Posted by: Waern | March 18, 2009

Legally Seamful

Last week, Mobile Life had a visit from Paul Dourish from University of California at Irvine.  Paul held a seminar on his ethnographic study of sex offenders that have to wear an electronic ankle bracelet as a condition for their parole (he had a paper on this at last year’s CHI conference). The ancle bracelet tracks their position at all times and signals if they come close to a prohibited place (e.g. a school or a playground).

fotbojaThe core of Dourish’ contribution is that he reframes the privacy issues associated to positioning technology from the perspective of a group that is (legally in the U.S.) deprived of their privacy. But what I found fascinating was how these users had to adapt their whole lives around the rather brittle technology they were wearing. Since the users are prohibited from coming close to a school or a playground, they have to figure out where these institutions lie and how large area around them that is off-limit. But figuring out the invisible landscape of the GPS trace is only part of it – they are also legally responsible for the technology itself. If the strap breaks, it’s a parole violation. If the battery runs out, it’s a parole violation.  If the fragile case breaks, your’e in for it too. In the end, the box on their leg end up shaping their whole lives. They have to figure out new ways of sleeping so as to not crush the case or allow the battery to be charged during night. They might have to move because there is no way to get from home to work without passing a school. They might have to quit work because they cannot be away more than six hours from an electricity outlet, etcetera.

It might be a bit cynical of me to describe this as a a seamful game, since it is no game but a dead serious legal system. But the seams that these offenders on parole need to deal with are very much the same as those that the Treasure and Momentum players need to figure out. And just as in Momentum, this is not an experience that is mediated through technology, but that takes place in the real world and permeates their entire lives. It places a new layer of meaning on the physical world and ordinary life and forces you to rethink every aspect of it.

Except it is not in the least fun. Recent regulations in California apparently stipulates that all sex offenders wear these, including those convicted for urinating in public or sleeping with their underage girlfriend at fifteen. For life.


  1. I tried to write a comment, but there’s nothing to be said.

    Is there a paper somewhere?

    – M

  2. Paul had a paper on this at last year’s CHI conference, check the link above. He has continued working on the project since then, so I guess there will be another paper coming out soon.

  3. very brainfreezing blog entry there, Annika. I remember what you once said in a speech: “Technology fucks up, that’s its nature”. Not to think what consequences that might have for these people with electronic bracelets.
    Things are pretty much delegated to technology here in California. You get called up by automated phone services everyday that try to sell you stuff, make your life “better and safer”. I don’t know what to make of that “trend” yet…

  4. Ah, missed it — I hopped into Google right away.

    Anyway, I think this is a really important paper, and a really horrible story. And one that surely keeps you outside the society.

    – M

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: