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“There is a clear philosophical position, even a worldview, behind [the internet of things]: that the world is in principle perfectly knowable, its contents enumerable and their relations capable of being meaningfully encoded in a technical system, without bias or distortion,’ highlights Adam Greenfield in his book entitled ‘Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life’.
In this statement Greenfield makes several valid and important points on the principles that govern our smart, connected world. Firstly, that we can gather all the information we need to understand a given environment. Secondly, that in the process of quantifying that environment we maintain an accurate interpretation of the complex and dynamic ‘real world’. And thirdly, that developers have the ability and desire to create these technical systems with true neutrality.
All three of these points cast doubt on the internet of things’ (IoT) ability to accurately deliver what it promises. They also raise big questions about why the IoT is expanding so quickly despite these issues, and ultimately asks, who is the IoT actually for?
Virtual home assistants are always listening and watching, waiting for a ‘wake-word’ or gesture but they hear and see everything else. Through the complexity of their terms and conditions a wealth of information can be gathered unbeknown to the user. That data can then be used for refining targeted advertising or a variety of other lucrative commercial purposes. In contrast the benefits to the user, be it switching on lights or finding a good restaurant, pale into insignificance.
Tell Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant, that you’re in the mood for Chinese food and she will provide suggestions of restaurants in your area by accessing a third party app such as OpenTable. That appearance of helpfulness and neutrality is soured a little when you realize that restaurants wanting to use OpenTable are, “required to use the company’s proprietary floor-management system, which means leasing hardware and using OpenTable-specific software,” according to the website Serious Eats. Furthermore, OpenTable takes a cut of the proceeds from its reservations and retains ownership over all data generated from the system.
“Put aside for one moment the question of disproportionate benefit – the idea that you as the user derive a little convenience from your embrace of a virtual assistant, while its provider gets everything – all the data about your life and all its value. Let’s simply consider what gets lost in the ideology of convenience that underlies this conception of the internet of things. Are the constraints presented to us by life in the non-connected world really so onerous? Is it really so difficult to wait until you get home before you preheat the oven? And is it worth giving away so much, just to be able to do so remotely?” asks Greenfield.
“You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it” said the then CEO of Sun Microsystems, Scott McNealy, in 1999. Indeed, many of us choose to ignore the fact that our smartphones are constantly gathering information about our location and actions, most of us press ‘accept’ on terms and conditions without even a glance what we are agreeing to.
We are giving up our privacy and imparting huge value to corporations for the ability to turn on the coffee machine from our desks or to automatically switch the lights off when we leave the room.
Then consider wearables, and the inevitable future of biologically embedded devices. These systems promise to improve our health and wellbeing, they can provide us with information about our own bodies that helps us master our own biological processes. Wearables already send such information back to the service provider, there is little doubt IoT style implants will do the same. Are we really willing to give up the privacy of what is going on inside our bodies to corporate entities who will use it to make money?
There are benefits to the user, however, which must be a considerable driving force in the IoT’s rapid expansion. Smart building HVAC systems do support occupant comfort while developing energy efficiency that saves money. Smart city systems do improve improve the flow of traffic in urban area, reducing pollution and enhancing inhabitants mobility. Wearables can help you be more healthy.
An important question is, is it possible to create the user benefits of the IoT without giving up the privacy? This is essentially asking, would IoT systems be profitable enough to develop if they didn’t gather all the extra information in this way? And if not, then are we willing to give up privacy in exchange for the conveniences such technology offers? Are we happy to accept that the IoT is designed for the benefit of the corporation rather than the user?
Greenfield concludes that, “the internet of things presents many new possibilities, and it would be foolish to dismiss those possibilities out of hand. But we would also be wise to approach the entire domain with scepticism, and in particular to resist the attempts of companies to gather ever more data about our lives – no matter how much ease, convenience and self-mastery we are told they are offering us.”