Wissenschaft (Or you can’t take the terror out of the girl…)

Not a belt you'd want to be seen wearing in London.Last week I was visiting a laboratory in a medium-to-large town in the north of Germany, where I was given a belt to wear as part of an experiment. I don’t want to go into details of what the belt was for as it’s for a forthcoming magazine feature: I’ll say more in a later post once the article has been published. For now, let’s just say it was a kind of wearable computer, and the experiment involved walking around town wearing the thing. Which I did.

As someone who lives in London and is therefore embedded in the ‘culture of fear’, wearing the belt was almost traumatic. To me, the belt looked way too much like the kind of body-bomb favored by psychopaths, terrorists, and bank robbers in the movies. If I had been in London, I would not have worn it for anything. Even in this town of less than 200,000, I felt like I should probably register with the authorities so that I wouldn’t get arrested or cause panic in the population. (Don’t forget my swarthy complexion and inability to speak German…) However, in the end I thought it would look even more suspect going into a police station wired up the way I was, so I decided against it.

However, in Northwest Germany, no-one gave me more than a second glance.That said, I was nervous enough about walking around that I made one of the researchers working with the belt teach me a German word to say just in case I was challenged by a hostile non-English speaker: wissenschaft (science). I practised this word in my head as I walked around, so that it would trip easily off the tongue when I had to use it in earnest.

Unusually for that area, I’m told, it was a lovely day. I wandered around the town for a couple of hours seeing the sights and getting input from the belt. As I like walking and the town was attractive, the only thing that was not enjoyable was my constant nervousness about how I must appear.

So how many stopped me in the end, not counting the people who hurried across the street and shielded their children when they saw me coming? In this town, less than 150 miles from the base of the notorious Hamburg Cell, exactly zero. And, now that you mention it, that actually includes the people who hurried across the street. None. Although I did get some glances, I can’t even remember anyone eyeing me suspiciously. The only one who looked worried was me.

It was somewhat reassuring to know that there are still places where one can geek up to the nines without being thought dangerous. What a contrast from the security checks at Heathrow, where I was warned not to carry a bottle of water or, horror of horrors, a lipstick. I do take security seriously. Having lived in London through the 80s, I probably take it more seriously than most. But I realize now that there is a fine line between diligence and paranoia: one that I, and perhaps many others in the UK and US, have crossed.

Photo, top: Not a belt you’d want to be seen wearing in London.

Photo, bottom: However, in Northwest Germany, no-one gave me more than a second glance.

Originally posted on Brains and Machines.