Big Brother watch?

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week, a company unveiled a digital watch fitted with a GPS tracker device. Very James Bond. But the device was not designed for English spies with a penchant for Maseratis and martinis. No, the GPS watch its official name isNum8– is aimed at parents who want to keep track of their children.

The company that makes the watch insists that it is not just another nail in the coffin of children’s right to roam. “Only 20% of children are now allowed to go out and play, says the chief executive of Lok8u (get it?). It’s my profound hope that Num8 will help parents feel more comfortable about letting their children go out to play.”

But will it?

I’m not so sure. Maybe it will encourage some parents to let their children play more freely outside – though you might ask what kind of freedom involves constantly updating mum and dad with your exact location to within three metres. But I suspect the watch will just crank up the anxiety for others. For a start, it reinforces the feeling that the world is a horribly dangerous place full of kidnappers, paedophiles and child slavery rings when it is not.

Technology designed to bring peace of mind also has a tendency to do the very opposite. Just look at what happened with the mobile phone, aka the longest umbilical cord in history. Because we can reach our children anytime, anywhere, we do. And if the phone is switched off, or out of range, for a moment, we panic – our child must be in danger, something must be wrong. Then there is the peer pressure: if everyone else is in 24/7 phone contact with their kids, then I must be a bad parent for failing to do the same.

But can we really guarantee round-the-clock electronic monitoring of our children? The makers of Num8 think so. The watch uses satellite and mobile phone networks to track kids indoors and outdoors. It also sends alerts if the Num8 is removed without permission. But what if a child wanders into a black zone where coverage is blocked or weak? Or the network crashes? What happens then to the peace of mind promised in the Num8 advertising?

And even if we could guarantee constant GPS monitoring of our children, is that really a good thing? I don’t think so. Thanks to the modern obsession with eliminating all doubt and danger from our kids’ lives, something important is getting lost the time and space for children to explore the world on their own terms, to take risks, to be completely alone sometimes, to break away gradually from the mother ship. There is nothing quite like the rush of pride a child feels when taking his first steps out into the world on his own walking alone to a friend’s house, or cycling to school by himself. Yet that accomplishment is diminished when you know your parents are anxiously tracking your every move on the home computer. The Num8 also makes it harder to let children go in stages because it is an all-or-nothing device: you either know exactly where your kid is at all times, or you don’t. This presents parents with an agonizing decision: at what age do you allow your child to leave home alone without the Num8? At 10? 15? Or maybe 25?

The bottom line is that the world is nowhere near as dangerous as we think, or as the overheated media portrays it. Children do not need to be electronically tagged like criminals. We could all be a lot less anxious if we ditched the electronic leashes and let kids roam freely as they have throughout history.

A final thought: My guess is that the Num8 will lead to an epidemic of false alarms. It is just such a tempting target for pranksters and bullies just yank it off a child’s wrist in the playground and wait for his hysterical parents (followed by a SWAT team) to come charging to the rescue….

Snail mail in action

An amusing item on the BBC news today. Postal workers in Britain have complained of being forced to walk too fast -four miles an hour or 6.44 km/h – and that some have been fired for being too slow. The Royal Mail denies imposing a minimum walking speed but staff insist that the company’s new computer system forces them to rush through their rounds. One postman claimed his schedule did not take into account long driveways, bad weather or hostile dogs.I’ve blogged before about howwalking speedis a cultural barometer but this case underlines the folly of assuming that faster is always better.

What happens when postal workers are in a rush? Well, like everyone else, they make mistakes. Several times a week, we get mail delivered to our house in London that is addressed to the neighbours, or even to people several streets away. And lots of stuff sent to us never arrives. According to one estimate, the Royal Mail loses over a million letters and packages every month.

Something else gets lost when postal workers work race the clock – the banter on the doorstep, the friendly hello in the street, the watching out for the elderly neighbour, thehuman touch. The postman used to be part of the social glue of the community; now he’s just another service-provider hurrying to meet his targets. The idea of that the postman always rings twice now seems like a quaint memory from yesteryear. When our postman delivers a package, he rings only once, and even then you have to sprint to answer. Dilly dally for a few seconds and he’s already gone. Probably to deliver some of our mail to the neighbours…

Speed walking

Research in 32 cities around the world has revealed that, on average, pedestrians are now walking 10% faster than they did 12 years ago. The acceleration has been most acute in the booming economies of Asia. The Chinese have upped their walking speed by nearly 30%. The weird thing is that some cities with a reputation for being laidback now rank among the fastest. Dublin came fifth and Copenhagen second. As it happens, I was in the Danish capital yesterday and didn’t notice a brisker pace, but maybe it was just a slow day. Here is the conclusion of the head researcher: “People’s walking pace is determined by how much they think they’re in a hurry, how quickly they think they should be doing things…I believe a lot of it is technology-driven. These days, you press send on an email and if someone hasn’t responded in ten minutes, you think: ‘Where are they?'”

Cutting corners?

I’ve just heard from a psychiatrist in Poland. He has a plan to set up a network of small urban refuges where people can escape the hurly burly of city life and reconnect with their inner tortoise. There will be a quiet space to relax, recharge and reflect. There will also be consultants on hand to measure stress levels and give advice on how to live more slowly. These venues will be called Slow Corners. Someone in Norway is working on a similar idea. Certainly I can see a role for little oases of slowness in big cities. I was in London’s Oxford Circus filming a segment for the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) a couple of days ago. The idea was for me to stand still while the crowds swarmed around me. The place was an ant-hill – pedestrians racing hither and thither, barging past each other, cars and buses lunging through red lights. The closest thing I could find to an ubran refuge was Starbucks, and it wasn’t a refuge at all. It was jammed with customers jostling to get their caffeine fix. Two men almost came to blows over who was first in the queue. And all of this to a pounding soundtrack by the Arctic Monkeys. I was almost relieved to get back out into the mania of Oxford Circus.