Augmented Reality has Immense Power — Humanity & Rights 

Tony Fadell, the co-creator of the iPod and iPhone and founder of Nest Labs, has said, “I wake up in cold sweats every so often thinking what did we bring to the world? Did we bring a nuclear bomb with information that can — as we see with fake news — reprogram people? Or did we bring light to people who never had information, who can now be empowered?” Beyond the smartphone, the ability to augment the real world en masse has incredible potential to shape public consensus while influencing an individual’s perception of a place and themselves in it. Is it possible to anticipate and design out potential negative consequences of augmented reality in the real world?

The Enabled Landscape is personal computing that enhances and amplifies the physical experience of simultaneously arriving at and traveling through the landscape via seamless and live computer-generated sensory inputs (graphical, video, or sound information) that are uniquely associated with that place including historical, cultural, and personal significance, its sense of place. What is so powerful about the Enabled Landscape is it involves one of the most precious things we do as people which is to transfer information and communicate with each other. This is power, but power isn’t always positive.

“It is very common for humans to develop things with the best of intentions and for them to have unintended, negative consequences” states Justin Rosenstein who helped develop the “Like” button on Facebook. If correct measures are not in place, digital platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter are by their large-scale nature and communication reach susceptible to the spread of disinformation, as the 2016 United States election bears witness. So, what does this mean for AR?

A Lesson from the Present

Catalonia, Spain, October 2017. The regional government declares independence from Spain and ignites a constitutional crisis. Just four years prior, the El Born Cultural Center in Barcelona had opened, focusing on a preserved archaeological remains surrounded by curated media in the form of text, video, images, and audio. In and of itself, the archaeological remains are neutral, appreciated viscerally. Yet an Ulster University study concluded the created content at such heritage sites were deployed to paint a picture of a region victimized and oppressed because of its unique cultural identity ultimately influencing visitors, local or otherwise, to empathize with the separatism cause, “hoping to mobilize a generation of voters who will change Catalonia’s political future and influence the hearts and minds of tourists … a particular historical perspective that is problematic, simplistic, and ignores the significant complexities of society in 18th century Europe.”

The created and curated physical media here is akin to media that can be reproduced with AR technologies albeit with a significant difference. Whereas the El Born required years of planning, granting of permissions, and financial resources to realize, the curation of the physical world will be attained at a fraction of the cost and effort in an Enabled Landscape. What was once the domain of architects, planners, engineers, public art sculptors, under the granted authority of government, will be accessible to potentially millions of software developers and content creators.

For the first time in history, we will see a dramatic shift in those who can build objects seen and experienced by the public in the physical world due as part of this wider inevitable disruption of place lead by technologists. As Tony & Olivier Award-winning playwright Brian Friel once penned, it is not the literal past, the “facts of history,” that shape us but instead the images of the past embodied in language, written or otherwise, “it can happen that a civilization can be imprisoned in a linguistic contour which no longer matches the landscape of fact.” Augmented reality’s ability to create imagery could dramatically escalate this.

A Place of Infinite Creativity

Of course, the Enabled Landscape will allow for new creations to be placed in the world in addition to curation. American artist Titus Kaphar in his work shows us that public art and public sculpture can reframe our collective understanding of history. The artist deconstructs a Frans Hals painting to highlight the compositional structure hierarchy. It highlights the black boy sitting on the lowest of tiers. He could find out more about the lace the white woman is wearing than he could about the black child. In his research, he sets out historical trends on such fine art paintings and public art sculptures were black people are significantly under-represented. Kaphar asks, what is the impact of these kinds of public artwork on some of our most vulnerable in society seeing these kinds of depictions of themselves all the time?

Where anyone can augment the physical world whose view of the world will we see exactly? For example the majority of volunteer map and content creators on crowdsourced location digital platforms, the people who add their local knowledge of the physical world, are male. In an Enabled Landscape, could this not be designed out to create a more balanced view? AR applications will have to ensure the geographic data upon which the product is based does not under-represent people within certain locations which could reinforce existing spatial inequalities. Nonetheless, technologists will be able to act faster than governments, at least initially. As recent history shows, in order to appease government regulators and ensure company survival and growth, disruptive technology companies have drafted and self-imposed regulations.

Hippocratic Oath of Innovation

Technologists, especially those in Silicon Valley still rooted in communal idealism and counter-culture stemming from 1960 and 1970s California, believed that a democratizing force called the internet was going to empower everyone through shared information. A tremendously positive global impact by this relatively small number of pioneering groups of people give the world revolutionary inventions such as semiconductors, microprocessors, and brought personal computers into reality. The development of AR platforms and technology provides an opportunity to bring further unprecedented achievement. Does the idealism still remain?

“Two super old stories. One: be careful what you wish for because you’ll get it… And two: creators losing control of their creations,” notes Aza Raskin, former head of user experience at Mozilla Labs and lead designer for Firefox, who is now one of the public faces of the Center for Humane Technology. This non-profit group founded with former Design Ethicist at Google, Tristan Harris, works to “catalyze a movement to reverse human downgrading” caused by technology — addiction, distraction, isolation, radicalization, disinformation, and political polarization — in a world where people touch, swipe or tap their phone hundreds if not thousands of times a day. Harris comments this places society at  “a civilizational moment” – a crossroads where the wrong turn could mean “the end of human agency.”

The Enabled Landscape will involve many companies and professions around the world; a company’s set of regulations is not enough. Where to start? How to design and build an innovative, fair, and ethical future? The debate has already started, Matt Miesnieks of start-up 6D.aI, for instance specifically focuses on user rights and potential solutions in relation to AR cloud data collation. Taking a broader view conceivably those working in spatial computing could take Tony Fadell’s advice of a type of Hippocratic Oath for technologists that would “act as a barrier between tech’s best ideas and their worst unintended consequences — to design out at the earliest stage, to make sure we are ethically designing.”

In terms of content creators, a sound starting point is to apply the spirit that Titus Kaphar applies to his public artworks, namely “to make sculptures that are honest, that wrestle with the struggles of our past but speak to diversity and the advances of our present. Simply tearing down a monument, leaving nothing in its place and effectively erasing it from history is just as damaging as leaving it there.”

A Democratization of Place

There is scope for technologists to seek inspiration from the Swedish right of “Allemansrätten,” as set out in the nation’s Constitution. This right similarly adopted in other Scandinavian countries translates as “freedom to roam” or “everyman’s right,” specifically the right to roam the countryside for recreation and exercise. “Visit Sweden” even listed the entire country on Airbnb. While the Right of Public Access is guaranteed in the Constitution, it is not enshrined in law and there is no statute that precisely defines its scope. On the other hand, it is hedged around by various laws that set limits on what is allowed.

Could the spirit of Allemansrätten inspire and become derived into an enabled Landscapeallowing, everyone, the right to access the information of a place, the right to create, share, and save their ideas over the public landscape? Freedom of opinion and expression are fundamental Universal Human Rights, we all have a right to create. A democratization of place. The personalization of the landscape. The influential conservationist John Muir, a key figure in the creation of the US National Park System and Yosemite National Park, once wrote “most people who travel look only at what they are directed to look at. Great is the power of the guidebook maker, however ignorant.”

Equally, it is a balancing act as liberties can be abused and such freedoms come with responsibility. The responsibility to take care of nature, wildlife, show consideration for landowners, and for other people enjoying the countryside.  In Allemansrätten a “don’t disturb, don’t destroy” ethos places the onus on people to be responsible, show mindfulness, respect, and common-sense when passing through the landscape.

Equally the concept can be adapted into AR platforms, “don’t destroy” becomes “don’t hate.” No hateful imagery or conduct pertaining to promoting violence against or directly attacking people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or serious disease. Combating abuse motivated by hatred, prejudice, intolerance, particularly abuse that seeks to silence the voices of those who have been historically marginalized.

Timeless Ethics

Core to the development of enabling AR cloud technologies is the constant re-surveying, professional and crowdsourced, of our environment. What does “survey” mean? If you want a simple definition, the Oxford dictionary says the verb survey means to “examine and record the area and features of (an area of land) so as to construct a map, plan, or description.” However, this is not the only meaning available. Rediscovering the historical definition can lend itself and better reorient us in order to meet the emerging challenges of spatial computing.

The earliest printed English surveying manual, The Book of Surveying (1523) by John Fitzherbet and Sir Anthony Fitzherbet discusses a surveyor as an “overseer,” the etymological origin of the word surveyor, concerned with not just the shape of the land and its cartographic representation but a whole range of social and economic issues arising from the complex network of duties and responsibilities that defined the relationship between soil and subject, between tenants and lord. Not land as the raw material of a map but land as a social space. Indifferently balancing the needs of the lord and the tenants. The 17th-century theoretical work of cartographer John Norden, “The Surveyor’s Dialogue”, advises a surveyor to walk away from unbalanced and unethical contracts as their responsibility exceeds that of loyalty to any employer.

The experience from the emergence of social media underlines the complex and numerous challenges yet offer transferable knowledge for AR. Computing is entering the landscape, but will it march or explore? There is no clear roadmap however we can look to the great artists for guidance — “Imagine a city where graffiti wasn’t illegal, a city where everybody could draw whatever they liked. Where every street was awash with a million colors and little phrases. Where standing at a bus stop was never boring. A city that felt like a party where everyone was invited, not just the estate agents and barons of big business. Imagine a city like that and stop leaning against the wall – it’s wet” — Banksy.

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