The last few weeks I've been ranting at friends and colleagues about my misgivings regarding the glorious connected future being gradually rolled out. This has come as a result of recent technological events I haven't had any choice in and is largely a personal experience that has set off alarms in my extrapolative brain centers. I'm aware this is really one-sided and again, disclaimer, it is largely negative and makes little concession for a lot of the genuine actual promise this technology holds. It is more of a rail against the western, Euro/US narrative of the Internet of Things the connected future. I'm also not making larger structural comments about the motivations of the companies pushing this stuff. It's just my experiences and my concerns.
The Cloud is a Hassle
This is very much down to personal experience, but I expect it's a personal experience that carries across. The Cloud is basically code for 'trusting a stranger to store your stuff somewhere you don't know.' As hard drives get cheaper and smaller at an alarmingly fast rate, I don't understand why anyone would exchange physical backup and storage somewhere safe for throwing their stuff in the air and hoping for the best. Sure, that's not the only purpose of the cloud, and I'm sure there's some convenience in being able to access data, documents and files across multiple devices anywhere. That is cool.
My experience of these wonders, however, has so far, been a fucking hassle. I've refused Apple's iCloud since it first started creeping in at the periphery of their product line, including that brief period where they tried to force you to go through their servers to backup any device. With the latest iOS update, I was forced to create an account just to disable the prompts to login so that I could promptly delete it. There is a ludicrous insanity, as I look at two devices a few centimeters away from each other right now, in knowing that Apple wants to make sure they can only talk to each other via California.
I also have Adobe's Creative Cloud which, as anyone could tell you, is a catastrofuck of a piece of software. There are none so proprietary as Adobe. Especially if you include their university lobbying to ensure students are stuck with their suite for life. And CC may as well just present this every time you want to do anything:
The updates that lock you out while they happen only start when you open a program to use it. I ran Creative Suite 2 for five years perfectly well without a single update. Ironically, most of these are security updates - now that Adobe has insisted that their software is subscription only, via their pan-optic 'cloud', they have to devote colossal amounts of time to patching up a system which simply does not need to exist for the core software to, you know, edit photos, draw pictures and so on.
I'm also about to be locked out of CC because it's paid for by an organisation I work for and, like all organisations, it's going to take weeks to turn around the thousands of re-subscriptions they need to do. Basically, it's a hassle which has failed to make life simpler or more efficient as we're constantly re-assured it will.
My point is that my totally secure 3 foot USB cable was sufficient for backing up and updating my phone and my offline Adobe CS2 got me through two degrees when and how I wanted it without a whiff of complaint. Adding Cloud to these perfectly well functioning things has made them annoying.
Glitter on Glitter on Things
My first design tutor told me way back when I was but a slip of a lad; 'You can put glitter on shit, but you just end up with glittery shit.' All this stuff isn't quite glitter on shit, but it is glitter, on glitter, on things. Going back to the example of a smartphone, it is a thing, that has a function, and some of those function are glitter - needless features that provide some initial novelty but are actually not that helpful. Now with extra connectivity, it's as if adding another layer of glitter will somehow disguise this fundamental uselessness. I'm racking my brain trying to think of a specific example but there are only snippets, things like 'sharing your location.' There's a promise to connectivity which is cool, but so far the most prominent way of expressing this promise has been through gimmicky rubbish.
At a larger level I'm concerned by the people developing these things. The technical wizardry necessary to be able to hook up a blender to the Internet and control its speed based on your heart rate from your Fuel band is pretty incredible. I'm sure that most of these folk are perfectly noble and worldly but the idea of an Internet connected toaster is insanity in respect of the 2.6 billion people without clean cooking facilities and living in energy poverty. And I sure have to make concessions here, stuff like M-PESA and M-KOPA are great examples of where connected systems are actually genuinely doing something useful to improve lives.
This feature-loading connected product push is dominated by one narrative; 'efficiency' and efficiency is tied closely to environmentalism. One of the most successful of the success stories is Nest, the smart thermostat that learns your habits and adjusts itself accordingly. Brilliant idea. Properly brilliant, I remember reading about it and thinking about all the times during winter I forget to turn the thermostat off when I leave the house. BUT. I still wouldn't get Nest. I own the responsibility for looking after myself and my impact on the planet.
When I fuck up, I fuck up and take the hit. I am critically and existentially aware of every flight, every decision to take a bus over cycling, every time I eat meat there's a pang of guilt. I'm not perfect, and I, like many others keenly feel the effect of our mistakes but I would not try and blame it on an API.
Something like Nest is offsetting this responsibility onto a machine system, putting those emotional pangs and pulls into an API and letting it shoulder the burden. It's easy, but would it desensitise you to your own impact? A utopic thought, but one I believe; would a critical and conscious understanding of how you and the planet work as a large inter-connected system be existentially healthier than Nest? I don't know. I suspect so.
Home Sweet Home (I had clever emojis here, but blogger didn't like them)
Another personal consideration. I really like tidying my house. I like shopping, I enjoy looking after myself and my environment. It's something, much like my visceral connection with my carbon impact, I relish and celebrate. A lot of these projects talk about 'interfacing with the home,' as if this is a brand-new idea. What about re-ordering the books on my shelves, or fluffing cushions, doing the washing up, cleaning the toilet? These are all interfacing with my home in a way that I suspect a talking fridge just wouldn't understand.
I've spoken to others about this and they tend to agree, as healthy adult humans without handicaps that might necessitate extra aid, we're really not the market for automated homes and yet their ceaselessly marketed and young, priviliged, healthy people.
There is no doubt a great need for people who are infirm or elderly and live alone, or suffer a disability to need the help an automated experience will give them, so embrace this. Don't be Soylent and their blinkered 'What if you never had to think about food again?' catastrophe.