Book leaves message after the beep

2019-12-03 06:00
Author Murray Hunter.

Author Murray Hunter.

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The look of dismay on a two-year-old’s face when he or she swipes a TV screen and nothing happens usually makes parents smile. And while the speed at which small children pick up technology is cute and amazing, it can also be a bit worrying.

The explosion of apps aimed at kids, like TikTok, raises all kinds of privacy questions. Take for instance the use of built-in facial recognition which helps users track each other. And then there is the R25 billion fine that YouTube had to pay two months ago for illegally collecting children’s data for adverts.

Author and human rights campaigner Murray Hunter recently published a children’s book, Boris the BabyBot, on digital privacy. The book, which follows the misadventures of a baby-tracking robot, tackles this topic in a way that is both playful and engaging.

Hunter says, as much as BabyBot aims for fun and play, it has become important for children to be savvy about how technology collects and uses their private data as well.

Having worked on digital rights issues for The Right2Know Campaign for years, Hunter has spent lots of time talking with adults about surveillance technology and digital privacy.

“Really, these are conversations about the world we’re creating for the next generation. So I started wondering how we could re-centre the conversation around children who will inherit this world.”

He says the idea for the book began to take shape earlier this year when he was passing through an airport.

“I was looking at all the cameras and scanners when the idea popped into my head: what would happen if we did a story that sparks children’s curiosity about the hidden world behind all this technology?”

Some time after that, friends came to stay with him in Observatory for a few days with their 18-month-old, Eilidh.

“She became the inspiration for the baby in the book – the one that’s ‘too messy, too sticky, and who is having too much fun to be tracked’.”

Although the 33-year-old has published several serious reports and booklets on surveillance issues, including an investigation on the State and espionage on journalists, this is the first time he tried his hand at writing, and illustrating, a book.

He wrote the book in a few stretches at Claremont library in late June and early July, as well as in the evenings and over weekends.

“I wanted a space that had good light and a nice sense of community and as it happened my local library in Obs was temporarily closed at that time for upgrades, so I settled in at the Claremont library,” he explains.

His “quality controller” was a young fellow named Max. The three-year-old went through all the drafts of Boris the BabyBot.

“He gave the first sign that children would find a special connection with this story, when I learned that he’d asked his parents to read the story a dozen times in the first few days,” he says.

The book’s designer, Wilna Combrinck, also asked her two children to give real-time feedback. Hunter says the things the children seemed to enjoy most about the book was the sounds made by the robot – “beep, beep, boop!” – which they often repeated around the home.

That and the appearance of puppies.

The book, which is now in print, was published through a crowdfunding campaign that reached 100% of its target in less than a week, with the majority of the funds coming from overseas.

About 10% of the print run (2 500 copies) is being donated to the Nal’ibali Campaign for children’s reading clubs. Of the remaining books, about 300 have already been sold through pre-orders, international and domestic, and the rest should be available from local retailers (distributed by Sula Books). It should also be available to order on request at larger retailers. The books sell for R150 each.

Alternatively, you can also borrow the book from the Claremont or Observatory libraries. Hunter has donated copies to these libraries.

While the book is there to raise awareness and to be enjoyed, Hunter has compiled activities and resources to help unpack the issues at https://boristhebabybot.org/resources/.

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