One of the popular tech-trends today is The Internet of Things or IoT, because what’s a bit of popular culture without a quirky looking acronym. The concept, which apparently has been around for longer than I knew, is one that imagines everything talking to everything else. Well, I think the IoT folks aren’t really imagining things talking to each other; they are looking forward to things being connected so that people and advanced computers acting on behalf of people could manage those things. I’m further guessing that those folks don’t get out of the lab very often. According to Wikipedia (what, you thought I was going to do serious research on this?)
“If all objects and people in daily life were equipped with identifiers, they could be managed and inventoried by computers… Equipping all objects in the world with minuscule identifying devices or machine-readable identifiers could transform daily life.”
Really? I see the potential for this to not end well.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for little bits of technology that will improve the safety of air travel or reduce highway congestion but I’m not so sure about things like billboards that change their message when they realize that I am looking at them. That sounds a bit too much like that awkward moment when you sense a change in the conversation that you just joined at a party. I picture a billboard advertising a fancy restaurant swiftly changing to an ad for Wendy’s when it sees me approaching.
My friend Laurence Hart wrote a nice blog post about cars and the Internet of Things. Laurence is a pretty smart tech-guy, and I get where he’s heading, but I see a darker side as being possible. What happens when everything is connected to everything else and the people who programed the life-transforming software start including value judgments? Trust me; once you involve humans, you open the door for value judgments. Say I drive my Jeep into a parking garage. What’s to keep the control mechanisms from closing various gates so that I’m directed to the outside rows, the ones that are somewhat exposed to the weather? While this happens to me, the gates open for the guy behind me (in the BMW) to allow him access to the better protected inside slots.
You might think that I’m worrying for nothing but remember, the judgmental behavior I’m talking about will be programmed by well-meaning Millennials who, despite having had access to cable with hundreds of TV shows, spent most of their time growing up watching Beverly Hills, 90210 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. So, when I walk into a store, a restaurant, a car dealer or perhaps even a church, something is going to be taking inventory.
Bogey at 10 o’clock. He’s wearing relaxed fit jeans, a Pittsburgh Pirates tee shirt (not Official MLB) and he bought those shoes at Sears (we don’t even carry information on that “brand”). Oh, this gets better. That’s a Timex watch on his wrist and it actually only. Tells. The. Time. I know, and our outside sensors tell us he drove up in a low-end Jeep. He’s carrying an iPhone, the one with the small screen and apparently he listens to “classic” rock, flies on Southwest airlines and, check this out, he gets his weather forecast from NOAA. Oh my God, this guy went to college in West Virginia!
When I check into a hotel with that composite picture, do I get a room with a view of the ocean or one with a view of the train tracks behind the hotel? Does the sign next to the water bottle change from “With our Compliments” to “$4.95”? Does the elevator bypass me in favor of the guy waiting on the 8th floor wearing an Armani suit? It might seem funny, but it could happen. Back in 1960 Rod Serling wrote an episode of the Twilight Zone called “A Thing About Machines” that portrayed a man who was taunted and tormented by the machines in his life. This was well before anyone (maybe with the exception of Rod Serling) was thinking of the Internet of Things. It wasn’t clear if the machines were acting in concert or had formed individual animosity toward Mr. Finchley but their actions represented a clear and present danger.
In addition to all of the above, think about the fact that the Internet of Things will likely be powered by Java and Android devices. Recent articles put these two platforms at the red end of the dangerous scale, vulnerable to attack by hackers and ne’re-do-wells like these guys. Do you really want the car dealer to know (in advance) how much money you make and how much money you have saved? Do you want the guy on the street behind you to know for certain that you’re wearing a Rolex watch? Do you want your luggage spouting an inventory of its contents to every person it encounters?
The Internet of Things might be a good thing. It might lead to safer travel, minimal disruptions, shorter lines and fewer disappointments. The IoT might drift into an annoying state where your refrigerator mocks you for chilling red wine or taking out the jar of mayonnaise along with the fixings for a ham sandwich. Maybe when we hit that phase, people will collectively push back and stop the evolution before it becomes a full-blown Internet of Snarky Thing – IoST, of course.