also notes that visibility does not necessarily imply power imbalances in favour of the surveiller. Related to Goffman’s notion of social identity and performance, individuals do not only see, but they are seen as well; often the person being seen may enjoys a certain amount of power from being he object of passing attention to a wholesale interested (whatever that interest may be).

So, is a people tagger the announcement of doom in a Newspeak-speaking, soylent green-eating, soma-popping dystopia or is it a manner of manipulating and empowering social space and connections?  I don’t know.  Do you?


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