Science fiction films and books often feature prototypes of future technology, and in many cases these predictions have proved to spot-on. One of my favorite Ray Bradbury novels, Fahrenheit 451 (published in 1953), predicted a number of technological advances including the Bluetooth earpiece. As we’ve learned from Bradbury and other canonical science fiction authors, advanced technology can be alarmingly central to a dystopian society. Today thousands of people wear Bluetooth devices to communicate and transfer data, and even this seemingly innocuous piece of wireless technology can be and has been used to violate people’s privacy. However, if we step outside the dystopian state of mind and into the open air, we can see that Bluetooth has the potential for a much more optimistic future than Bradbury envisioned.
In 2008, researchers at the University of Bath used Bluetooth data to track users for 6 months, as part of an effort to determine how people move around urban spaces. This study demonstrates that anyone with the proper equipment can eventually track an individual if they have their Bluetooth-enabled device with them. The upside to this is that it could enable authorities to seamlessly track criminals. On the downside, this could be the beginning of a slippery slope that ends in an Orwellian nightmare. (For a parallel case of upside/downside, check out the proceedings of a recent Future Tense event hosted by the New America Foundation, The Drone Next Door.)
Tracking individual citizens sets off a number of alarm bells, and perhaps rightly so: many people fear that governments will use incremental privacy violations to slowly and quietly strip away citizens’ rights and establish a stranglehold on dissent. But tracking doesn’t always have to come with authoritarian baggage; Bluetooth technology can be used for much more limited and useful types of tracking. For example, I am forever losing my keys, and I wish there was an easy and efficient way to search for them. Maybe Bluetooth is the answer. Either the keys themselves, or a keychain, could have a Bluetooth sensor that I could track through a computer or a smartphone (consider a tiny, stripped-down version of the Find My iPhone app). Want to keep tabs on your pet, but don’t fancy surgery to implant an RFID chip? A Bluetooth collar is a non-invasive alternative.
Bluetooth technology is being used in schools to automatically silence students’ cellphones so they don’t disrupt class sessions. Imagine the same technology being deployed in movie theaters – bring on utopia!
For better or worse, it seems likely that Bluetooth signals will be used to trigger personalized atmospheric or location-based advertisements. Despite our initial discomfort with this type of targeted advertising, it might be nice to walk into a store and receive a coupon or special offer tailored specifically for you. This is a paperless, efficient way to receive coupons and discounts, and perhaps it will help us slow down the deluge of marketing emails that flood into our inbox every day!
Bluetooth is currently used to enhance medical equipment, sportswear, apparel, and mobile devices like smartphones and music players. The technology is in its teenage years, and I expect it to flourish in the future. However, the big question for innovators to answer is whether Bluetooth just a marginal convenience technology (hands-free, wireless communication), or whether it has the potential to be used in more powerful ways to enable completely new relationships between gadgets, or between humans and our technological tools.
Image courtesy of Tsvetomir Tsonev, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license. Thanks Tsvetomir!