Martyn McLaughlin: Beware a digital feudalism

Smart TVs keep on getting smarter, but technology can't do everything. Picture: Getty
Smart TVs keep on getting smarter, but technology can't do everything. Picture: Getty
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CHOOSE a smart TV. Choose a plant pot that tells you it needs watered. Choose a toothbrush that monitors your brushing habits. Choose kettles, washing machines and toasters permanently connected to the internet. Choose sitting on a Bluetooth compatible toilet controlling mind-numbing, spirit crushing gadgets like wireless egg trays that send notifications to your smartphone reminding you to pop by the supermarket on the way home.

Douglas Adams once observed that we are stuck with technology when what we really want is just stuff that works. It is a maxim that has never rung truer.

Our world is inextricably enmeshed with those of the machines. We are perplexed by technology, yet we continue to allow it to seduce and deceive us. We purchase promises, not products, and wilfully refuse to learn when they are broken. Each of us has a drawer or cupboard at home that is a tangled graveyard for yesterday’s thingmies and thingamajigs, a snarl of cabling and plastic which failed to deliver the future yesterday. Still we gaze wide eyed at what tomorrow might bring.

This warning comes from a hopeless technophile. I own more headphones than the squad of the average Premier League football team. I have a collection of tablets that would put a Hebrew stonemason to shame.

My home thrums to electricity’s faint rhythm; in the living room at night, a hive of LEDs blink back through the darkness like crocodiles in an outback marshland.

But even the expensive devices are utilitarian, fulfilling functions, not fancies. Hard drives with strict security settings automatically back up precious family photographs; wireless speakers allow me to play lullabies for my daughter. If you unscramble the marketing drivel and understand its applications, technology is an indomitable force for good, liberating us from the mundane and providing elegant answers to questions once conceived in wonder by science fiction writers.

It is harder to break down the chaff than ever. We live in an age when major multinational companies are investing billions of pounds in a grand, insidious power play. It goes by the name of the “Internet of Things”, or IoT for short. It is a cumbersome phrase and one you may have missed amidst the white noise of George Osborne’s Budget.

The Chancellor’s announcement of a £40m investment in this fledgling concept has barely been reported but warrants greater scrutiny. “This is the next stage of the information revolution,” Mr Osborne told the Commons. “It connects up everything from urban transport to medical devices to household appliances.”

We might not understand what IoT is, but already we are in thrall to it, bewitched by its possibilities. Its premise sounds progressive, forseeing a day when nearly everything we own is tethered to the internet. Unexceptional appliances will be reincarnated in an interconnected guise, festooned with nodes, microcontrollers and sensors, biddable via a multitude of apps.

The smart TV is the most visible example of this nascent market but merely the tip of the iceberg. The welter of products spans not just major white goods, but door locks and light bulbs, windows and vents, wall plugs and alarms, all synced into proprietary wireless networks that allows them to be activated from anywhere in the world.

Gartner, a leading technology research firm, predicts that by 2022, the average home will boast several hundred smart objects. Slowly but surely, the sacred private spaces of our homes are becoming junctions in a vast ecosystem controlled and evaluated by corporate interests.

We give our consent for this gradual creep freely and without question. The machines, we are told, will make our busy, quixotic lives easier. We trust them. What is there to lose from a coffee maker that learns our sleeping patterns and brews a fresh pot just as we are waking? The answer is a great deal.

The pervasive rise of the smart home is not about convenience, but commerce. Every movement we make in our homes becomes an invaluable asset for the 21st century’s real boom industry – Big Data. Our devices are gateways which show the trail of breadcrumbs in our digital lives. Companies track our diets, habits and movements, forging a lattice of information in vast cloud servers ready to be collated, analysed and sold to interested parties.

The legal safeguards in this emerging world are desperately obsolescent. Edward Snowden’s revelations provided a wake-up call about the long shadow surveillance casts over our online lives, but we are sleepwalking into an even more sinister nightmare where insurers, police and government agencies will be able to study our lives in intimate detail under a new digital feudalism.

Samsung, the market leader in smart TVs, is still weathering the storm from the Orwellian revelation that its voice recognition features can capture and transmit our living room conversations to third parties, while rudimentary security in many smart devices means that they can be compromised with ease.

In Japan, hackers showed how they could flush a £3,800 smart toilet at will, much to the consternation of homeowners perusing the Sunday supplements.

This ties in to the biggest foible of them all in the government-backed IoT swindle – the technology isn’t up to scratch. To synchronise our futuristic homes, we still need to take charge, monitoring and adjusting settings on various apps in a grinding, repetitive cycle, supposedly in the name of saving time and effort.

True automation remains a pipedream but its dawn grows ever closer. We cannot stop the incessant march of progress, nor should we want to, but with innovation comes responsibility. We must ensure technology is our servant rather than the other way around. Otherwise it is not the machines that will become nodes in a global network, it will be us, the helpless consumers.

Choose gadgets, by all means, but remember to choose control.


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