Columnists: Ruth Mourik, DuneWorks

Published on: 6 Dec 2016

The smarter our environment becomes, the dumber we get – but it’s not too late

Today there are so many energy efficiency innovations aimed at making our environment both more efficient and smarter. In that sense technology developers have gotten the message that energy efficiency is not interesting enough and needs to be part of a package deal offering more value to users. Many different partners are working at making our home more efficient and at the same time smarter every day, providing multiple functions at once. The Internet of Things is a central part of this, connecting many technologies and allowing for increasing possibilities.

For example energy companies together with companies like Google develop smart thermostats that are connected to the GPS in our phones, and by means of smart algorithms identify patterns in your mobility behavior by tracking where our phone is.

Because of this these energy companies, and the likes of Google, know when you are almost home and make sure your home is nicely heated to the temperature you need when you get home, and of course it is also heating more efficiently because of this. Double smart! But our environment can become even smarter! Think about the smart home companies out there – more and more energy companies and other developers use energy efficiency technologies such as motion controllers to control the lighting and avoid excess lighting. Increasingly connections are made with companies in the health sector to for example also detect if something might be wrong because you, an elderly woman, have not come out of your bed for more than 24 hours and warns the police, a very valuable application in our ageing western societies.

However, there is also a less positive side to all this smartness. Rem Koolhaas, the architect, addressed this point, stating that tomorrow there will be technologies out there that make it possible for your toilet to know you are sick before you do. But so far, this last example has not yet been connected to energy efficiency… Of course we can imagine all the doom scenarios this energy efficiency smartness entails; like hacked smart thermostats or phones making it easy for the next generation of burglars to plan their break-in, or for tax authorities to use data about presence to identify potential fraud with employment, or cohabitating.

This last example shows something which is central to most of these scary stories: we, as the users of these smart technologies are actually getting dumber the smarter and more efficient our environment becomes, thanks to the Internet of Things. Not only is it becoming impossible for us to understand the technologies and the multiple connections they need to be smart, but we are also increasingly taken out of the loop. We are very often reduced to accept or reject the options for connection, think about all the privacy issues around apps, where we often decide not to want to think about the consequences of ticking the ‘accept’ box. In addition, it becomes increasingly difficult to intervene physically and alter settings, to select what we find acceptable or not. And often we are sort of happy with this default setting. After all, who wants to be controlling everything all the time? We have more pressing things to do with our lives and of course we can only to some extent decide what happens to our own individual data anyway.

We also tend to forget that we are actually not the end-users of these smart technologies, not really. By allowing this automation and ambient form of the smart environment to emerge, researchers have argued that we as humans become a market asset. In other words, what you do, when, with whom, where, all this information becomes extremely valuable for companies such as Google developing the Internet of Things. Our identity and energy behaviour becomes an asset to the real end-users, the market actors developing this Internet of Things, this Internet for everything. We become a very vulnerable market asset because the parties controlling us as assets usually are not doing this with the public’s good in mind, but with profit margins.

But there is a more profound way we are getting dumber the smarter and more efficient our environment becomes. These doom scenarios are easily thought of, too easily, and that is a problem. What happens today is that these doom scenarios are dominating the discussion both in the media, in households, at birthday parties and even to some extent in research circles. Often focusing on a single issue such as privacy only.

And because of this the smarter discussion is not sufficiently taking place. A discussion where we talk about what it means to become an asset, a debate where we identify that the Internet of everything is an Internet of the few real winners, and the Internet of the many losing out, being excluded. A debate about whether we should strive to work to make it the Internet of everyone. A discussion about the fact that democratising is not only creating ownership over creation but also with respect to access and use. A discussion about the fact that when our environment becomes smarter every time it becomes more efficient, this should empower us, or at least not only reinforce the power of those already too powerful. So this discussion should not only be about right to access to our own data, or control over who is allowed to get access to our data. And the discussion is necessary because by not having it we dis-empower ourselves by default.

Other columns by Ruth Mourik