Wearable Surveillance I: GPS Trackers and ‘quantified otherness’

by Lianne Toussaint

to the wonderful world of wearable surveillance! Thanks to the wearable GPS
tracker you will “never lose your pet
”, and be able to track the location of your dementing relative or wandering child at any time.
No longer having to worry about the safety of our beloved pet, relative or
offspring us caregivers will finally have peace of mind, or so the
techno-utopian marketing story goes. But before you run off to the (web)store
to purchase this technological solution to all your ‘parental nerve’ you might
want to think again. And read this blog post, of course.

According to Belgian philosopher Kathleen
, the “constant, remote, and often covert tracking of the other’s
data engenders a situation of what can be characterized as ‘quantified
’”. In the specific case of
GPS trackers, this means that the geographic location of a physically distant
other can constantly, remotely, and unobtrusively be traced. Obviously, there
is little against the heartfelt wish
to care for, protect, and safeguard our beloved ones. The question, however, is
whether wearable GPS trackers are a desirable
and effective
way to canalize and act upon this philanthropic inclination. Do
these wearables truly help prevent our vulnerable children, pets, and relatives
from getting lost or hurt, or is this the latest example of a surveillance
gone mad?

few weeks ago, Dutch newspaper De
published an article entitled ‘Big Mother’, which connects the
parental urge to continuously supervise children to what sociologist Frank
Furedi terms ‘paranoid parenting’. “Today’s parenting style sees safety and
caution as intrinsic virtues”, Furedi
, “[p]aranoid parenting
involves more than exaggerating the dangers facing children. It is driven by
the constant expectation that something really bad is likely to happen to your
youngster”. There is no substantial empirical data suggesting that children wearing
a GPS tracker are indeed safer. After all, the technology will not prevent them
from falling or drowning, from being bullied or hit by a car. Kids trackers, in
other words, do not owe their appeal to their verifiable improvement of child
safety but to their capitalization of paranoid parenting fueled by a generally risk-averse
. Depending on how they are
used, however, such wearables may nonetheless have a positive effect on the
parent-child relationship. Just the thought of being able to track a kid’s
location might turn the overprotective parent into a relaxed parent who is willing
to grant the child more autonomy and space for self-development.

Pet trackers relate to a similar phenomenon. On
the one hand, it seems like a win-win situation if these devices effectively
relieve the owner of the constant fear that something might happen to their
domestic companions and, hence, give the pet more freedom of movement. Considering
the omnipresence of heartbreaking “missing pet” posters in the contemporary
urban landscape, there is no doubt about the potential market for these
devices. On the other hand, however, pet owners (and parents/caregivers alike)
should be aware that GPS trackers decrease worries, rather than prevent any
identified danger or probable risk. The GPS technology will tell you where roughly
to look for your pet/child/relative, yet it is not fine-grained enough to identify
the exact location. Civilian GPS
trackers can track locations with a maximum accuracy
of about 8 meters
, which means that
one will still have to search for the missing cat/dog/ferret/parakeet/guinea
pig/elderly/toddler/other within an area of approximately
200 meters
. This is helpful
if that area is a mall or public park but becomes more complicated when it
concerns a crowded multistorey mall or dense forest.

Wearable GPS trackers are effective to the extent
that they can assist in keeping an eye on those we care for and help us to
track their location in precarious situations. In that sense, the technology
may effectively relieve some of the burden of care even if that relief rests on
the illusion of pseudo-safety. Whether their use is also desirable, however, depends on how users deal with the ethical
concerns around privacy, control, dignity, and autonomy that tracking devices
also unavoidably raise. Ultimately, the biggest issue is not if the trackers
work but how they affect the relation between ‘the tracker’ (i.e. parent,
owner, relative) and the tracked (i.e. child, pet, caregiver). The right to privacy
and self-determination is obviously less of an issue in the case of pet
trackers although some self-reflection on whether your paranoia is enough of an
excuse to make your dog “look
like a Silicon Valley asshole’s pet
” seems fair. But if you are considering the option to equip your child
or dementing relative with a GPS tracker there are many other ethical concerns
to deliberate (Michael
et al 2006
; Landau
; Estes
). Will you truly use the
wearable in the best interest of your beloved one, or are you simply being
tricked into buying yet another technological gadget that “resemble[s]
solutions in search of a problem” (Haggerty
and Ericson
2006: 14)?


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