Not All Things WiFi

Matthew Walther recently wrote a piece about the snowball-like momentum smart homes have gathered over the past year or so, and I found myself nodding along with nearly everything he had to say. Here are a few paragraphs:

How do you plan to spend your Thanksgiving? Talking with your uncle about how much money he is saving on his home insurance by installing four different cameras and a set of WiFi-enabled locks? Comparing spreadsheet data about your respective heart rates with your cousin? Letting your insurance company know how fast you took that last corner on the way back from the movie theater? Talking to a robot cube about paper towels? Using your iPhone to change the temperature on the slow cooker from your toilet seat?

I have a really hard time believing that people in real life actually use any of these so-called “smart” technologies. But it is even more difficult for me to figure out why.

For one thing, it’s not clear to me that many of these gadgets are actually any good at performing their core functions — heating water for tea, keeping your leftovers cold, washing your clothes. It is an iron law of engineering that the more resources are devoted to ancillary features, the fewer will be left over for what is essential. Last year my mother-in-law had to throw away her coffee maker, not because it was no longer capable of making coffee but because the LED screen with which it was necessary to interact in order to initiate the brewing process went out. I might not be able to activate my old diner-style Bunn machine from my smartphone while I am 4,000 miles away, but it will probably outlive me.

But I have other, more serious concerns. At a time when we are all supposed to be terribly concerned about online privacy, why are we expanding the definition of “online” at such a breathtaking pace? Is it really sensible to hand over control of everything from the operation of your vehicle to the lock on your front door to precise and detailed information about your bodily functions to whoever happens to have the right password? I am old enough to remember when sensible Democrats protested the fact that the Patriot Act could potentially require libraries to hand over records of what books a patron had checked out. What happens when someone is suspected of a crime and a secret court grants a warrant that allows the authorities to know exactly where the accused is at all times, between his smart watch and his smart car regardless of whether he has allowed the battery on the phone that is meant to control both of them to die? This is to say nothing of the very real possibility of the FBI or whomever simply walking into his house after the feckless data mining venture masquerading as a home security firm unlocks the front door for them remotely. (It would be amusing to see a 2019 episode of The Sopranos in which the feds waltz into Tony’s front door after hacking their way in via Anthony Jr.’s Playstation.)

It’s only recently occurred to me that the increasing digitization of our lives has taken a sharp turn: we’re no longer simply adding new gadgets into daily routines–hooray for indoor plumbing! These new gadgets feed on our personal information to function appropriately and efficiently. It’s teeth is the omnipotent and omniscient algorithm, chewing and digesting our preferences, credit card numbers, and home addresses until it can perfectly predict our future decisions.

The first time I noticed the sheer volume of personal information consumed by internet-based platforms & devices occurred while I had an Instagram account. I began to notice that many of the personalized advertisements were prompted not by the links I clicked or the profiles I visited, but by the amount of time I spent looking at particular pictures. If I paused for a few seconds while scrolling through some of the pictures, I could count on an advertisement related to the picture surfacing in my feed in the near future. It was at that point I realized I was inadvertently feeding a beast.

Don’t get me wrong. I have no illusions that it’s too late to think I can completely remove myself from internet algorithms. The damage is done. I also don’t hate the internet. Yes, the Luddite is strong with me, but I also enjoy the resources easily obtained through internet browsing. Hence this blog and my newfound appreciation for RSS feeds and email newsletters. There’s so much more to the internet than any social media platform can provide. I prefer to cultivate my own presence on my own turf, to employ my own capacities for creativity,  and to enjoy the serendipity of discovering a new blog, article, or author which would’ve been lost in a mindlessly hyper-curated algorithm.

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