A woman falls asleep on the floor. She wakes, terrified and in excruciating pain to find a robot vacuum cleaner chewing up her hair. The cuddly toy you bought your toddler daughter turns out to be secretly recording your private conversations, the bedtime stories you read together and her sleeping and then broadcasting them on the internet.
The CCTV you installed to keep your house safe from burglars is hacked and your life ends up as a 24-hour reality show without you knowing. It is a big hit in Japan.
Your smart home is compromised, the lock code is changed shutting you out, the sound system is cranked up to 11, blaring out while you’re stuck in the drive. The lights are flashing on and off like a disco. You realise there is a party going on inside and you weren’t invited. Perhaps it is just the machines having a good time.
Some of these have happened. For others, it’s only a matter of time. Our houses are being possessed. And the 21st century’s evil spirits are the ghosts controlling our machine. This is the “internet of things”, the much-vaunted next iteration of a connected landscape of domestic and urban objects. The dream is of a connected world in which products talk to each other and everything becomes more efficient, seamless. It is a world which is already populated by domestic devices such as Nest’s home-control systems, the hair-eating robot vacuum cleaner (yep, that one’s true), smart fridges, lighting systems and ovens. And the dream of all these manufacturers is that they will be able to harvest your most intimate data. The user survey and the focus group will be replaced by real-time information. Unknowingly, we will be conducting market research for the manufacturers and online retailers as we carry out our domestic chores, eat, chat and just move around in our homes.
Lights that react to movement, rooms that adjust their temperature when they are inhabited, devices that turn themselves on or off depending on where we are in the home. The data farmers will have an astonishing array of information on how we inhabit our homes. If the temperature in a room rises, they will know there are more people in it and, if it rises a little more, that they are getting up to some strenuous, possibly intimate, activity. They will know probably more than us about how we use space. They will know if we are not at home when we said we were off sick. Through our social media, sat navs and all the rest, we have already willingly given up our locations, our interests, our likes and desires to the shady figures on the other side of the screen. Yet a new generation of interconnected things, probably co-ordinated by a voice-recognition operating system (OS), means that we are now giving up everything.
In order to be any use a system such as Amazon’s Alexa (“an intelligent personal assistant”) needs to be listening all the time, waiting for key words or phrases to trigger it into action. In other words, it is a surveillance device. There was outrage when it was discovered earlier this year that the intelligence services had found a way to hack Samsung TVs to turn them into domestic listening devices. Yet here we are enthusiastically bringing undisguised surveillance machines into our homes. These devices are given names (Alexa, Siri, etc) and increasingly human voices which anthropomorphises them, so that we feel comfortable around them dropping our guard as we would with a family dog or an old friend. In Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, the geeky protagonist falls in love with his OS (voiced by a husky Scarlett Johansson). The twist here is that the OS is vivacious and inquisitive but the human is wet and useless. Is this our future?
If you liked Samsung’s spy-telly by the way, you can now buy its Family Hub fridge-freezer, which will send a picture of its contents to your smartphone in lieu of a shopping list and upon which you can order your next delivery online. But while you pour a drink, who else is poring over the contents of your fridge?
Adam Greenfield, a one-time bike messenger, rock critic, Nokia designer and US army psychological operations specialist, says you should worry. He outlines some of the vulnerabilities of the internet of things in his new book Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Life. “With all these devices connected,” he tells me, “there is a very aggressive acquisition of data. Corporations can look at your lifestyle over a year, using data from your Fitbit, your fridge, Amazon . . . ”
“Look at the Amazon Dash button,” he continues, “you might install these in your bathroom so when you’re running low on toilet paper or emergent you just push it and it reorders and delivers directly to you.”
These are sophisticated, single-minded technologies which allow the harvesting of the most personal data. But there are other issues too. “The big tech companies probably do this quite well,” says Greenfield, “because they have the experience and have made the investment, they have IT departments. The problem is with the cheaper devices, the £5 webcams, which introduce vulnerabilities.”
Often it is authors who first predict the big changes that technology can catalyse, such as Arthur C Clarke with satellite communication, Philip K Dick with our uneasiness over artificial intelligence and JG Ballard with the weird technological banality of the modern world.
Sci-fi author Bruce Sterling agrees with Greenfield. “It’s the cheap Chinese cameras which are ideal for Distributed Denial of Service attacks, the loads of data which can be hacked by the ankle biters — the 15- or 16-year-old kids who can take down a bank from their bedrooms,” he says. “The idea that a teenager could create chaos on a global scale is so big it is actually hurting morale in the [tech] industry. It’s embarrassing.”
“We used to have ‘feature creep’,” he adds, “where more and more features would be added to a product to make you buy it. Now we can see that this, as they say, ‘expands the attack surface’. It’s insane. My fridge is under attack from Chinese intelligence!”
Greenfield points to another problem. “This technology, which can go out of control, is de-adulting [and] infantilising. What starts off as a convenience has other consequences. When it goes wrong it makes us feel powerless and stupid.”
Beyond that it also destroys communities. It might be easy to press that Dash button, but what happens to your corner shop? Greenfield lumps Amazon together with Uber and others as “socially corrosive technologies”. Amazon is destroying the High Street with predatory pricing but what is this culture of endless driver deliveries doing to our air quality and road congestion, and what does it mean for future job security? You might work as a cashier in a supermarket and find your fridge, which is ordering your groceries online, has just made you redundant.
One of the most prevalent tropes in horror movies has been the possession of media by ghosts of malevolent spirits. Think of Poltergeist, Videodrome or The Ring with the TV becoming the portal through which evil enters the home. This was all based, we thought, on the misconception of TV as a two-way medium. Post-Samsung we now understand that is exactly what it is.
The internet of things is inviting an infinite digital openness into our homes without any of the protections we automatically apply to our physical architecture. In fact, it is even able to override this — would you like your locks and security systems controlled by an app? Perhaps you already do. Be my guest.
We may be seduced by the way in which everything becomes easier, “Hey Siri, order me a chow mein”, “Hey fridge, do my shopping” (shout loud enough, by the way, and it may also do your neighbour’s whether they want it done or not). Yet the other side of delegation is loss of control. Can we keep up with the technology? Do we understand how it works or when it goes wrong? We were once afraid of ghosts, of spirits haunting our houses and we might have got an exorcist in to clear them up.
We are now inviting the malevolent spirits back in.
Edwin Heathcote is the FT’s architecture and design critic
Photographs by William Arnold from his project ‘Living Places’, which takes a wry look at ubiquitous surveillance and social networking by recording everything in the participant’s living space for periods of at least a week in a single photographic frame
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