Volume 16, Number 10 -- March 12, 2007

As I See It: The Digital Life

Published: March 12, 2007

by Victor Rozek

It's situated about 40 miles from Seoul, on 1,500 acres of man-made island off the Inchon coast. When completed in 2014, it is intended to become a living laboratory, a shining microcosm of technologically enhanced life in the new millennium. Think of it as Korea's version of Disney's Tomorrow Land; a place where imagination and IT intersect, backed by a huge investment of cash. It will be clean, modern, and efficient. A place where everything is tracked, every action recorded, every service personalized, and every transaction automated. But unlike Tomorrow Land, people won't just visit, they will actually live and work there. Welcome to the model surveillance society, welcome to Songdo, welcome to the future.

New Songdo City is the daughter of two cultures, with American and Korean companies collaborating to build the infrastructure and provide the technological muscle. The Koreans will invest $25 billion to raise the city, which will become a testing ground for new technologies. Given the size of the investment, this testing is driven by much more than curiosity. In the words of Mike An, the chief project manager of the Inchon Free Economic Zone Authority, the goal is to "prepare ourselves for the next market." And what do the entrepreneurial Koreans think the next market will be? The boundless world of radio-frequency identification, popularly known as RFID.

Songdo is projected to be an international commercial center and the first true U-city ("U" being the shorthand for ubiquitous computing). It will allow all IT systems, whether belonging to government agencies, corporations, healthcare providers, or private citizens, to share data. Every street, every house, every office will be wired (or rather wireless). It will, its developers hope, become a ubiquitous-computing paradise that demonstrates the benefits of living a digital lifestyle. An array of new RFID-based services will be introduced, tested, and refined before being unleashed on the rest of the world. Yes, everything is up to date in Songdo City, and they even have a name for the lifestyle of the rich and digitized: they call it "U-life."

Indeed, the potential range of services Songdo offers is impressive. From the mundane, like intelligent recycling bins that use RFID technology to credit recyclers when they drop in a bottle or a can; to the inspired, like smart-card house keys that can also be used for a wide range of services. A house key will allow residents to borrow a city-owned bicycle, access the subway, use the library, plug the parking meter, and who knows what else, maybe even order a pizza. Videoconferencing, whether between business enterprises or neighbors, will be available, as will video on demand. Wireless access to personal data from anywhere in the city is, of course, guaranteed. There is also talk of such features as pressure sensitive floors for the elderly that can detect a fall and summon help; and cell phones which hold your medical history and through which residents can order and pay for medication.

According to its Web site, "New Songdo City is a city designed around one thing: the people who will live and work here. People who will experience an unparalleled quality of life as technology, resources and innovation all come together to create the ideal environment."

And that may prove to be more than hype. Developers have cleverly incorporated the best elements from cities around the world. You can eat kimchi while floating on a Venetian canal, or kick a soccer ball in Songdo's 100-acre Central Park, or live in a garden district like those in Savannah. In fact, about 40 percent of the digital city will be green, natural space (or at least as natural as things can get on landfill).

To attract residents and entice companies to headquarter their Asian operations in Songdo, the planners have partnered with some heavyweights from healthcare and education. If you have children, they can attend schools run by faculty from the Harvard Graduate School of Education. Need medical care? No worries. The hospitals will be administered by Johns Hopkins. On your days off, play some golf, visit the museum, or check out the Ecotarium (just to find out what it is).

Of course, just like Tomorrow Land, none of the attractions are free, but at least individuals and business owners will not have to invest in digital or physical infrastructure. Instant city, just keep adding landfill and a seven-mile bridge that spans directly to the airport.

Not all is fermented soybean paste and roses, however. Songdo is flying in the face of history, which tells us that planned cities are usually a bust. Just ask the residents of Brasilia, a Brazilian experiment in commercial engineering gone sour. The problem city planners face is that the very technology that makes locations like Songdo attractive to prospective occupants also enables them to be nomadic. In first-world cities, technology is readily available. When corporations move to new locations, what attracts them is not so much the availability of wiz-bang technology, but some combination of tax breaks, subsidies, cheap labor, abundant resources, and lax environmental regulations.

Next there is the problem of what to do with the less affluent. Any sizeable city has an army of people who provide support and services. The ones who clean the rooms, cook the food, and collect the trash; the retail clerks, food servers, and cab drivers. It's unlikely they will be able to afford accommodations along side the captains of multinational industries. In a planned, high-tech city, where do you build the less desirable neighborhoods? According to Sean Campbell, who first wrote about the development in 2005, "No one really wants to answer that question."

Then there is the problem of privacy. One of the reasons the project was conceived in Asia is that there are fewer cultural prohibitions against the loss of privacy. But the extensive use of RFID technology guarantees that privacy will be the first casualty. The use of RFID is already pervasive. Throughout Europe, and now in Mexico and Canada, the Calypso international RFID standard is used for payment in public transport systems. RFID is used in passports, libraries, loyalty cards, inventory systems, and for animal identification. Human implants, although less common, are not unheard of. Night clubs in Rotterdam and Barcelona use implantable chips to identify VIP customers who can impress their dates by paying for drinks with the wave of a hand.

RFID is an especially effective method of product tracking and the little devices can be found in everything from clothing to appliances. How little is the actual device? The newest RFID tags are the size of half a grain of sand and thin enough to be embedded in a sheet of paper.

Marketeers love them, because they can provide infinite amounts of data on the habits and preferences of customers. The government loves them because they can be used to track the activities of a vast and unruly population. And corporations just want to make money. IBM can apparently read the writing on the spy cam. One of its patent applications is for the purpose of "Identification and Tracking of Persons Using RFID-Tagged Items."

Understandably, privacy advocates aren't applauding. The devices are often not visible and may remain active after customers bring an item home. Add that to an array of miniaturized cameras, and there will hardly be a moment when our movements and actions are not being recorded. For example, shelves in an Oklahoma Wal-Mart were equipped with readers to track the sales of lipsticks. The shelves were also equipped with Webcams, which sent images of shoppers some 750 miles to Cincinnati, where Procter & Gamble researchers could observe consumer reactions to their product line.

The residents of Songdo may find that the price of leading a digital lifestyle is privacy. There is a very thin line between pervasive computing and invasive computing, and an unexpected consequence of the Songdo experiment may be to help clarify that boundary.

As California Secretary of State Debra Bowen said: "How would you like it if, for instance, one day you realized your underwear was reporting on your whereabouts?"

That's another consequence of pervasive RFID use: over-sharing.

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Editor: Timothy Prickett Morgan
Contributing Editors: Dan Burger, Joe Hertvik, Shannon O'Donnell,
Mary Lou Roberts, Victor Rozek, Kevin Vandever, Hesh Wiener, Alex Woodie
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