Three Short Futures: On Children, Data and the Internet of Things

Image by Stephan Hochhaus under Creative Commons

At Changeist, we sometimes write tales of the near-future to work out what stories could arise from emerging trends and technologies. It’s part of our ongoing work around narrative futures design in the lab. Here are three short stories for [UK] Mother’s Day exploring some of the issues I’ve been looking at as part of our research into children, parents, the potential implications of ubiquitous data collection, and the Internet of Things. We’ll likely publish some context for this in the coming weeks, but for now, read about James, Jack, and Robin.

James

‘Application Rhodes, James, please proceed to checkout number nine.’ Pulling her headphones from her ears, James walked to the counter and gestured to the supervisor.

‘Do I need to take my glasses off?’ The cashier smiled, forcibly, and nodded.

‘Please stand in the red circle and look directly at the camera.’ The cashier smiled again, looking sideways at a colleague who was trying to explain, in increasingly panicked tones, that the elderly man in front of him couldn’t take pictures of the machine for his grandson. James could faintly hear the man fussing, telling the cashier that it’s fine, it’s not a big deal, his grandson told him to take pictures for his collection. The cashier wasn’t having any of it.

‘Please sir, can you just put your phone down. I don’t want to have to ask again.’ James smiled to herself, like a child, she thought.

‘Hello, hi. Sorry. Do you mind doing it again? No smiling this time.’ James’s cashier grinned apologetically and pointed at the floating grey box in a ‘What can you do? Cameras, eh!’ sort of way. The machine whirred, clicked, and flashed green.

‘All done?’

‘All done. Please take a seat and a nurse will be with you shortly.’ James wandered back through the waiting room, finding a seat next to a lone woman who was flipping through a dogeared copy of Health Today, checking her phone between articles. James’s phone buzzed to let her know her health visit had been logged, and charged, correctly. First time for everything, James thought as she shoved it back into her pocket.

A victim of a retrofitted system, James’s profile had been built from what was available; social media, search engine metadata, health records, insurance, biometrics all jammed together to make a version of a person. As a child she’d heard the story of the doppelgänger, not so much as a double, but as a harbinger of one’s own eventual demise. Reaching the end of GOV.UK’s processing portal, she faced a ghostly version of herself. She didn’t know what it would foretell, aside from administration problems. She didn’t really know what would be on there.

Pre-thirteen, all data about her was at the mercy of her parents, though not so much as kids these days. For a start, there wasn’t an age limit on social media anymore, you could be visible from birth. James had signed up to so many sites underage, under different usernames, without knowing that one day it would cause her problems. So many syncing errors, so much explaining to tired, overworked agents in call centres that just wanted to go home. Asking for parent data, James drew a huge, empty blank.

Her mother had started wearing a fitness tracker long after James was born, back when it didn’t matter. Even now, James would return back to her family home to see the familiar shape of her mother digging up the weeds in the window box, her antiquated tracker abandoned to the counter. ‘I don’t like to wear that thing when I’m gardening. Gets in the way.’ She would whistle to herself to cover the alarm that sounded from inactivity, singing against it like a bird.

As the government regulations started to phase in, James joined millions of young people who secretly cursed their parents for not being more careful with their future. All the technology had been there, many cried, so why didn’t they use it?

James’s phone vibrated four times, her partner had pinged her. She ignored it.

She had remembered how her partner had once looked at her profile without her knowledge, through one of those websites that once was used to track domain owners. They had only been together a few months by this point, and their curiosity had finally got the better of them. James had found it in their browsing history during a monthly cleanup, left in the trash among spam for data supplements. Confronting them, James felt shocked that they hadn’t just asked for it, she would have given it, probably.

‘I wasn’t sure, you know, if you’d tell the truth.’ With care, they explained that they felt they knew James better now, and found her own messy records endearing, charming even. They’d even send their own records, unadulterated, if she wanted, they insisted.

The intimacy of her pocked data profile, scrutinised, even with affection, left James feeling vulnerable. She had silently uncoupled her profile from her partners before coming for the appointment, she didn’t want them to know yet, if there was anything to know in the first place.

‘Rhodes? Hello, follow me.’ James made her way to the examining room and sat behind the chrome, barely polished desk. Scratches in the surface, coffee rings.

‘Well, you’ll be pleased to know it’s positive, do you have everything you need to get started?’ James nodded, and thumbed the leaflet she’d been handed on the way in.

‘Yes, everything thanks, I got the tracker a few days ago. Not sure how to activate it though.’

‘It’s all there in the leaflet, and there’s plenty on our website too. Just log into your portal and you’ll find it.’ The nurse breathed in heavily, his barrel chest rising as if he were to suddenly start floating. ‘Don’t worry, first time mothers always worry. Do you want us to notify your partner?’ James shook her head.

‘No, thank you, I’d like it to be a surprise.’ Getting up, James wobbled slightly. She exited quickly, out into the afternoon air, out into the world.

Hidden away on the second swipe of her applications menu, just out of view, her health app was pulsing red. James watched it on the train home turn into a peach glow, accompanied by a notification telling her that her registration was complete. A second dot appeared. Blue, electric blue.

Jack

Jack paced the corridor, dodging the younger doctors as they hurtled from another ward. His temples throbbed under the halogens, his skin dry from months spent in an office no different to an air vent, maintained to a steady, unwavering temperature. At times, Jack felt like a very well kept house plant.

Earlier that day, a minor server dropout had caused a loss of data in maternity, with hundreds of signals lighting up the nurses station as mothers, and fathers, noticed a temporary pause. A child had started crying as its mother pulled away to prod at the controls blindly, smiling at Jack as he fled down the ward.

As usual, mothers had panicked at the potential loss of resolution, of clarity, in their child’s future, as empty/silent/dropout points were routinely questioned when it came to further down the line of a child’s life. Although often minor, to a first-time (and second-time, and third-time) parent it was potentially devastating unless you had the money to make up for it later on. Those who weren’t afforded the luxury of choice tried in vain to gain advantages where possible, cheating where they could, with stories of repurposed sibling data perpetually reaching Jack’s newsfeed. He had been told to watch out for this in his retraining, thinking to himself that sibling rivalry had never been more overanalyzed. His own brother didn’t know what he was talking about.

The glass of the corridor was unforgiving, it showed each small, new, addition bleeping away uninterrupted, gas-filled and hungry, wriggling away under the weight of its own, new, tiny body.

Along the hall, a woman was firing off recordings of her child’s first heartbeats to family and friends, this show of community as driven by data as by celebration. Jack remembered his first, the disembodied thud pausing his podcast mid sentence. He didn’t Like it, not immediately. Days later, he had been chastised and persuaded to in the middle of a family meal. “A child is raised by a village’, his father reminded him, “A village, Jack. Don’t be so bloody selfish.”

He pulled up the service queue and dealt with the first few requests. He had qualified the summer before the first changes were rolled out, the third in a batch of data physicians that had entered the hospital that decade. As new systems came in, Jack had fallen quickly down the ranks over the past few years, his days now methodically spent as a spectre floating above maternity, carefully watching.

On Mondays, he revelled in the small victory of winning the weekly pub quiz. Today was Tuesday.

On his desk were seven forms to complete, each a claim from a family that had lost data from a service interruption. All of them, except one, claimed for loss of educational access or loss of evidence to private health insurers, the last claiming for the impact it would have on their remaining, rapidly depleting, benefits. He dealt with the latter first, before breaking for lunch.

In the corner of his eye was a picture of his daughter. Only one, less risk that way, his partner argued between mouthfuls on the eve of their first anniversary.

Robin

‘That damn thing is doing it again.’ From the other room, Robin heard her eldest stomping up the hallway. Bursting into the room, he brandished his younger sister’s cat-shaped portable assistant, speaking a language he could barely determine as German. She had used a VPN on a family holiday to calm her daughter down, who wouldn’t sleep unless she was told about her day, where she had been, what she had seen, what her mother had said about the botanical garden. Somehow it had locked onto a German system and wouldn’t shake it loose.

‘I told you to leave it alone. Can you go and make sure your sister is ready please? For the love of…’ her voice trailed off as she returned back to the screen.

Robin was trying desperately hard to concentrate. Her daughter, at the grand age of eleven years old, was preparing to leave for camp. She was halfway through a form that was almost completely nonsense, asking for her national insurance number, her donor’s national insurance number, the date and time of her last three status checks, and much more that Robin searched frantically to find. All of this to make sure the future will run smoothly, she told herself again and again, cursing the router as it, yet again, dropped out.

‘Can you please not update your Xbox now Jo?’

‘It’s not called an Xbox anymore Mum.’ Robin ran her hand across her face, blew out all the air from her lungs and continued. Typing in Alice’s unique ID, a code hidden away in under the skin of her second-hand feline companion, Ted, to authorise. She sat for a minute before thinking about sandwiches and taking the bins out, listening to the sounds of the house. Across the hall she heard her eldest tease the youngest about the creatures that lived in the woods. ‘If you don’t have your tracker on, they’ll eat you up!’ Alice screamed.

This new change to a more data-dependant education, from primary school onwards, had been great at first. The way her school dealt with her health concerns felt helpful, vital even, but after the third or fourth probing email, Robin had started to feel uncomfortable. She didn’t enjoy receiving reports of her daughter’s meal choices, or how many times she was active during the day, and so still sat and listened in faux-surprise as Alice, and Ted, told her how good the chips had been that day.

Soon it became a matter of school performance and security, with Ofsted regularly marking down schools without a good data hygiene policy. Alongside personal and social care, data care had become compulsory, as reporting a blackout in their records became as important as reporting a school bully. Cleaning your data, telling a responsible adult about any unusual behaviour, glitches, all were analysed and fed back into school reports. A way of fighting not only absence and career ambitions, but perceived radicalisation by one too many politicians.

This particular summer would be spent at a camp that taught kids how to deal with their data better, those that didn’t quite grasp it. Her oldest son, Jo, had attended one a few years back, one of the first in fact, and through games, and hiking, and competitions, they learned how to be better and smarter at collecting their data. A journey to becoming a legible young person. Paid for and regulated by their local government authority, attendance was a matter of being a good citizen; “tomorrow’s child, today.” Character building, the email had said, “An investment in your child’s future.” She couldn’t say no, other parents vocally expressing how irresponsible it would be to opt-out, and Robin would feel guilty. She already did, for so many reasons.

Over lunch, Robin’s mother compared it to a finishing school, but instead of books on the head, it would be a perfectly legible data trail. ‘I know it’s a bit much, but she’ll thank you for it. Look how much it helped Jo.’ Her son had left that summer a wildly unpredictable, spontaneous child, but in the months that followed, became obsessed with making sure that everything was up to spec, in peak condition, and always updated. It had helped him, in some part, he was doing well in school, but he had become hardened somehow, less forgiving of error.

Alice ran into the room.

‘Can we go? Please? I don’t want to have to sit next to Ben again.’ Robin laughed. That kid.

‘Do you have Ted?’ Alice nodded. Jo slumped into the room, a slow-moving shadow against the wall.

‘She doesn’t. I’ve packed it though, fixed the bug too. You’ve got to be more careful Alice.’

You’ve got to be more careful Alice.’ Robin stifled a laugh as her daughter mimicked him, mirroring his stance. Listening for the alert that said their carpool was on the way, she double checked that her form had sent. It had. Saying her goodbyes at the front door, Alice said she couldn’t wait to see the Peak District.

‘Ted told me they have rabbits there!’ Ted’s eyes flashed, said something indistinguishable, and turned on motion tracking. Two weeks, Robin thought. Two weeks.

Three Short Futures is an ongoing series by futures research lab Changeist. Head to Phase Change’s main page to read other research and thoughts by Scott, Susan and Natalie.