The so-called “internet of things” baffles and worries me. Perhaps because the examples have always been so vague. Boosters say, I have heard, there will be sensors in a refrigerator so a person can communicate with it. But how? And even if the technological mechanics get worked out, do I really want my refrigerator to text me that the eggs are running low when I am about to drive by the supermarket on my way home from work?
Yet, potentially less odd results might come from the internet of things. In the latest Economist, Schumpeter explores how a heavily wired world of things might change the nature of the economy in favor of sustainability.
The old form of capitalism based on built-in obsolescence is giving way to a new one in which products get better after they are bought. This robs firms of the ability to make a quick profit by selling new models, but may bind them much closer to their customers.
The idea is, if your Tesla improves itself through software updates then there is no need to buy or lease the next model every couple of years. Thus, less unnecessary manufacturing and less consumption and less waste. In the case of a car like Tesla, there probably is not even a status incentive to buy a new model, since an automatic software update is at least as impressive as new exterior styling.
Of course, in the long run an economy held together by an internet of things might not be so sustainable. One can imagine how currently recyclable packaging that gets embedded with an internet-connectable thing will be more ecologically costly to make and less recyclable once used up. The other issue that begs the sustainability question is how manufacturers will use their things. Like how VW put a thing in some of its machines to fool the thing that the government put in its emissions testing machines. The cost was environmental damage as well as damaged egos of eco-conscious consumers who bought VW’s allegedly clean vehicles. In the case of VW, a technological thing tricked a technological thing, but even so it was non-technological things that felt the consequences. Might the ramifications get uglier of a manufacturer sets out from the start to make its technological thing trick a non-technological thing? As if toddlers and politicians are not enough, do we really want to add refrigerators and cars to our list of things trying to manipulate us?
Schumpeter says manufacturers must “hire more information-technology specialists” to help implement the internet of things and to address privacy and cyber-security concerns. What about hiring a few philosophers who specialize in ethics?
Skepticism aside, the internet of things is on its way to whatever thing you soon purchase. How should you respond? It is possible to try to avoid buying things attached to the internet of things. This may prove impractical and eventually impossible. If you cannot completely avoid acquiring connected things, you can at least avoid acquiring a lot of them. In the future the person with the most toys might win. . . at being most manipulated. Less internet-connected possessions could mean more personal freedoms.
But I think the best response is simply to make more time to leave our connected things behind and be human all on our own. Train for a 10k using a FitBit, but take it off and leave it at home when hiking in the woods. Use a Nest smart thermostat for home energy management, but make sure home involves more human fellowship than electronic entertainment. As often as possible, step away from the manipulative algorithm of things and experience the natural rhythms of life.