The Lights Are On but Nobody's Home

Who needs the Internet of Things? Not you, but corporations who want to imprison you in their technological ecosystem

Prepare yourself. The Internet of Things is coming, whether we like it or not apparently. Though if the news coverage — the press releases repurposed as service journalism, the breathless tech-blog posts — is to be believed, it’s what we’ve always wanted, even if we didn’t know it. Smart devices, sensors, cameras, and Internet connectivity will be everywhere, seamlessly and invisibly integrated into our lives, and it will make society more harmonious through the gain of a million small efficiencies. In this vision, the smart city isn't plagued by deteriorating infrastructure and underfunded social services but is instead augmented with a dizzying collection of systems that ensure that nothing goes wrong. Resources will be apportioned automatically, mechanics and repair people summoned by the system's own command. We will return to what Lewis Mumford described as a central feature of the Industrial Revolution: “the transfer of order from God to the Machine.” Now, however, the machines will be thinking for themselves, setting society's order based on the false objectivity of computation.

According to one industry survey, 73 percent of Americans have not heard of the Internet of Things. Another consultancy forecasts $7.1 trillion in annual sales by the end of the decade. Both might be true, yet the reality is that this surveillance-rich environment will continue to be built up around us. Enterprise and government contracts have floated the industry to this point: To encourage us to buy in, sensor-laden devices will be subsidized, just as smartphones have been for years, since companies can make up the cost difference in data collection.

With the Internet of Things, promises of savings and technological empowerment are being implemented as forces of social control. In Chicago, this year's host city for Cisco's Internet of Things World Forum, Mayor Rahm Emanuel has used Department of Homeland Security grants to expand Chicago's surveillance-camera system into the largest in the country, while the city's police department, drawing on an extensive database of personal information about residents, has created a “heat list” of 400 people to be tracked for potential involvement in violent crime. In Las Vegas, new streetlights can alert surrounding people to disasters; they also have the ability to record video and audio of the surrounding area and track movements. Sometime this year, Raytheon plans to launch two aerostats — tethered surveillance blimps — over Washington, D.C. In typical fashion, this technology, pioneered in the battlefields of Afghanistan and Iraq, is being introduced to address a non-problem: the threat of enemy missiles launched at our capital. When they are not on the lookout for incoming munitions, the aerostats and their military handlers will be able to enjoy video coverage of the entire metropolitan area.

The ideological premise of the Internet of Things is that surveillance and data production equal a kind of preparedness. Any problem might be solved or pre-empted with the proper calculations, so it is prudent to digitize and monitor everything.

This goes especially for ourselves. The IoT promises users an unending capability to parse personal information, making each of us a statistician of the self, taking pleasure and finding reassurance in constant data triage. As with the quantified self movement, the technical ability for devices to collect and transmit data — what makes them “smart” — is its own achievement, the accumulation of data is represented as its own reward. “In a decade, every piece of apparel you buy will have some sort of biofeedback sensors built in it,” the co-founder of OMsignal told Nick Bilton, a New York Times technology columnist. Bilton notes that “many challenges must be overcome first, not the least of which is price.” But convincing people they need a shirt that can record their heart rate is apparently not one of these challenges.

Vessyl, a $199 drinking cup Valleywag's Sam Biddle mockingly (and accurately) calls “a 13-ounce, Bluetooth-enabled, smartphone-syncing, battery-powered supercup,” analyzes the contents of whatever you put in it and tracks your hydration, calories, and the like in an app. There is not much reason to use Vessyl, beyond a fetish of the act of measurement. Few people see such a knowledge deficit about what they are drinking that they feel they should carry an expensive cup with them at all times. But that has not stopped Vessyl from being written up repeatedly in the press. Wired called Vessyl “a fascinating milestone ... a peek into some sort of future.”

But what kind of future? And do we want it? The Internet of Things may require more than the usual dose of high-tech consumerist salesmanship, because so many of these devices are patently unnecessary. The improvements they offer to consumers — where they exist — are incremental, not revolutionary and always come at some cost to autonomy, privacy, or security. Between stories of baby monitors being hacked, unchecked backdoors, and search engines like Shodan, which allows one to crawl through unsecured, Internet-connected devices, from traffic lights to crematoria, it's bizarre, if not disingenuous, to treat the ascension of the Internet of Things as foreordained progress.

As if anticipating this gap between what we need and what we might be taught to need, industry executives have taken to the IoT with the kind of grandiosity usually reserved for the Singularity. Their rhetoric is similarly eschatological. “Only one percent of things that could have an IP address do have an IP address today,” said Padmasree Warrior, Cisco's chief technology and strategy officer, “so we like to say that 99 percent of the world is still asleep.” Maintaining the revivalist tone, she proposed, “It’s up to our imaginations to figure out what will happen when the 99 percent wakes up.”

Warrior's remarks highlight how consequential marketing, advertising, and the swaggering keynotes of executives will be in creating the IoT's consumer economy. The world will not just be exposed to new technologies; it will be woken up, given the gift of sight, with every conceivable object connected to the network. In the same way, Nest CEO Tony Fadell, commenting on his company's acquisition by Google, wrote that his goal has always been to create a “conscious home” — “a home that is more thoughtful, intuitive.”

On a more prosaic level, “smart” has been cast as the logical, prudent alternative to dumb. Sure, we don't need toothbrushes to monitor our precise brushstrokes and offer real-time reports, as the Bluetooth-enabled, Kickstarter-funded toothbrush described in a recent article in The Guardian can. There is no epidemic of tooth decay that could not be helped by wider access to dental care, better diet and hygiene, and regular flossing. But these solutions are so obvious, so low-tech and quotidian, as to be practically banal. They don't allow for the advent of an entirely new product class or industry. They don't shimmer with the dubious promise of better living through data. They don’t allow one to “transform otherwise boring dental hygiene activities into a competitive family game.”

The presumption that 90 seconds of hygiene needs competition to become interesting and worth doing is among the more pure distillations of contemporary capitalism. Internet of Things devices, and the software associated with them, are frequently gamified, which is to say that they draw us into performances of productivity that enrich someone else.

In advertising from AT&T and others, the new image of the responsible homeowner is an informationally aware one. His house is always accessible and transparent to him (and to the corporations, backed by law enforcement, providing these services). The smart home, in turn, has its own particular hierarchy, in which the manager of the home's smart surveillance system exercises dominance over children, spouses, domestic workers, and others who don't have control of these tools and don't know when they are being watched. This is being pushed despite the fact that violent crime has been declining in the United States for years, and those who do suffer most from crime — the poor — aren't offered many options in the Internet of Things marketplace, except to submit to networked CCTV and police data-mining to determine their risk level.

But for gun-averse liberals, ensconced in low-crime neighborhoods, smart-home and digitized home-security platforms allow them to act out their own kind of security theater. Each home becomes a techno-castle, secured by the surveillance net.

The surveillance-laden house may rob children of essential opportunities for privacy and personal development. One AT&T video, for instance, shows a middle-aged father woken up in bed by an alert from his security system. He grabs his tablet computer and, sotto voce, tells his wife that someone's outside. But it's not an intruder, he says wryly. The camera cuts to shows a teenage girl, on the tail end of a date, talking to a boy outside the home. Will they or won't they kiss? Suddenly, a garish bloom of light: the father has activated the home's outdoor lights. The teens realize they are being monitored. Back in the master bedroom, the parents cackle. To be unmonitored is to be free — free to be oneself and to make mistakes. A home ringed with motion-activated lights, sensors, and cameras, all overseen by imperious parents, would allow for little of that.

In the conventional libertarian style, the Internet of Things offloads responsibilities to individuals, claiming to empower them with data, while neglecting to address collective, social issues. And meanwhile, corporations benefit from the increased knowledge of consumers' habits, proclivities, and needs, even learning information that device owners don't know themselves.

Tech industry doyen Tim O'Reilly has predicted that “insurance is going to be the native business model for the Internet of Things.” To enact this business model, companies will use networked devices to pull more data on customers and employees and reward behavior accordingly, as some large corporations, like BP, have already done in partnership with health-care companies. As the number of data sources proliferate, opportunities increase for behavioral management as well as on-the-fly price discrimination.

Through the dispersed system of mass monitoring and feedback, behaviors and cultures become standardized, directed at the algorithmic level. A British insurer called Drive Like a Girl uses in-car telemetry to track drivers' habits. The company says that its data shows that women drive better and are cheaper to insure, so they deserve to pay lower rates. So far, perhaps, so good. Except that the European Union has instituted regulations stating that insurers can't offer different rates based on gender, so Drive Like a Girl is using tracking systems to get around that rule, reflecting the fear of many IoT critics that vast data collection may help banks, realtors, stores, and other entities dodge the protections put in place by the Fair Credit Reporting Act, HIPPA, and other regulatory measures.

This insurer also exemplifies how algorithmic biases can become regressive social forces. From its name to its site design to how its telematics technology is implemented, Drive Like a Girl is essentializing what “driving like a girl” means — it's safe, it's pink, it's happy, it's gendered. It is also, according to this actuarial morality, a form of good citizenship. But what if a bank promised to offer loan terms to help someone “borrow like a white person,” premised on the notion that white people were associated with better loan repayments? We would call it discriminatory and question the underlying data and methodologies and cite histories of oppression and lack of access to banking services. With automated, IoT-driven marketplaces there is no room for taking into account these complex sensitivities.

As the Internet of Things expands, we may witness an uncomfortable feature creep. When the iPhone was introduced, few thought its gyroscopes would be used to track a user's steps, sleep patterns, or heartbeat. Software upgrades or novel apps can be used to exploit hardware's hidden capacities, not unlike the way hackers have used vending machines and HVAC systems to gain access to corporate computer networks. To that end, many smart thermostats use “geofencing” or motion sensors to detect when people are at home, which allows the device to adjust the temperature accordingly. A company, particularly a conglomerate like Google with its fingers in many networked pies, could use that information to serve up ads on other screens or nudge users towards desired behaviors. As Jathan Sadowski has pointed out here, the relatively trivial benefit of a fridge alerting you when you've run out of a product could be used to encourage you to buy specially advertised items. Will you buy the ice cream for which your freezer is offering a coupon? Or will you consult your health-insurance app and decide that it's not worth the temporary spike in your premiums?

This combination of interconnectivity and feature creep makes Apple's decision to introduce platforms for home automation and health-monitoring seem rather cunning. Cupertino is delegating much of the work to third-party device makers and programmers — just as it did with its music and app stores — while retaining control of the infrastructure and the data passing through it. (Transit fees will be assessed accordingly.) The writer and editor Matt Buchanan, lately of The Awl, has pointed out that, in shopping for devices, we are increasingly choosing among competing digital ecosystems in which we want to live. Apple seems to have apprehended this trend, but so have two other large industry groups — the Open Interconnect Consortium and the AllSeen alliance — with each offering its own open standard for connecting many disparate devices. Market competition, then, may be one of the main barriers to fulfilling the prophetic promise of the Internet of Things: to make this ecosystem seamless, intelligent, self-directed, and mostly invisible to those within it. For this vision to come true, you would have to give one company full dominion over the infrastructure of your life.

Whoever prevails in this competition to connect, well, everything, it's worth remembering that while the smartphone or computer screen serves as an access point, the real work — the constant processing, assessment, and feedback mechanisms allowing insurance rates to be adjusted in real-time — is done in the corporate cloud. That is also where the control lies. To wrest it back, we will need to learn to appreciate the virtues of products that are dumb and disconnected once again.