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The tricky issue is trust: You don’t want to link up with the wrong kind of crowd or surrender your privacy to the nearest vendor without a fight–or at least an auction. The Proem architecture allows peers to form groups of mutually trusting devices, according to a specification published by the Oregon team in 2000 for “Disseminating Trust Information in Wearable Communities.” Each time agents exchange information about a transaction, they can also exchange data about past transactions, like a decentralized version of the reputation system on eBay.

As he gears up for his one-year residency at Lancaster University, Kortuem’s most pressing challenge is lack of hardware capable of running the kinds of programs he has in mind. “We’re in dire need of a next-generation wireless device specifically designed for ad-hoc wireless connectivity,” he says. In addition to iPAQs, Kortuem’s arsenal includes Cybiko wireless PDAs (“not powerful enough for our applications”), a Via belt-worn computer, and a jerry-built machine whose parts are distributed among the pockets of a fishing vest.

Kortuem hopes to devise better hardware at Lancaster, but his priority is expanding his trials to encompass larger groups. “At the University of Oregon, we proved that the technology works on a small scale,” he says. “At Lancaster, I’m getting a larger community up and running and concentrating more on how the community works from a social point of view.”

The Oregon and Lancaster experiments are a first step, but Kortuem sees significant large-scale applications as the technology matures. He imagines “helper communities” whose members pledge to assist one another, along with “bargain-hunter communities, marketplace communities, job-market communities, knowledge communities, and political communities.”

For the time being, small colonies of radio-linked cyborgs will be confined to campuses and commercial laboratories. Within the next decade, though, networked social encounters may well escape the desktop, perhaps riding on clothing–our most mobile and intimate technology. What then? Could a Napster-like contagion break out among riders on a subway car? Could an ad hoc recommendation system connect you to strangers who share your commercial, intellectual, or sexual predilections?

Before the Net, community was mediated by physical proximity. Online communication reinvented the concept as a social sphere you could log into from your desktop computer. If Kortuem is right, one day the most important factor in social success won’t be who you know, but who your wearable knows.

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