Is convenience worth the growing tyranny?

The older I get, the more my interest in technology regresses.

Seriously, I fight against the Internet of Things tooth and nail. When I first heard about “smart” refrigerators, I honestly thought they were a joke. What, are people too lazy to inventory the contents of their fridge? Seriously? Do they need “smart” technology to write their grocery list or tell them their lettuce is getting old?

One of the joys of being a Luddite is so many of the world’s modern problems simply pass us by. (I’m still not entirely certain what an “app” is – and I’d just as soon keep it that way.) I like to say I’m too dumb to use smart technology, but at least our “dumb” living room lamps or door locks can’t be hacked by someone in Russia.

A few years ago, a tech-savvy friend gave me his older Kindle when he upgraded to a newer version. I downloaded a couple of books and learned to my amazement that just because I paid for the content didn’t mean I actually owned it. No, thanks. We have a home library of over 1,700 volumes. We own those books. No one can declare our books contraband and remove our ability to read them via remote “app” or whatever.

“The reality is when you buy a device that requires proprietary software to run, you don’t own it. The money you hand over is an entry fee, nothing more,” observes Victoria Song in a Gizmodo article. “When everything is a lease, you also agree to a life defined by someone else’s terms. The utopian ideal of the future the [World Economic Forum] proposed can’t exist so long as anyone can legally own ideas.”

And that, dear readers, is the problem with the ever-increasing Internet of Things. Owning is being transitioned to renting – which, of course, is entirely the goal of the World Economic Forum (“You’ll own nothing and you’ll be happy.”) To someone who doesn’t even have a clear understanding of what an “app” is, this sounds more like a threat than a cheery vision of the future.

Having just moved to a new home – which included the wearying transportation of 1,700 heavy books – I am well aware of the burden of ownership. Sometimes the price of freedom is inconvenience. Short of a natural disaster, we own those books. Forget the Internet of Things. I’ll just take the “things.”

The Internet of Things is amazingly convenient … until it’s not. Who can forget furious homeowners locked out of their smart houses thanks to a software glitch, or the smart thermostat problems that left users shivering? Every single smart item is vulnerable to malfunctions and hacking. Why anyone wants these things is beyond me.

No one – even us Luddites – can deny the vastly greater efficiency the Internet of Things has performed in matters of manufacturing, domestic and international shipping, communication, medicine and other modern miracles. But it’s a mighty big leap between industrial applications and your kitchen stove. Just because something can be made “smart” doesn’t necessarily mean it should.

And yet laziness apparently is at the heart of this trend. Smart features are the lazy man’s way to go about his daily business. No one (except Luddites) remembers how to use a paper map any more. It’s now considered daring and adventurous to navigate a strange city without GPS and other “apps.” Paper maps are just too darned hard.

And I’m sorry, but unless you’re disabled (in which case, go for it), there is no earthly reason to sit on your butt and tell Alexa to turn on the lights. Please, folks, that’s ridiculous.

In fact, many believe this Internet of Things goes beyond the ridiculous into the dangerous. Smart lights, for example, aren’t just a spiffy fun techy addition to your home. The infrastructure exposes your home network to the wider web, which in turn embeds security and privacy concerns for something most of us can do easily (turn on the lights). In short, smart technology often solves problem that don’t need solving. In return, we forfeit privacy and autonomy.

In his brilliant essay “Tyranny of Convenience,” attorney and legal scholar Tim Wu writes, “Convenience is the most underestimated and least understood force in the world today. … In the developed nations of the 21st century, convenience – that is, more efficient and easier ways of doing personal tasks – has emerged as perhaps the most powerful force shaping our individual lives and our economies.”

If I were a conspiracy theorist – and I like to think I’m not – I would say our increasing dependency and voluntary embracing of smart technology is a nefarious plot to make Americans weak, lazy and dependent. If navigating an unknown city with an old-fashioned paper map is now considered daring and audacious, what happens to the parts of our brain devoted to spatial navigation? If we depend on Amazon to control our home’s functions, what happens if Amazon decides it doesn’t like our political suasion? If we depend on smart thermostats to keep us from freezing during the winter, what happens when that technology is hacked from Russia?

In short, what happens when technology is used against us?

The original intent – or so I assume – of the World Wide Web was the ability to connect people and technology around the world. I’m fully aware of these miraculous developments whenever we communicate with our deployed military daughter. But now that this interconnectivity has been attained, the purpose of this technology is changing. It’s becoming a means of control, of intimidation, of conformity.

Consider this headline: “A Future U.S. Digital Currency Might Give the Fed the Power to Approve Your Mortgage Based on Factors Other than Credit Worthiness.” Doesn’t this make you nervous? Digital banking means someone else controls every aspect of your financial life and can punish you if you don’t conform to their ideals.

Whenever you give up control of something – lights, urban navigation, reading material – you cede that control to someone else. As Google has abundantly illustrated, Big Tech is not your friend. They have morphed into an evil entity with delusions of grandeur – all because people are too lazy to turn on their own lights and monitor the contents of their refrigerator.

Is convenience worth the tyranny? You decide.

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