The Slippery Slope Is Greased By Risk Aversion

In a short post, Walter Russell Mead links to five stories under the heading of “Big Brother Goes Hi-Tech.” Click over for links to stories about face scanners in Japan, phone-monitoring in Iran, “infrared antiriot cameras” in China, and computer chips embedded in the uniforms of school children in Brazil.

The stories from Japan, China, and Iran may be the most significant (and disconcerting) in terms of the scope of the reach of the technologies in question, but it was the item from Brazil that caught my attention. Perhaps because it involved school children and we are generally more troubled by problematic developments that directly impact children. The story to which Mead linked appeared in the NY Times and it amounts to little more than a brief note. Here is the whole of it:

“Grade-school students in a northeastern Brazilian city are using uniforms embedded with computer chips that alert parents if they are cutting classes, the city’s education secretary, Coriolano Moraes, said Thursday. Twenty-thousand students in 25 of Vitória da Conquista’s 213 public schools started using T-shirts with chips this week, Mr. Moraes said. By 2013, all of the city’s 43,000 public school students will be using them, he added. The chips send a text message to the cellphones of parents when their children enter the school or alert the parents if their children have not arrived 20 minutes after classes have begun. The city government invested $670,000 in the project, Mr. Moraes said.”

So what to make of this? It differs from the technologies being deployed in China, Japan, and Iran in that it is being implemented in the light of day.

[Curious side note: I misspelled “implemented” in the sentence above and it was auto-corrected to read “implanted”. Perhaps the computers know something we don’t!]

On the face of it, there is nothing secretive about this program and I would be surprised if there was not some kind of opt out provision for parents. Also, from this short notice it is unclear whether the augmented T-shirts can be tracked or if they simply interact with a sensor on school premises and are inactive outside of school grounds. If the technology could be used to track the child’s location outside of school it would be more problematic.

Or perhaps it might be more attractive. The same impulse that would sanction these anti-truancy T-shirts, taken further along the path of its own logic, would also seem to sanction technology that tracks a child’s location at all times. It is all about safety and security, at least that is how it would be presented and justified. It would be the ultimate safe-guard against kidnapping. It would also solve, or greatly mitigate the problem of children wandering off on their own and finding themselves lost. Of course, clothing can be removed from one’s person, which to my mind opens up all kinds of flaw’s with the Brazilian program. How long will it take clever teenagers to figure out all sorts of ways to circumventing this technology, really?

Recalling the auto-correct hint, then, it would seem that the answer to this technology’s obvious design flaw would be to imbed the chips subcutaneously. We already do it with our pets. Wouldn’t it be far more tragic to lose a child than to lose a pet?

Now, seriously, how outlandish does this sound at this techno-social juncture we find ourselves in? Think about it. Is it just me or does it not seem as if we are passed the point where we would be shocked by the possibility of implanted chips. I’m sure there is a wide spectrum of opinion on such matters, but the enthusiasts are not exactly on the fringes.

Consider the dynamic that Thomas de Zengotita has labeled “Justin’s Helmet Principle.” Sure Justin looks ridiculous riding down the street with his training wheels on, more pads than a lineman, and a helmet that makes him look like Marvin the Martian, but do I want the burden of not decking out Justin in this baroque assemblage of safety equipment, have him fall, and seriously injure himself?  No probably not.  So on goes the safety crap.

Did we sense that there was something a little off when we started sending off our first graders to school with cell phones, just a fleeting moment of incongruity perhaps?  Maybe.  Did we dare risk not giving them the cell phone and have them get lost or worse without a way of getting help?  Nope.  So there goes Johnny with the cell phone.

And in the future we might add, did we think it disconcerting when we first started implanting chips in our children. Definitely, but did we want to risk having them be kidnapped or lost and not be able to find them? No, of course not.

The slippery slope is greased by the oil of risk aversion.


4 thoughts on “The Slippery Slope Is Greased By Risk Aversion

  1. Thanks for that post. I find your title incredibly appropriate, both to this particular post, as well as to the issues you mention. It seems that, taken to further ends, the debate is not only about safety, but freedom, thus bringing up the “positive” vs. “negative” freedom issue. I, for one, am in favor of risk. Battle scars, after all, are super cool! :)

    1. This is an interesting observation because there is a larger issue here about what becomes social acceptable risk or, put differently, what sorts of risk taking carry social consequences that may or may not be tolerated. Considering Justin’s Helmet, there is a social pressure, in certain circles, for parents to be hyper-protective. They may be judged careless for being anything less. And when risk aversion becomes institutionalized in law or custom, there is as you say a debate about freedom as well.

  2. I can see a brisk black market trade in (unchipped) school uniform knockoffs! Also, a visual of a classroom full of abandoned, chipped uniforms, stationed at appropriate desks! :>)

    More seriously, there is a sort of Le Chatelier’s principle of social power dynamics that is often ignored by the powerful — that there will always be an immediate and often highly creative push-back from those whose freedom is impinged upon, which will seek/serve to re-establish more equitable conditions.

    That being said, I think that you have put your finger on a very important part of the explanation of how things have gotten as far as they have within a generation who (in much of the world) have read 1984 and Brave New World, in high school or beyond, and should, therefore, know better — that is, risk aversion.

    Risk aversion is a double-edged sword. It works the way you have described — it actively promotes the use of technology in what would perhaps otherwise be considered inappropriate ways, in the service of security. Myself, as a child, had free run of our neighbourhood, without parental supervision — a situation unheard of when I was raising my son. My parents maintained there was really no such thing as child abduction in those days, while I maintained that there was, but in a pre-media-saturated world, we were only aware of such things on a local level — which meant, that for all practical/statistical purposes, it did not exist for us. However, once media brings child abduction on a continental, if not global scale, into your awareness, you cannot become unaware again. And since statistical calculations have no standing in the parent– child bond, precautions must be taken. Thus, our positive protective instincts are manipulated by what is possible.

    Risk aversion is at play in a less admirable way as well. For past generations of my family, risk entailed sketchy trans-Atlantic travel, life without antibiotics or public health insurance, world wars and the dangers of the Depression. Yet, they boldly “risked it” while I seem unwilling to risk the loss of my internet connection. Why, when they saw their freedom threatened, were my predecessors willing to go to war to defend it, while I feel frozen into inaction in the face of what could clearly be equal, if not greater threats to my freedom? The answer, I think, is that (rightly or wrongly) they felt certain of their information, while I cannot. The internet makes us aware of a world of unmanageable complexity and thus makes certainty impossible. Who wants to risk anything (especially with such a low tolerance for, and experience of risk) by acting on uncertainty? Ergo, clearly alarming developments go unchallenged by the majority.

    1. Sorry for not responding sooner. These are excellent observations as per usual. I certainly appreciate the way you connected this with our information environment. Decision paralysis certainly arises from our immersion in information. The tide of information that washes over us daily is such that we lose the ability to differentiate and evaluate. The “deferred time” that made judgment possible has collapsed and/or the scale of information has become unmanageable. We’re numb to it in certain ways. Little wonder the most reasonable path appears to be that of risk management/aversion.

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