Internet of Dependent Things

In February, Berg unveiled a prototype internet connected washing machine.

Connectivity holds out promise for something really new, these machines can become something actually different. Cloudwash is an expression of our thoughts on how to make this stuff matter and some steps to something better.

Promising remote access and a better interface, this convenience comes at a price: lock-in. Lock-in comes in many sizes, big and small.

Little Printer is certainly small. I’ve had it for a while now, and even though technically I don’t own it (I borrowed it from work) I call it ‘mine’. It’s in my bedroom. Messages and pictures addressed to me print out of it. It’s practically mine.

But sometimes it reminds me that it isn’t — sometimes it suddenly wears glasses, or a mask. One time it grew a moustache. There’s a setting that allows me to change the appearance of the printer, but it only affects the hairstyle. I have no control over anything else.

It will say things like “the Little Printer thought I looked cute in glasses” or “the Little Printer thought the glasses were too big and I had to give them back”, which reminds me that I don’t have full control of the device. The ‘Little Printer’ which the device refers to has control, but who is it? There is no explanation. Someone else is pulling the strings, controlling aspects of appearance and even gender expression (which I don’t get to pick).

I’m assuming it’s designed to give this object an opportunity to appear as if it has a life and identity independent of the owner, to make it more lively, interesting and playful; but for me it just regularly reminds me that someone else is in control.

Someone can remotely do what they please with a device that has been given access to my bedroom. What the printer can do is limited to printing stuff, of course, but I intensely dislike thinking about the reality: that it’s an expensive piece of single-use hardware that someone out there can make redundant in a heartbeat. Still, the Little Printer is just a toy, so i’m not so worried about the loss of control.

It’s not so easy to trade off convenience for ownership with other appliances or devices. For my phone, the loss of control is too much to bear. The very idea that someone gets to decide what I’m not allowed to do with my pocket computer is unacceptable. Although i’m not as attached to my washing machine as my phone, the loss of control still scares me.

It’s not a nightmare scenario, but there are plenty of things that could go wrong:

Third-party access to my domestic appliance creates a power disparity between the manufacturer (or service owner) and me. They can use their power to generate profit in ways that didn’t exist before, forcing me to pay in ways that go beyond the purchase of the appliance itself.

I make trade-offs daily about which privacies and freedoms to give up, and in exchange for what. Some are worth it and buy me closer connection with friends, or some useful convenience; others are foisted upon me because I have to make them in order to do my work; but some just to go too far.

I resent that the meaning of an acceptable trade-off is shifting toward less privacy, less control and towards tipping the balance in favour of for-profit companies and convenience for governments who want to spy on everyone.

Maciej Cegłowski puts it way better than I can:

What upsets me isn’t that we created this centralized version of the Internet based on permanent surveillance.

What upsets me, what really gets my goat, is that we did it because it was the easiest thing to do. There was no design, forethought, or analysis involved. No one said “hey, this sounds like a great world to live in, let’s make it”. It happened because we couldn’t be bothered.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Open projects could fill in the usefulness of adding connectivity to appliances. They could open-source the design of the hardware (or instructions on how to put it together), and the software it runs on. The owner wouldn’t be reliant on the manufacturer to make improvements, or to create versions that can work with different machines, or give them access from different kinds of devices. Ultimately, they could be in control of the hardware and the software involved.

Just like I would like to see a trend towards decentralisation of the web, I would like the internet of things to become full of decentralised entities, built on the premises of freedom and empowerment, before it’s entirely normal for marketers and governments to live in my washing machine.