The ‘Sociometer’ – Social Physics for the 21st Century or a Return to 1984?

Sociometers being distributed at the factory.

Our piece on the wearable technology known as the ‘Sociometer’ aired on 3sat nano on September 21, 2015, and can be seen here.

Alex “Sandy” Pentland of the MIT Media Lab is one of the world’s foremost informatics scholars/gurus.”  His latest creation, the ‘Sociometer,’ is a device about the size of a card deck worn around the neck like an ID badge, equipped with sensors that capture your voice and measure your movements. The device does not record what you are saying, though.

Using data collected over dozens of human studies, both in labs and the field, Pentland has now amassed over 100 metrics that often tell you more about a person than their actual words. In voice and posture, you can read the signs of depression and happiness, engagement and boredom. At the workplace, in the frequency and nature of an interaction, you can decode signals of job satisfaction and productivity. You can tell when a group is likely to innovate and when it’s apt to become mired in inertia.  You can tell which poker player has a good hand and who is bluffing. You can surmise which party is winning a negotiation. All from intonation, speech frequency and posture. Some corporations have started utilizing the sociometer in the workplace setting to measure the performance of employees and groups.

Pentland recognizes the inherent privacy dangers, and requires that his technology only be used upon strict conditions, including an employee’s right to opt out of being recorded (in which case s/he is given a dummy device), as well as the requirement that superiors not be shown any specific employee’s data. Will these safeguards prevail, or one day will people be unwillingly required to wear ‘Big Brother’ around their neck?