Steven Mann describes himself as a Luddite. Come again? Luddites went around smashing the machines of the industrial revolution. How could Mann, an arch-geek, a professor of electrical engineering who lives, invents, builds, and
wears the very latest technology, call himself a Luddite? Mann's "cyborg philosophy" lies just here: in the thought that in an increasingly Orwellian world, the individual's only hope is to fight technology with technology.
For a couple of decades, Steve Mann has lived as a cyborg: his view of the world mediated and enhanced by a wearable computer. Actually our clothes, contact lenses, heart pacers, and for that matter our books and our aeroplanes have already made
cyborg of us all; but somehow most of us react with shock at Mann's experiment on himself. Rather than "artificial intelligence" conceived in the hope of making machines smarter than people, Mann wants computers to enhance human intelligence.
Thanks to "WearComp," an increasingly inconspicuous and elegant "wearable computer" of his own design, Mann is perpetually in contact with the internet, communicating when he wants to by tapping messages on a pocket device and
better by projecting the view from his eye-level camera onto the web. His senses of sight and hearing (though not yet, one gathers, smell, taste or touch) are thus mediated and enhanced: want to see a face more clearly from a distance?
just zoom in! Hate Coke ads? Get the computer to erase them. Want an instant replay in slow motion? He can get that too, with enough control to read the markings on the spinning wheels of a passing car... And all the while he has the
power of the internet literally at his fingertips, so that he not only can consult a dictionary, look up arcane facts to win an argument, but also bring the world to bear witness to what he sees -- and most important, turn the tables against the
surveillance that state and corporations think it their right to monopolize. This fascinating book is about the consequence of this brave experiment, which Mann has been conducting with mainly himself as subject for nearly two decades.
One of Mann's most striking philosophical ideas is to distinguish between privacy and solitude. The first contrasts with other people's ability to become aware of you, while the second refers to your ability to prevent intrusions into your
own awareness. Some people care more for privacy than others, but a case might be made for the view that a lack of privacy is essentially harmless unless it comes with a violation of solitude. It wasn't lack of privacy but lack of solitude
that killed Lady Di: for if the paparazzi had never intruded on her life -- if, for example, she had been using Mann's wearable computer to suppress any information about who was photographing her and what appeared in the press) she
wouldn't have had to flee in haste and crash to her death.
Mann's wearable computer serves to protect his solitude more than his privacy. (He quotes Scott McNeally of Sun Microsystems: "You already have zero privacy. Get used to it.") For several years, in fact, you could see what he saw at
pretty much any time, as the computer output line that provided his window on the world was also constantly fed to the Web. "When I post what I see every day on the Web, I am deliberately violating my own privacy. When I send an
e-mail, I am knowingly violating my own privacy and sometimes the solitude of the recipient. However, in living in symbiosis with WearComp I increase my solitude, insomuch as I can control the kind of information to which I am open."
This affords all kinds of opportunities for what might be called guerilla theatre, or performance art, in the service of subversive awareness of the constraints under which we increasingly live.
Mann describes with hilarious deadpan irony a number of devices he has actually patented. Particularly timely, when all loyal Americans seem to think it obvious that all loyal Americans must be prepared to give up freedom for the sake
of securing freedom, is the plan for a "Mass Decontamination facility" in case of an anthrax attack or civil unrest. Visitors are stripped and required to pass through hexagonal rooms equipped with internet-connected showers combined
with body scanning machines. The routine -- which Mann has demonstrated in various art galleries -- is inspired by the availability of surveillance equipment as well as by reminiscences of Nazi concentration camp procedures. It is
designed to inspire a meditation on the nature of all the insults to our dignity daily perpetrated for our protection and greater security...
In this gloomy picture, Steve Mann's light-hearted and brilliantly inventive "Luddite technology" is a ray of hope. Read the book while you're still free to.