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By Yusef on

‘Never Alone’: A sociological standpoint, part 3 – what’s next?

In the final part of his Never Alone exhibition review, Yusef takes a look at the future of connected devices—from smart toys to vibrating jeans!

In part 1, I looked at themes of surveillance in Never Alone, including the ubiquitous presence of CCTV. However, as the exhibition makes clear, modern surveillance is not limited to cameras.

Internet-connected toys, which promise to make learning more fun and interactive for children, have become increasingly popular (and controversial) in recent years. Visit Never Alone and you can play with the Furby Connect and My Pal Violet toys yourself. But read the accompanying caption and you’ll learn that ‘leading toy manufacturer VTech was fined $650,000 for collecting personal information without consent, and then keeping it on an insecure system’.

Smart toys on display in Never Alone, Gallery 2, National Science and Media Museum.

Never Alone highlights the vulnerable nature of internet-connected devices. In the Surveillance section, a doll named My Friend Cayla is displayed inside a glass case. She looks innocent and friendly—as you’d expect for a children’s toy. Yet Cayla was banned in Germany in 2017. She has a microphone and speaker under her chest, allowing her to answer questions via an internet connection. The Federal Network Agency ruled that the hidden nature of this device violated Germany’s strict privacy laws regarding ‘surveillance devices’. The BBC reported that ‘researchers say hackers can use an unsecure Bluetooth device embedded in the toy to listen and talk to the child playing with it’.

The stricter laws on privacy and surveillance are largely a consequence of the country’s history. As the BBC report explains, German citizens under both Nazi and Communist governments ‘experienced abusive surveillance by the state’. In an Amnesty International blog post titled ‘A cautionary tale on mass surveillance’, Thomas Coombes describes the Stasi, the Ministry for State Security which was in operation between 1950 and 1990, as ‘one of the most intrusive surveillance organisations in human history’.

Today, possession of a prohibited surveillance device like My Friend Cayla could result in a jail term of up to two years. At the time of the Cayla ban, owners of the dolls were ordered to destroy them; those who failed to do so faced a fine of €25,000.

This example shows how the political and historical context of a society can determine how people perceive and react to new forms of surveillance. The same concerns don’t exist in the UK, which doesn’t share Germany’s turbulent political past. In October 2018, an Independent article headlined ‘Children’s toys and baby monitors can be taken over by hackers’ reported that ‘there are expected to be more than 420 million internet connected devices in use across the UK within the next three years‘. Clearly, while fears do exist, they are not necessarily limiting demand.

Never Alone, Gallery 2, National Science and Media Museum

Internet-connected clothes are another example of the increasing reach of smart technology. Spinali Design produce jeans that contain vibrating patches: connected to a smartphone app, they’ll vibrate on the left or right to help direct you to a location. Similarly, the Tommy Jeans XPLORE range is made up of clothes containing Bluetooth smart tags.

Would you ever buy internet-connected clothes? Visit Never Alone and you can contribute your answer to this question—and others—by interacting with touch-screens. Select ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and you can see the percentage of visitors who agreed (or not). Here, Never Alone adopts a sociological method of research in order to gain a better insight into the public perception of internet-connected devices, using quantitative surveys to gauge the audience’s opinion.

Never Alone, Gallery 2, National Science and Media Museum.

Never Alone does show us the positive, convenient side to smart technology too. A connected home ‘can make life so much easier because many functions can be controlled from one device’. This can be particularly helpful for those with limited mobility, for example. But we’re also invited to think about how such devices ‘send data… back to their developers’ which might later be ‘sold to other companies’. The exhibition asks how much information you are ‘willing to hand over to private companies to make your life easier’.

It’s this balanced assessment of smart technology that makes Never Alone so effective. It offers a concise, understandable summary of the topic and, instead of telling the audience what to think, provides a spark to inspire thoughts, ideas and research. The visitor is encouraged to reflect, to form own their opinions and questions. Ultimately, this exhibition serves as a thought-provoking, informative experience rather than a lecture.

On a large, colourful wall that watches over a multitude of objects—from 19th-century mugshots to My Friend Cayla—we see the word ‘SURVEILLANCE’ emblazoned in capital letters. And above it, there is an actual CCTV camera looking down on the exhibition’s visitors. After exploring Never Alone, the irony won’t be lost on any of them.

Never Alone, Gallery 2, National Science and Media Museum

This weekend is your last chance to see Never Alone: the exhibition is open at the National Science and Media Museum until 10 February 2019.

2 comments on “‘Never Alone’: A sociological standpoint, part 3 – what’s next?

  1. Part 3 has lived up to expectation! It is equally well researched and well written as the previous 2 parts. Informative and engaging. Look forward to further blogs from you!

  2. I have really enjoyed reading this 3-parter from Yusef. His writing is informative and insightful. Not sure what Yusef does in terms of work but he is a really talented writer! Anyone looking for someone to write for them – sign him up!

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