Over the holiday weekend, I sat down with Time’s special on “The Smarter Home.”
A few things hit me straight up. It always feels goofier than it should when populist magazines take on emerging tech. Also, we need to stop the rampant deification of Tony Fadell. (“‘At Apple, we changed society,’ Fadell says, somewhat contemplatively. Now he’s trying again.”)
But above everything, I felt creeped out. “The dwellings of the future will make you calmer, safer, richer and healthier,” Time’s cover assured me, soothingly. But taking my head out of the tech press and reading such a broad, consumer level cover-all of the smarter home, I was nagged by the thought that a modern surveillance state isn’t so much being forced on us, as it is sold to us device by device, with the idea that it is for our benefit.
Cast aside any notion of consumer convenience (turn off the part of your brain that looks at shiny things and thinks “hey! cool…”) and think only of what the information that these smart toys gather says about you. All of the companies involved, if contacted, would probably say something noble about protecting your data while offering up a great service. But we know how this plays out. Think Google’s “Don’t Be Evil” maxim versus how it has actually treated your search, maps and email data.
Nest sucks up data on how warm your home is. As Mocana CEO James Isaacs explained to me in early May, a detailed footprint of your comings and goings can be inferred from this information. Nest just bought Dropcam, a company that markets itself as a security tool allowing you to put cameras in your home and view them remotely, but brings with it a raft of disquieting implications about surveillance. Automatic wants you to monitor how far you drive and do things for you like talk to your your house when you’re on your way home from work and turn on lights when you pull into your garage. Tied into the new SmartThings platform, a Jawbone UP band becomes a tool for remotely monitoring someone else’s activity. The SmartThings hubs and sensors themselves put any switch or door in play. Companies like AT&T want to build a digital home that monitors your security and energy use.
Time’s feature whirred over a lot of new technology. Withings Smart Body Analyzer monitors your weight and pulse. Teddy the Guardian is a soft toy for children that spies on their vital signs. Parrot Flower Power looks at the moisture in your home under the guise of helping you grow plants. The Beam Brush checks up on your teeth-brushing technique. The ToTo Washlet is a smart toilet. The Droplet Sprinkler helps you save water. The Ravenwindow looks at how much light is coming into your home. The Water Pebble goes in the shower and glows red if you’re taking longer than usual.
Getting connected device makers to pontificate on what is coming next, what is thrown out gets more personal and if you hold up the same line of suspicion to it all, significantly more horrifying: a micro-wearable that analyzes diet through sweat, a wearable thermostat that analyzes why you’re hot or cold.
Today, where we live, work and shop, who we know and communicate with and what we watch is already in play. With the smart home and its inevitable link into whatever wearable technology eventually becomes popular, we’ll be giving over data on what time we get home, what the climate is inside and outside our home, our diet, weight and hygiene habits, where we are in the house at any given moment, the actual time we go to bed, what lights we like to have turned on and what resources we consume.
At the birth of email and search not a lot of people would have foretold something like the Snowden revelations, with Verizon, Google and Yahoo handing over information about American citizens by the bucket full. Could you look me square in the eye and swear that you really believe that the data gathered in this new realm of quantified living is going to be properly protected and respected? As I’ve reported, Edward Snowden’s old employer, Booz Allen Hamilton, is already working with the government on technology to track health through wearable devices.
I can’t credit Time for earth shattering insight. But inadvertently, it pulled off something that I hadn’t seen done well before: it put the pieces of the smart home story together in such a complete and excitable way
Calmer, safer, richer and healthier? Try, quantified, coddled, surveilled, and monetized.