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Digital You, Meet Nanny Government and Terrorism Fears

Uh-oh. Better stash those TV-equipped glasses. According to Reuters, the state of New York is mulling legislation that would ban the use of iPods, Blackberries, video games and other electronic gadgets while crossing the street. Scofflaws would face a $100 fine, assuming any cops were around to ticket them. Why the fuss? Two or three (depending on your news source) traffic deaths in Brooklyn - all attributed to the victims' use of - and distraction by - electronic devices.
Uh-oh. Better stash those TV-equipped glasses. According to Reuters, the state of New York is mulling legislation that would ban the use of iPods, Blackberries, video games and other electronic gadgets while crossing the street. Scofflaws would face a $100 fine, assuming any cops were around to ticket them. Why the fuss? Two or three (depending on your news source) traffic deaths in Brooklyn - all attributed to the victims' use of - and distraction by - electronic devices.An overreaction? Not according to the bill's sponsor, New York State Sen. Carl Kruger, who was quoted by Reuters as saying that the use of electronic devices is "creating an atmosphere where we have a major public safety crisis at hand." A "nationwide problem" even. Kruger just wants the government to protect the public from their oblivious selves.

Roll your eyes if you must, but the Digital You (Time magazine's person of 2006) may have bigger things to worry about. And there is no better or fresher proof of that then the recent scare in Boston over a guerilla marketing stunt that involved the use of circuit boards with lighted figures.

Hilarious to some, bizarre to others, and deemed perfectly appropriate in some quarters, was Boston's panic attack triggered by a several-weeks-old,high-tech marketing ploy for an online cartoon show. I may be dating myself here - but my immediate thought when I first saw photos of the devices, which employed plug-in,light-up bulbs to depict cartoon characters, was "oh, Lite Brites!" They did not look threatening to me; rather they looked cute, if inexplicable, since I have never seen the show in question.

And ok, I know it's a "post 9/11 world," with terrorism lurking under every bed, but Boston was the ONLY city where anyone even reacted to those video ads, much less called 911, never mind threw themselves into a full-scale, locked-down panic. Surely we can assume the other cities where these devices were posted take terrorism just as seriously as does Boston! And I doubt the marketers really expected or planned for this reaction - if they had, my guess is we'd have seen more cities blowing up devices and calling for a red alert. but we didn't. So I was interested to know why the Boston authorities freaked out, and you should be too. Hopefully it isn't, as one commentator on the subject suggested, that Boston is not a digitally hip city. (Hey! That hurts.)

Listen closely to one of the reasons given by the Boston police and city officials. They noted that the devices had "protruding wires," and again, in this day and age, they can't be too careful. Ok; seems reasonable. Well, then, what are we going to do about all the backpacks, hats, hoodies, jackets and other digitally ready and enabled clothing and accessories that are starting to flood the market - much of it heading for planes, trains, buses and subways? You betcha some of that stuff has protruding wires. And how about the bulky solar battery-equipped laptop cases and back packs? And the increasingly micro headsets that have people seemingly talking to themselves, the buzzing of vibrating phones and pagers, and who knows, RFID or other smart chip-enabled cards, devices and clothing. Use your imagination.

Toss in other recent headlines about schools banning cell phones, businesses banning photo-enabled cell phones, and legislation banning cell phone use in moving automobiles. Now think ahead to internet-enabled everything, the ability to remotely access, download and send whatever into cars, phones, blackberries, video games and other devices.

That protectionist bill pending in N.Y., the security-fueled panic in Boston?, we're only going to see more of this, not less. Our belongings and tools are becoming increasingly digitally-enabled, and that means we're going to see more suspicious-looking devices with protruding wires and whatnot, more questionable use of personal technology, and even more people lost in a self-imposed digital haze.

Which means we're looking at the beginnings of a major collision between the need to detect and protect from suspicious, illegal or ill-advised use of mostly electronic and wireless devices, and the need to deploy technological advances that better people's lives (even if they don't pay attention while using them)and fuel commerce.

The government, obviously, is going to have to do a better job of distinguishing between the benign, the beastly and the brainless, a task that is easier said than done. The high-tech community is going to have start designing these products with one eye on homeland security issues and fears, and another on personal safety. Focusing just on the hip factor, mobility and user preferences isn't going to be enough. The public is going to have to do a much better job of appropriately using these products so as not to harm themselves or others, or invite unwanted government big footing and unintended bouts of hysteria.

There's a middle ground in here somewhere - but I'm not sure where it is. As silly as Kruger's legislation may appear, we all know how distracting our electronic toys and tools are. And as absurd as I found Boston's panic, I also don't doubt that the bad guys will be looking for ways to hijack the most seemingly innocent deployments of consumer technology for their own nefarious uses. So the question becomes - how do you guard against that without inconveniencing an entire nation, or holding back the deployment of new, beneficial technology?

Editor's Choice
Mary E. Shacklett, President of Transworld Data
James M. Connolly, Contributing Editor and Writer