Wednesday, 11 June 2014

The Surveillance Economy

You know you are in the presence of techno-bollix when the coming wonders are sold using examples that are simultaneously "wow!" and "WTF?" I've been dubious about the revolutionary potential of robot cars since boosters started suggesting you could sleep in them, as if this could be redefined as aspirational after years of being the preserve of those who had lost their homes due to poverty or infidelity. Robot cars are coming, but I suspect they'll be less common than most people think. I also remain sceptical about the Internet of Things (IoT), largely because the iconic benefit up till now has been a fridge that can order fresh milk.

IoT technology, like robot cars and wearable computing, is essentially about better sensors and data storage rather than communications. The "Internet" bit is actually trivial. As such, these hype-fests are concept applications of Big Data, and thus surveillance, rather than examples of revolutionary new functionality. What the robot car, Google Glass and the smart fridge are selling is the idea of control, but as much in a psychological as a mechanical sense.

That the early forms of the robot car look like wombs on wheels or updated bubble cars is no coincidence, while wearable tech quite openly promises to augment and improve the puny human. Similarly, the IoT trope is less about a single device than a fully wired home, where "smart" and "secure" are synonymous. The overlap between these areas, already hinted at by Google's acquisition of Nest, was made clear in Apple's recently announced HomeKit and HealthKit, which together extend surveillance to your home and your body.

Behind IoT is a database that acts both as the controller of the home and a representation of the identity and desires of the inhabitants. This is potentially of great value to advertisers, not to mention the NSA and GCHQ, but it would be wrong to imagine a future in which the agents of the state monitor your stools and dental hygiene. IoT data is not social but personal and familial, so the estrangement experienced with social media isn't going to happen, or at least not in the same way. The privacy of this data will be a key selling point. You will be the surveillant of yourself and your dependents (there is a pater familias vibe to much of this technology). While you may backup your encrypted data to the cloud, the smart home will have an integral server this side of the firewall. Your data will finally be your inalienable property.

One by-product of this shift towards systems that enable greater user control (or at least the illusion of exclusive control) is a greater willingness for manufacturers to pursue proprietary architectures. This is partly driven by the realisation that the original Internet business model, i.e. free stuff in return for surveillance and targeted adverts, which put a premium on openness and accessibility, isn't going to work for the IoT. The devices themselves will quickly become commoditised and open, but the controller (server and database) will be closed. Consequently, the latter is where the big money will be for manufacturers, hence Google are developing a controller that could be ported to many cars (the simplicity of the prototype is intended to make this point), while Apple are determined to keep iOS and the iPhone/iPad at the centre of the domestic ecosystem.

Google will no doubt want to leverage the data produced by robot cars for advertising, just as supermarkets will be keen to get emails from your fridge, but it's worth remembering that the Google Car is designed to read the environment and react rather than follow directions from a central server or a smart road, while your fridge will conceivably be able to check prices from multiple supermarkets before placing an order on your behalf. Even if you still prefer popping out to the corner shop for a pinta, this represents a change in the dynamic. From being something that is done to us, with insufficient or ill-informed permission, surveillance will become a positional good in its own right.

This explains the alacrity with which the big technology companies have sought to position themselves recently as the defenders of privacy and personal liberty against an encroaching state. Their public ideology is shifting from a liberal bias ("freedom") towards a conservative bias ("safety"). This is an easy segue as their private ideology, libertarian bordering on anarcho-capitalist, already accommodates the paranoid and the proprietorial. A paradox of the liberal response to the Snowden revelations is that it may be helping the shift to a more conservative generation of technology represented by robot cars, wearable computing and the Internet of Things.

While the media frets about the lack of a "new must-have product" from Apple, and some worry about the civil liberties implications of mass surveillance and Big Data, we are blasé about the wider social and economic implications of digital technology. Almost 80% of the developed world (and 40% and rising of the global population) have Internet access, which makes the growth of the digital economy over the last twenty years the fastest and most extensive technological uptake in history. The lack of a new gizmo for Christmas, like the assumption that modern technology is trivial, is no longer a first world problem - it is becoming a global trope.

In 1991, Mark Weiser, the CTO of Xerox PARC, claimed: "The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it". While this has much truth in it (e.g. electricity), it ignores the way that economics determines what we use a technology for, and therefore the extent of its ubiquity. While the cost of IoT will drop, there will remain a market for high-cost elite goods and capabilities. This is what Apple, who are never going to pitch to the great unwashed, are banking on. The most data-rich households will be the most rich.

The emblem for this future is Tony Stark in his seaside mansion: the tech-augmented body in a tech home. The reality may be more like Gwyneth Paltrow, monitoring her kids health and checking the CCTV for stalkers while posting updates to Gloop, secure in the knowledge that the NSA cannot monitor her inner thoughts. Apple are offering a lifestyle upgrade on the tin-foil hat.

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