Issue 5 Evil Winter 2001/02

The Clean Room / Wrestling with the "Digital Angel"

David Serlin

“The Clean Room” is a column by David Serlin on science and technology.

One topic that you'll never see examined in great detail on Entertainment Tonight or Access Hollywood is how celebrities are constitutionally deficient, especially when it comes to enduring drug abuse and physical pain. The problem—what ET would call something like "the horror that hits home for Hollywood"—is not that celebrities need to be hospitalized after taking too many drugs or becoming physically exhausted. The problem is that we've lost the infrastructure that used to enable celebrities to do drugs and physically exhaust themselves with reckless abandon while still remaining vital and creative. How much officially sanctioned culture would disappear if we were to eliminate from our canonical "Top 100" lists the names of those who were inebriated, drug-addled, or syphilitic for at least some or all of their careers? I remember admiring David Bowie for saying that he had completely forgotten what the year 1976 was like. In the wake of his transatlantic cocaine hangover and jet-set bacchanalia— a glamorous romp between Philadelphia drug dens and Los Angeles hot tubs—Bowie relocated to Berlin and recovered quietly. In four short years, between 1977 and 1980, he put out four LPs and starred on Broadway in The Elephant Man. This is a far cry from someone like Mariah Carey, whose recovery from exhaustion in the summer of 2001 put her in a celebrity hostel for the criminally wealthy masquerading as a medical services institution. Such narcissistic acts of self-healing and self-love are venerated by our culture as inspirational acts of public heroism. Yet poor Mariah will never know what might have been had she broken through to the other side and, in a heroin-induced haze, gotten up off the floor and written the best song about dating ever.

Now that our private proclivities and desires are under scrutiny by the culture of rehabilitation, as dictated by the increased medicalization of daily life and the rise of soccer-Mom moral authority, the dream of disappearing off the map is almost impossible to realize. At no other time in our history do we seem less likely to produce art nourished in solitude. Thoreau would have had a difficult time taking his walks in the woods around Walden Pond. If he himself were not a mobile phone subscriber—which he certainly would not have been—he still would have had to contend with a constant din of artificial noises coming from beeping vehicles and chirping objects. In those far-gone days of the late 1970s, before mobile phones, pagers, FedEx, and fax machines could track one down to the four corners of the globe, Bowie simply disappeared. He moved to Kreuzberg, an old Turkish enclave in West Berlin, renounced his celebrity—albeit temporarily—and recovered his soul. He emerged stronger, wiser, clean and sober, though almost pathologically apocalyptic, especially as evidenced on Bowie's 1980 recording Scary Monsters (And Super Creeps). Today, two decades later, young celebrities must stay in touch at all times, as billion-dollar promotional campaigns for new-media products ride ever so precariously on sustained, long-term investment from a celebrity's international cultural capital.

People who are doomed to appear in the spotlight will probably not be among the first to endorse The Digital Angel, a brand-new product manufactured by Applied Digital Solutions, a Florida-based computer company. The Digital Angel (www.digitalangel.com) is a wearable—and, the company predicts, implantable—device with tiny built-in sensors that uses Global Positioning System (GPS) software, now a standard feature in many mobile phones and luxury cars, to pinpoint the physical location of any building, person, or object connected to the device. In addition, the Digital Angel also serves as a highly sensitive medical biosensor that reports one's vital statistics, including pulse, temperature, and oxygen level, to a centralized database. Applied Digital Solutions promises that, with future generations of their technology, the small wearable or implantable monitors will measure and report a user's heart and brain activity, blood chemistry and pressure, glucose levels, ambient temperature, and sound vibrations in the body. Such technology has been in use for several years by practitioners of telemedicine, a professional subdiscipline that began in the mid-1960s as the marriage of long-distance communications technology and the health needs of rural populations. In 1975, for example, medical monitors developed by NASA for astronauts floating miles above the earth were used to communicate with members of Native American tribes living miles from modern hospitals in rural parts of Montana.

Although one may be tempted to regard the use of such technology as a colonial intervention, the NASA project was fairly benign, enabling tribe members to use an early form of e-mail to type their questions to a hospital administrator who would then forward them to the appropriate physician. Recent telemedicine projects have used the latest medical sensors, GPS software, and wireless computer technology to deliver medical information to hard-to-reach patients in Antarctica, Bosnia, Nepal, and Sierra Leone. Unlike most telemedicine applications directed at people in dire need, however, Applied Digital Solutions is marketing the Digital Angel as an indispensable technology of family surveillance. Their product, whose name taps into both Christian eschatology and New Age sentimentality, is intended to weigh upon the consciences of American families in the new millennium who are caught in the grip of post-Columbine psychic havoc. The website's introductory graphics depict an animated Angel as a superhero who swoops down to rescue the family dog, a lost female driver, and a grandfather who has wandered away from his retirement cell. With the Digital Angel, parental and institutional supervision could shift to a level that would have made even Foucault delirious. Teenagers can forget about going on drinking binges, visiting the mall after school, or hanging out with ne'er-do-wells dressed in black trenchcoats. One can only imagine the use of the Digital Angel's tracking technology by anxious or jealous lovers, especially those who may find themselves monitoring their partner's heartbeat and endorphin rates from the other side of the world. Alternate uses of the device include tracking transitory elements of the social hierarchy: As the company declares in its promotional material, "Digital Angel systems address a diversity of critical needs—ranging from medical monitoring to a number of commercial applications [and] locating lost or stolen equipment."

Despite paying the necessary fealty to our pro-natalist culture, the Digital Angel has met with opposition from many fundamentalist Christian organizations who fear that the Digital Angel is a technology of the Devil. The American Family Association, a prominent family-values organization, has decried the device (especially the implantable version of the sensor) as material evidence of the "mark of the beast" as predicted in the Book of Revelations 13:16-18: "And he causeth all, both great and small, rich and poor, free and bond, to receive a mark in their right hand, or in their foreheads." Conspiracy theories about invasive technologies that "mark" their users as operatives of Satan recur among the more hysterical strains of the religious Right, demonstrating that suspicions of the symbolic power of technology are greater than the Digital Angel's family-friendly appeals to safety and security. About ten years ago, a proselytizing Christian on a subway platform handed me a photocopied pamphlet that admonished its reader to beware of receiving the mark of the beast in the form of "a microchip in your hand or forearm." Beneath its religious entreaties were McLuhanesque photographs of the enlarged fingerprints on human thumbs and pre-X Files drawings of bald aliens stamped passively with bar codes on their foreheads. The pamphlet also featured blueprints for a short, stubby mechanical gun capable of delivering sterile injections of a "Transponder Configuration," a microprocessor and antenna embedded in a glass capsule the size of a grain of rice.

Yet such resistance to modern technology does not develop in isolation. Religious opposition to the Digital Angel may appear new, but it is clearly part of a long and anxious history that combines doomsday millennialism with Huxley's Brave New World. In fact, it is hardly that different from similar critiques of technology by many libertarian, green, and anarchist groups who regard technologies like the Digital Angel as material evidence of the New World Order—with all of its millennial implications firmly in place—run amok. Since the 1960s, when data storage and retrieval systems were first realized by the private sector, anti-technology gurus like Jeremy Rifkin have warned of the soul-sapping corporate impulse to collect and store vast amounts of private information. In recent years, anti-globalization movements have argued that such technologies represent the consolidation of multinational corporate power and the erosion of citizens' rights worldwide. Like their religious counterparts, libertarian groups see products like the Digital Angel as technologies that exploit our emotional and psychic need to know who we are, and fear that they represent the increasing automation of human life and government, and corporate interventions into personal privacy. A good conspiracy theorist might claim that those Western computer users who have replaced the ubiquitous "Intel Inside" label affixed to their PCs with stickers that read "Satan Inside" are acting on instructions beyond their own control. The religious pamphlet about the Transponder Configuration made many of these same anti-corporate connections a decade ago. The subcutaneous biochip, it claimed, "will be the agency by which all financial transactions are registered. Without it, no transactions of any kind will be permitted; there will be no income, no food, no shelter. Once in place universally, Satan's system of total electronic enslavement will have been imposed upon all the citizens of the New World Order."

For those whose activities are constantly monitored by forces greater than themselves, the information about your body reported by the Digital Angel could become either your scarlet letter or your badge of courage—or, perhaps, both at the same time. The Mariah Careys of the world need not worry that their every private action and metabolic reaction will be monitored by a global entertainment industry eager to know where they are, or if their tummy hurts. Instead of running away from the Digital Angel, they should find new and creative ways to exploit the attention. Quentin Crisp foresaw this problem in the mid-1970s, and made the proper recommendation: "Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor once complained that newsmen in Italy seemed likely at any moment to photograph one or both of them in the bathroom. The way to deal with this problem (if it is one) is not to build a higher wall around the house, but to learn how to urinate with style."

David Serlin is an assistant professor of history and American studies at Albright College and a contributing editor and columnist for Cabinet. He lives in Reading, Pennsylvania, and Brooklyn, New York.

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