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Watching Each Other, Watching Your Food
Jamais Cascio, 20 May 05

docomo.jpgIf the Participatory Panopticon is heading our way, it will almost certainly hit first in Japan. Concerns about privacy manifest differently in Japan than in the US or Europe, and Japanese mobile phone makers and networks are experimenting with a growing array of new applications for high-speed wireless networks. Picturephoning points us to a couple of recent developments that definitely put Japan furthest along the road to the sousveillance society.

First is the production of a "television pocket" for video phones, a mounting and movement system allowing them to function in a manner similar to webcams. The text translated from the packaging is somewhat, um, abstract, but the accompanying illustrations -- showing one person keeping an eye on a sick parent and another keeping in touch with a pet left home alone -- make abundantly clear the utility of the hardware. What's notable about this is the underlying assumption that video streams will be widely and inexpensively available from handheld phones. This is as much a policy issue as a technology problem: carriers hoping to charge users even to send a cameraphone image over bluetooth to a local computer are going to be hard-pressed to allow flat-rate video bandwidth.

Second, and with much bigger implications, is a new English-language report (PDF) from NTT DoCoMo (the biggest and arguably most innovative mobile phone carrier in Japan) on the use of cameraphones as bar code readers for the purpose of checking on food quality control. The bar codes cover...

...the production history of foodstuffs... the growing region, the land where the crop is produced, the name and contact information of the producers, the harvesting date and the status of agricultural chemical use.

[...] Food traceability involves putting the address of production history information in bar code form and printing it on foodstuff labels. Consumers check this information by reading the bar code with a bar code reading mobile phone, thereby obtaining the name of the producer, the harvesting date, shipping date and so on. In this way, the consumer gets to know immediately the route a certain item of food took to get where it is, and can purchase it with peace of mind.

This is not a proposal -- it's already available. The JA Ibaraki Prefecture Central Union of Agricultural Cooperative has since 2003 put this information on a website, and mobile phones from DoCoMo with the bar code reading feature can hit the correct link directly from their phones at the store.

The real question is whether the phones can be set to look someplace other than the official sources of information. The Corporate Fallout Detector and Visible Food Project are two examples activist-driven info resources linked to product tags. The DoCoMo barcode reader is real-world proof that something like the Corporate Fallout Detector can work. We are on the verge of building what will in effect be reputation networks for commercial products.

This is how the Participatory Panopticon will be built: through the spread of useful tools that can and will make our lives better, improving our health and helping to maintain relationships. I'm not at all suggesting that we should reject these tools. We just need to bear in mind the unintended -- but exceedingly likely -- consequences.

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