Thursday, October 08, 2015

The Internet of Things

Cory Doctorow discusses the Internet of Things, a term I hadn't come across before. This blog post on that topic has a link to his article in LOCUS on the same subject:

Dear Internet of Things

This concept refers to all the personal gadgets that collect information about us and transmit it to companies that compile such data—e.g., medical implants, GPS systems in cars, prisoner-tracking ankle cuffs for house arrest, etc. The process is usually claimed to be for our benefit but is often not under our control.

Doctorow proclaims that human beings should be "sensors, not things to be sensed." He makes an interesting distinction between the Facebook model and the e-mail model. With the former, the content source controls what we can see. With the latter, we decide for ourselves what we want to receive, block, respond to, or store. Not surprisingly, Doctorow advocates the e-mail model for the Internet of Things.

The main direct exposure to this kind of thing I've had is the "smart meter" recently installed by our local electric company. Smart meters keep the power company informed of each customer's energy use so there's no need for a meter reader to visit each house in person. Some members of the public viewed smart meters with alarm when they were introduced (more for concerns about radiation than about privacy, from what was reported in the news) and chose to opt out, a process the electric company discourages, naturally. Personally, I thought the advantage of having the energy provider know instantly when and where power failures occur outweighed any hypothetical drawbacks. No more ordeals of being the last remaining block in the neighborhood with no electricity after a storm and wondering if the company has forgotten our existence! We also have an intelligent thermostat, intelligent enough for two-way communication with the provider, anyhow. During heat waves, the electric company can remotely cycle off our air conditioner for brief periods (with our prior permission, and we get small discounts on electric bills for participating). Then there's the cable company, which can sometimes remotely reboot our TV set-top boxes if we're having an intractable problem—far preferable, in my opinion, to waiting for a repair technician all afternoon.

Consider how much information we already allow to be collected about us, for the sake of convenience (through credit card use and online purchases, for instance—think of cookies, without which our browsing and shopping experiences would be much less smooth). The important thing, as Doctorow suggests, is that the future of these magical devices and systems should be steered so that they serve us rather than vice versa.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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