Today a company or agency with a $10 million hardware budget can buy processing power equivalent to 2,000 workstations, two petabytes of hard drive space (two million gigabytes, or 50,000 standard 40-gigabyte hard drives like those found on today’s PCs), and a two- gigabit Internet connection (more than 2,000 times the capacity of a typical home broadband connection). If current trends continue, simple arithmetic predicts that in 20 years the same purchasing power will buy the processing capability of 10 million of today’s workstations, 200 exabytes (200 million gigabytes) of storage capacity, and 200 exabits (200 million megabits) of bandwidth. Another way of saying this is that by 2023 large organizations will be able to devote the equivalent of a contemporary PC to monitoring every single one of the 330 million people who will then be living in the United States.
One of the first applications for this combination of surveillance and compu- tational power,says Raghu Ramakrishnan, a database researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, will be continuous intensive monitoring of buildings,offices, and stores: the spaces where middle-class people spend most of their lives. Surveillance in the workplace is common now: in 2001, according to the American Management Association survey, 77.7 percent of major U.S. corporations electronically monitored their employees, and that statistic had more than doubled since 1997. But much more is on the way. Companies like Johnson Controls and Siemens, Ramakrishnan says, are already “doing simplistic kinds of ‘asset tracking,’as they call it.” They use radio frequency identification tags to monitor the locations of people as well as inventory. In January, Gillette began attaching such tags to 500 million of its Mach 3 Turbo razors. Special “smart shelves” at Wal-Mart stores will record the removal of razors by shop- pers, thereby alerting stock clerks whenever shelves need to be refilled—and effectively transforming Gillette customers into walking radio beacons. In the future, such tags will be used by hospitals to ensure that patients and staff maintain quarantines,by law offices to keep visitors from straying into rooms containing clients’ confidential papers,and in kindergartens to track toddlers.
By employing multiple, overlapping types of monitoring, Ramakrishnan says, managers will be able to “keep track of people, objects, and environmental levels throughout a whole complex.” Initially, these networks will be installed for “such mundane things as trying to figure out when to replace the carpets or which areas of lawn get the most traffic so you need to spread some grass seed preven- tively.”But as computers and monitoring equipment become cheaper and more powerful, managers will use surveillance data to construct complex, multidimensional records of how spaces are used. The models will be analyzed to improve efficiency and security—and they will be sold to other businesses or governments. Over time, the thousands of individual monitoring schemes inevitably will merge together and feed their data into large commercial and state-owned networks. When surveillance databases can describe or depict what every individual is doing at a particular time, Ramakrishnan says, they will be providing humankind with the digital equivalent of an ancient dream: being “present, in effect, almost anywhere and anytime.”