In Copenhagen, a bus running two minutes behind schedule transmits its location and passenger count to the municipal traffic signal network, which extends the green light at each of the next three intersections long enough for its driver to make up some time. In Davao City in the Philippines, an unsecured webcam overlooks the storeroom of a fast-food stand, allowing anyone equipped with its address to peer in at will on all its comings and goings. In San Francisco, a young engineer hopes to optimize his life through sensors that track his heart rate, respiration and sleep cycle.
What links these wildly different circumstances is a vision of connected devices now being sold to us as the internet of things, in which a weave of networked perception wraps every space, every place, every thing and every body on Earth. The technologist Mike Kuniavsky, a pioneer and early proponent of this vision, characterizes it as a state of being in which “computation and data communication [are] embedded in, and distributed through, our entire environment.” I prefer to see it for what it is: the colonization of everyday life by information processing.
Like the smartphone, the internet of things isn’t a single technology, but an unruly assemblage of protocols, sensing regimes, capabilities and desires, all swept under a single rubric for the sake of disciplinary convenience. Just about all that connects the various devices, services, vendors and efforts involved is the ambition to raise awareness of some everyday circumstance to the network for analysis and response.
Though it can often feel as if this colonization proceeds of its own momentum, without any obvious driver or particularly pressing justification beyond the fact that it is something our technology now makes possible, it always pays to remember that distinct ambitions are being served wherever and however the internet of things appears, whether as rhetoric or reality.
Some of these ambitions speak to the needs of commercial differentiation, and the desire to instill the qualities of surprise and delight into otherwise banal products. Others are founded in a much more concrete and pragmatic set of concerns, having to do with the regulation of energy consumption or the management of municipal infrastructure. Inevitably, some of these ambitions involve surveillance, security and control. But whatever the context in which these connected devices appear, what unites them is the inchoate terror that a single event anywhere might be allowed to transpire unobserved, uncaptured and unleveraged.
This, then, is the internet of things. If the endeavor retains a certain sprawling and formless quality, we can get a far more concrete sense of what it involves, what it invokes and what it requires by looking at each of the primary scales at which it appears to us: that of the body, that of the room, and that of public space in general. Though they all partake of the same general repertoire of techniques, each of these domains of activity has a specific, distinguishing label associated with it. The quest to instrument the body, monitor its behavior and derive actionable insight from these soundings is known as the quantified self; the drive to render interior, domestic spaces visible to the network the smart home; and when this effort is extended to municipal scale, it is known as the smart city.
Each of these scales of activity illuminates a different aspect of the challenge presented to us by the internet of things, and each of them has something distinct to teach us.
At the most intimate scale, the internet of things manifests in the form of wearable biometric sensors: devices that collect the various traces of our being in the world, and submit them to the network for inspection and analysis. The simplest of these are little more than networked digital pedometers. Using the same kind of microelectromechanical accelerometer found in our smartphones, these count steps, measure overall distance traversed, and furnish an estimate of the calories burned in the course of this activity. More elaborate models measure heart rate, breathing, skin temperature and even perspiration– biological primitives from which higher-order, harder-to-define psychoemotional states like stress, boredom or arousal can be inferred.
We can understand these devices as hinges between the body and the network: ways of raising the body’s own processes directly to the network, where they can be stored or mined for insight like any other data set. These latent indicators of biological performance, otherwise so hard to discern, are made legible in order that they may be rendered subject to the exercise of will, and brought under at least some semblance of control.
While the various models of Fitbit are probably the most widely used wearable biometric monitors, the Apple Watch is currently the most polished example of the category – indeed, lower-than-anticipated sales when initially marketed as a fashion accessory have spurred Apple to reposition its offering as a high-performance fitness device. With its obsessively detailed design, precision machining and luxury-grade materials, the Watch looks and feels a good deal less “technical” than its competitors. But it is every bit as capable of harvesting biometric data across multiple regimes, if not more so, and its colorful visualizations, trend lines and insistent reminders incorporate the latest findings of motivational psychology. It may be the long-awaited breakthrough in wearables: both the enabler and the visible symbol of a lifestyle in which performance is continuously monitored and plumbed for its insights into further improvements.
Nobody has embraced this conception of instrumented living more fervently than a loose global network of enthusiasts called the Quantified Self, whose slogan is “self-knowledge through numbers.” Founded by Wired editor Gary Wolf and Whole Earth Review veteran Kevin Kelly in 2007, the Quantified Self currently boasts a hundred or so local chapters, and an online forum where members discuss and rate the devices mobilized in their self-measurement efforts. (It can be difficult to disentangle this broader movement from a California company of the same name also founded by Wolf and Kelly, which mounts conferences dedicated to proselytizing for the practice of selfmeasurement.) In their meetups and on their forum, the stalwarts of the Quantified Self discuss the theory and practice of the measured life, mulling everything from the devices most effective at capturing REM sleep to the legalities involved in sharing data.
One forum thread goes quite a bit further; entitled “Can You Quantify Inner Peace?,” it discusses metrics that the instrumented aspirant might use to measure their progress toward heights of consciousness previously understood as the preserve of Zen meditators and yogic adepts.
As an individual lifestyle choice, none of this is properly anyone else’s to question, and there’s no doubt that the effort can occasionally yield up some provocative insights. Consider the young cognitive neuroscientist who cross-referenced her online purchases, entertainment choices and dating decisions against her menstrual cycle, and found among other things that she only ever purchased red clothing when she was at her most fertile.
What almost never seems to be addressed in these forums and meetups, though, are questions about what this self-knowledge is being mobilized for, and just where the criteria against which adherents feel they need to optimize their performance come from in the first place. While there are some fascinating questions being explored in the Quantified Self community, a brutal regime of efficiency operates in the background. Against the backdrop of late capitalism, the rise of wearable biometric monitoring can only be understood as a disciplinary power traversing the body itself and all its flows. This is a power that Frederick Taylor never dreamed of, and Foucault would have been laughed out of town for daring to propose.
It’s clear that the appeal of this is overwhelmingly to young workers in the technology industry itself, the control they harvest from the act of quantification intended to render them psychophysically suitable for performance in a work environment characterized by implacable release schedules and a high operational tempo. (Not for nothing is there a very significant degree of overlap between the Quantified Self and the “lifehacking” subculture – the same people who brought you Soylent, the flavorless nutrient slurry that is engineered to be a timeand-effort-efficient alternative to actual meals.) And of course what is most shocking about all of this is that it is undertaken voluntarily. Here, a not-insignificant percentage of the population has so decisively internalized the values of the market for their labor that the act of resculpting themselves to better meet its needs feels like authentic self-expression. They are willing to do whatever it takes to reengineer the body so it gets more done in less time, is easier and more pleasant to work with – to render themselves, as the old Radiohead lyrics put it, “calm, fitter, healthier and more productive,” and in so doing transform themselves into all-but-fungible production units, valued only in terms of what they offer the economy.
What may be unproblematic as the niche interest of a technical subculture becomes considerably more worrisome when its tenets are normalized as a way of life appropriate for the rest of us. But it is of yet greater concern when it becomes mandated by actors that operate at societal scale, and have the leverage to impose these choices upon us.
For now, this takes the form of a carrot: health insurance companies, including Aetna in the United States and Vitality in the United Kingdom, have already extended their customers steep discounts on the Apple Watch, and offer reduced premiums for those whose Watches continue to report a high and regular level of exercise. But it isn’t hard to see how this way of eliciting compliance could easily be transformed into a stick, with punitively higher rates – or even the refusal of coverage altogether – for those customers unwilling to share these most intimate facts of the body over the global network.
If these practices of the Quantified Self ever do spur any one individual to genuine introspection, impelling them to reckon with the true nature of their self as it manifests in this body and this life, then so much the better. But the Delphic injunction to know thyself hardly seems honored in the decision to strap on a Fitbit. And whatever gains may accrue to the occasional individual, they pale in comparison with everything that is sure to be lost when the posture of the body and all the details of its situation in space and time are used collectively, to construct models of nominal behavior we’re all thereafter forced to comply with.
If wearable biometric devices are aimed, however imperfectly, at rigorous self-mastery, the colonization of the domestic environment by similarly networked products and services is intended to deliver a very different experience: convenience. The clear aim of such smart home efforts is to as nearly as possible short-circuit the process of reflection that stands between one’s recognition of a desire and its fulfillment via the market.
The apotheosis of this tendency is a device currently being sold by Amazon, the Dash Button. Many internet-of-things propositions are little more than some more or less conventional object with networked connectivity tacked on, and their designers have clearly struggled to imagine what that connectivity could possibly be used for. The Dash Button is the precise opposite, a thing in the world that could not possibly have existed without the internet – and not merely some abstract network of networks, but the actual internet we have, populated by the precise mix of devices and services the more privileged among us habitually call upon in the course of their lives. I cannot possibly improve on Amazon’s own description of this curious object and how it works, so I’ll repeat it in full here:
Amazon Dash Button is a Wi-Fi connected device that reorders your favorite item with the press of a button. To use Dash Button, simply download the Amazon App from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. Then, sign into your Amazon Prime account, connect Dash Button to Wi-Fi, and select the product you want to reorder. Once connected, a single press on Dash Button automatically places your order. Amazon will send an order confirmation to your phone, so it’s easy to cancel if you change your mind. Also, the Dash Button Order Protection doesn’t allow a new order to be placed until the prior order ships, unless you allow multiple orders.
So: a branded, single-purpose electronic device, and quite an elaborate one at that, whose entire value proposition is that you press it when you’re running out of detergent, or toilet paper, or coffee beans, and it automatically composes an order request to Amazon. I don’t for a second want to downplay the value of a product like this for people who have parents to look after, or kids to drop off at daycare, or who live amid social and spatial conditions where simply getting in the car to go pick up some laundry detergent may take an hour or more out of their day. But the benefit is sharply differential. You get your detergent on time, yes, but Amazon gets so much more. They get data on the time and place of your need, as well as its frequency and intensity, and that data has value. It is, explicitly, an asset, and you can be sure they will exploit that asset in every way their terms and conditions permit them to – including by using it to develop behavioral models that map the terrain of our desires, so as to exploit them with even greater efficiency in the future.
Again, the aim of devices like the Dash Button is to permit the user to accomplish commercial transactions as nearly as possible without the intercession of conscious thought, even the few moments of thought involved in tapping out commands on the touchscreen of a phone or tablet. The data on what the industry calls conversion is as clear as it is unremitting: for every box to tick, form to fill or question that needs to be answered, the percentage of remaining users that makes it all the way to checkout tumbles. For the backers of commercial internet-of-things ventures, this falloff is the stuff of sleepless nights and sour stomachs. And yet manufacturers, enticed by the revenue potential inherent in a successful conquest of the domestic environment, keep trying, in the hope that sooner or later one of the connected products and services on offer will be embraced as something as essential to everyday life as the smartphone. We can understand the recent industry push toward the smart home as simply the latest version of this: a conscious, coherent effort to enlist our intimate spaces as a site of continuous technological upgrade, subscription-based services and the perpetual resupply of consumables. Perhaps the promise of effortless convenience can succeed in convincing consumers to sign on, where the sheer novelty of being connected did not.
For the moment, this strategy has come to center on so-called smart speakers, a first generation of which have now reached the market – products like the Amazon Echo and Google Home, each of which is supposed to function as a digital hub for the home. As we might by now expect of networked things, nothing about the physical form of these objects goes any way at all toward conveying their purpose or intended mode of function: Amazon’s Echo is a simple cylinder, and its Echo Dot that same cylinder hacked down to a puck, while the Google Home presents as a beveled ovoid. The material form of such speakers is all but irrelevant, though, as their primary job is to function as the physical presence of and portal onto a service – specifically, a branded virtual assistant.
Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Apple each offer their own such assistant, based on natural-language speech recognition; no doubt further competitors and market entrants will have appeared by the time this book sees print. Almost without exception, these assistants are given female names, voices and personalities, presumably based on research conducted in North America indicating that users of all genders prefer to interact with women. Apple’s is called Siri, Amazon’s Alexa; Microsoft, in dubbing their agent Cortana, has curiously chosen to invoke a character from their Halo series of games, polluting that universe without seeming to garner much in return. For now, at least, Google has taken a different tack, refreshingly choosing not to give their assistant offering any token of gendered personal identity, even in the rudimentary form of a name. One simply addresses it as Google.
Gendered or otherwise, these assistants live in a smart speaker the way a genie might in its bottle, from where they are supposed to serve as the command hub of a connected home. The assistant furnishes an accessible, easy-to-use front end on what might otherwise be an overwhelming number of controls scattered in different places throughout the home, subsuming those for lighting and entertainment, security functions, and heating, cooling and ventilation systems; through a selection of APIs, it also reaches out to engage third-party commercial services.
Whether or not this scenario appeals to a significant audience, or corresponds to the way in which anyone actually lives, it is of powerful interest to the manufacturers, who in this way establish a beachhead in the home for the brand – a point of presence, and a means of considerable leverage.
At first blush, devices like these seem harmless enough. They sit patiently in the periphery of attention, never pressing any kind of overt claim on their users, and are addressed in the most natural way imaginable: conversationally. But the details of implementation shed some light on just what this is all for. This is how Google’s assistant works: you mention to it that you’re in the mood for Italian, and it “will then respond with some suggestions for tables to reserve at Italian restaurants using, for example, the OpenTable app.” This scenario was most likely offered off the top of the head of the journalist who wrote it. But it’s instructive, a note-perfect illustration of the principle that though the choices these assistants offer us are presented as neutral, they invariably arrive prefiltered through existing assumptions about what is normal, what is valuable, and what is appropriate. Their ability to channel a nascent, barely articulated desire into certain highly predictable kinds of outcomes bears some scrutiny.
Ask restaurateurs and front-of-house workers what they think of OpenTable, for example, and you’ll swiftly learn that one person’s convenience is another’s accelerated work tempo, or worse. You’ll learn that restaurants offering reservations via the service are “required to use the company’s proprietary floor management system, which means leasing hardware and using OpenTable-specific software,” and that OpenTable retains ownership of all the data generated in this way. You’ll also learn that OpenTable takes a cut on reservations made of one dollar per seated diner, which obviously adds up to a very significant amount on a busy night. Conscientious diners (particularly those with some experience working in the industry) have therefore been known to bypass the ostensible convenience of OpenTable, and make whatever reservations they have to by phone. By contrast, Google Home’s all but frictionless default to making reservations via OpenTable normalizes that option, the same way the appearance of Uber as a default option in the Google Maps interface sanctifies the choice to use that service.
This is hardly accidental. It reflects the largely preconscious valuations, priorities and internalized beliefs of the people who devised Home – at Google, as throughout the industry, a remarkably homogeneous cohort of young designers and engineers, still more similar to one another psychographically and in terms of their political commitments than they are demographically alike. But as with those who have embraced the practices of the Quantified Self, what is more important than the degree of similarity they bear to one another is how different they are from everyone else.
I don’t think it’s unfair to say that at this moment in history, internet-of-things propositions are generally imagined, designed and architected by a group of people who have completely assimilated services like Uber, Airbnb and Venmo into their daily lives, at a time when Pew Research Center figures suggest that a very significant percentage of the population has never used (or even heard of) them. And all of their valuations get folded into the things they design. These propositions are normal to them, and so become normalized for everyone else as well.