The internet of things is about measuring the world and taking action on that data. But if the simple act of measuring the world changes it, then how can we implement ubiquitous sensors and connectivity without some kind of unintended consequence?
Much like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle tries to explain how measuring quarks in quantum physics changes how they behave, two stories out this week try to understand what it means when everything is connected and we’re always monitored. How will those measurements change us, even as we’re being measured?
Adam Greenfield writes in The Guardian about how the companies building our connected devices are serving their own agendas.
In many cases users have no clear idea of what those agendas are. This might be something as simple as your Amazon Echo limiting the number of choices it presents when you ask it to order something, to an insurance firm using sensor data to charge people in historically black neighborhoods more for insurance.
Both of these examples present consumers with a choice that’s derived from ever-more-granular-and-varied collected about them. Greenfield takes the example of the Amazon Dash button and lambasts its ability to make consumers buy things more easily without a thought. But it’s when he discusses smart cities that he gets most eloquent.
In discussing marketing literature from Siemens about the smart city, where the goal is to move people, goods and vehicles around a municipality and efficiently allocate resources, he writes:
“There is a clear philosophical position, even a worldview, behind all of this: 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. As applied to the affairs of cities, this is effectively an argument that there is one and only one correct solution to each identified need; that this solution can be arrived at algorithmically, via the operations of a technical system furnished with the proper inputs; and that this solution is something that can be encoded in public policy, without distortion. (Left unstated, but strongly implicit, is the presumption that whatever policies are arrived at in this way will be applied transparently, dispassionately and in a manner free from politics.)
“Every aspect of this argument is questionable. Perhaps most obviously, the claim that anything at all is perfectly knowable is perverse. However thoroughly sensors might be deployed in a city, they will only ever capture what is amenable to being captured. In other words, they will not be able to pick up every single piece of information necessary to the formulation of sound civic policy.”
He goes on to lament how bias will creep into the algorithms and how civic actors will start managing to the metrics established by whatever agency is tracking the smart city’s stats. He wrote the article as an excerpt of an upcoming book called Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life that goes on sale next week.
Greenfield’s article becomes even more important in light of a new Pew Research Center report on the internet of things that basically says it’s unavoidable. Not only did respondents to its survey say that it was going to happen whether people wanted it or not, they also said it was happening without regard to security, privacy and other essentials.
While the survey allowed for people that might attempt to permanently disconnect from a connected life over privacy fears, most respondents believed those efforts would be futile as connectivity is built into more products and more day-to-day activities rely on it.
Reading both of these back to back is depressing. The future this paints is dystopian at worst and oblivious consumerism at best. But it’s clear that connectivity and these “data-driven” decisions are the future. So it’s up to us as consumers, voters and business leaders to take steps to make sure this future doesn’t become the present.