Monday 5 July 2010

Pointing out the GRINDRingly obvious

Matron was happy to see that despite the England defeat, Germany’s victory against Argentina prompted much of British media to heap praise on “die Mannschaft” for the quality of their game, their organisation and their efficiency. This idea of quality, organisation and efficiency is one that Matron often encounters when talking about German virtues to her British neighbours (“German cars are the best”), handimen (“I would always only recommend a German [boiler][washing machine][shower]”) and colleagues (“I timed every stop and the train was always on time”). Surely, were we to think of an animal that best represent the national stereotype, it would have to be an ant colony.

Of course, that sort of organisation and efficiency has its downsides when put to the wrong use. Many of the atrocities against the Jews and other minorities were substantially facilitated by the well organised nature of the German authorities’ citizens archives. The totalitarian regime in the former GDR was made possible throught the giant surveillance machinery with which the Stasi controlled ever aspect of the citizens’ life. Many of the documents from the Stasi archives were shredded by the Stasi just before the Wall came down and the remains of those shredded files have been collected in thousands of black bin bags. For the last few years, the documents have been reassembled in a warehouse in Nuremberg in a painfully slow manual process that is expected to take a few more centuries unless current plans to develop a system for virtual reconstruction are successful. Such is the sheer scale of the information held by the regime.

Matron has always wondered what would have happened if both the Nazis and the Stasi had had access to modern day information and communication systems. Centralised or fully networked systems that would have allowed instant access to information to almost ever member of the regime. What would it have meant for German citizens, and what for those who dissented?

Matron – in one of the weird cross-species jumps that her mind sometimes performs - was reminded of this when she read an article in yesterday’s Observer about the rise among gay men in the use of Grindr. Grindr, for those who , like her, are hopelessly out of the popular culture loop, is a “free downloadable iPhone app” which uses GPS technology to permit its members to locate “gay, bi, curious guys for free near you!". It invites you to download its app onto your iPhone and to “upload your pic and build a profile”. After that, each time you switch on the app, up pop the pictures and profiles of any other Grindr user in your immediate vicinity. The app then lets to you chat to them or approach them in person.

Matron strongly suspects that the social encounters resulting from this groundbreaking technology will not take place over a cup of coffee (at least not in the first instance). But before coming over all Daily Mail-ish, let her assure you that it is not the corruption of sexual mores or the leading astray of impressionable young children that she is concerned with.

No, Matron’s initial as-per-usual Luddite reaction was “Are these people insane?” The privacy implications of “proximity dating” technologies like this are mind-boggling in any case. Combine that with the fact that these guys are effectively broadcasting their sexuality to the nation and this should be enough to bring anyone with a slightly above average level of paranoia out in hives.

So, before everyone lines up in an orderly queue to follow Stephen Fry over a cliff (God knows, Matron loves the guy, but his gadget obsession and his love for all things Apple make her despair sometimes), here’s a few questions, Matron would like Grindr users to ask themselves:
  1. How much do you actually know about the guys you’re about to meet? It’s a free app that requires little in terms of identity verification, least of all verification of the fact that they are actually “gay, bi, curious”. It can be used by anyone. That hot guy coming on to you? His mates could be waiting around the corner and their sole aim of using Grindr may be to kick your head in. According to the BBC, homophobic crime in London has risen by nearly a fifth in 2008/09 with gangs attacking people outside gay bars in east London on a number of occasions. In the US, which in these things - as with most new technologies - is a step ahead of us, LGBT groups have already voiced concern about an increase in “pick-up violence” targeting gay men “who use websites, chatlines and phone applications to meet other men for dates”. Of course one could argue that you take a similar risk by using other gay dating services. But at least those services do not require you to emit a rainbow coloured beeping signal to every passing thug looking for a bit of fun on a Saturday night.
  2. How long is it going to take until technology like this is used by younger people, particularly those still in school? And how much longer, again, until it becomes a tool for homophobic bullying? Cyber bullying is on the rise in the UK. A recent survey showed that 20% of Year 6 students had experienced some form of online harassment from other students. At the same time, according to Stonewall, “almost two thirds (65 per cent (75% in Faith schools)) of young lesbian, gay and bisexual people experience homophobic bullying in Britain’s schools”. Put the two together and you have a potentially explosive combination.
  3. What is Grindr going to do with your data? And who might be interested in that data in the future? Remember, you are effectively adding yourself to a giant list of gay people that is held in a database owned by someone over whom you have no control. Grindr, Matron repeats, is a free service. How does it make money? It will most likely be able to track with whom you have been chatting, thus building up a picture of your social network that it may be able to exploit commercially. It may decide to sell that information (have you read the Terms & Conditions?). Its database might be hacked. The police, security services or other public authorities may decide that they should have access to it (there are already developments under foot to force social media providers to retain, and provide public authorities with access to, certain traffic data generated by their members). It’s the sort of information, for which homophobe totalitarian governments would literally kill. Imagine how convenient this would be for a government in a place like Uganda?
Of course one could argue that the existence of an app like this is also a sign that we may finally have reached a point where gay people feel able to live openly in a society that has become more acceptable of homosexuality. It is true, homosexual acts are no longer criminalised, we have anti-discrimination laws and the straight community has at long last agreed to share their constitutional right to state-sanctioned misery with us by granting us the right to enter into civil unions (and to dissolve them pronto, as we see fit). Some of us may feel a slight feeling of unease at the thought of the ConDem Alliance, but very few seriously believe that the new coalition will try to turn back the tide on gay equality. But it ain’t all cavorting bluebirds and melting lemon drops yet, folks. We are still a long way from Emerald City. Religious fundamentalism is on the rise in Britain. Certain employers can still sack you or refuse to employ you because of your sexuality. The social stigma prevails in many communities. In the US, gay men are still not allowed to give blood. And the number of people who are too afraid to be out to their families remains far too high.

And we none of us have a chrystal ball to show us what the future brings either. Things have gotten better for so long now, that we have forgotten that there may come a time where they get worse again. It seems unlikely now but shouldn't we at least be prepared for the possibility? So this is a reminder to all gay men out there to not let yourself be ruled by your appendage to a point where it clouds your sense of caution and self-preservation. It’s a brave new world out there. Be safe, don’t be stupid!

1 comment:

  1. Pirkka Lahtinen6 July 2010 at 13:02

    I think my only issue with your analysis is the idea of living in "a" society which is more accepting of homosexuality. What I think GRINDR obscures - potentially dangerously - is that in human terms, the world is a patchwork of different (and often conflicting) social values. GRINDR and other networked applications blur the distinction between social boundaries and global communication.

    That blurring can be a very positive thing - it can bring together people who share interests and aspirations despite being geographically remote; but, as you lucidly illustrate, it can also generate new kinds of risk.