The Internet of Things

4/25/2014 - Marco (updated on 9/18/2020)

This article originally appeared on earthli News and has been cross-posted here.

The article Smart TVs, smart fridges, smart washing machines? Disaster waiting to happen by Peter Bright discusses the potential downsides to having a smart home1: namely our inability to create smart software for our mediocre hardware. And once that software is written and spread throughout dozens of devices in your home, it will function poorly and quickly be taken over by hackers because "[h]ardware companies are generally bad at writing softwareand bad at updating it."

And, should hackers fail to crack your stove's firmware immediately, for the year or two where the software works as designed, it will, in all likelihood, "[...] be funneling sweet, sweet, consumer analytics back to the mothership as fast as it can", as one commentator on that article put it.

Manufacturers aren't in business to make you happy

Making you happy isn't even incidental to their business model now that monopolies have ensured that there is nowhere you can turn to get better service. Citing from the article above:

These devices will inevitably be abandoned by their manufacturers, and the result will be lots of "smart" functionalityfridges that know what we buy and when, TVs that know what shows we watchall connected to the Internet 24/7, all completely insecure.

Manufacturers almost exclusively design hardware with extremely short lifetimes, hewing to planned obsolescence. While this a great capitalist strategy, it is morally repugnant to waste so many resources and so much energy to create gadgets that will break in order to force consumers to buy new gadgets. Let's put that awful aspect of our civilization to the side for a moment and focus on other consequences.

These same manufacturers are going to take this bulletproof strategy to appliances that have historically had much longer lifetimes. They will also presumably take their extremely lackluster reputation for updating firmware and software into this market. The software will be terrible to begin with, it will be full of security holes and it will receive patches for only about 10% of its expected lifetime. What could possibly go wrong?

Either the consumer will throw away a perfectly good appliance in order to upgrade the software or the appliance will be an upstanding citizen of one, if not several, botnets. Or perhaps other, more malicious services will be funneling information about you and your household to others, all unbeknownst to you.

People are the problem2

These are not scare tactics; this is an inevitability. People have proven themselves to be wildly incapable of comprehending the devices that they already have. They have no idea how they work and have only vague ideas of what they're giving up. It might as well be magic to them. To paraphrase the classic Arthur C. Clarke citation: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" especially for a sufficiently technically oblivious audience.

Start up a new smart phone and try to create your account on it. Try to do so without accidentally giving away the keys to your data-kingdom. It is extremely difficult to do, even if you are technically savvy and vigilant.

Most people just accept any conditions, store everything everywhere, use the same terribly insecure password for everything and don't bother locking down privacy options, even if available. Their data is spread around the world in dozens of places and they've implicitly given away perpetual licenses to anything they've ever written or shot or created to all of the big providers.

They are sheep ready to be sheared by not only the companies they thought they could trust, but also by national spy agencies and technically adept hackers who've created an entire underground economy fueled by what can only be called deliberate ignorance, shocking gullibility and a surfeit of free time and disposable income.

The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things is a catch-phrase that describes a utopia where everything is connected to everything else via the Internet and a whole universe of new possibilities explode out of this singularity that will benefit not only mankind but the underlying effervescent glory that forms the strata of existence.

The article Ars readers react to Smart fridges and the sketchy geography of normals follows up the previous article and includes the following comment:

What I do want, is the ability to check what's in my fridge from my phone while I'm out in the grocery store to see if there's something I need.

That sounds so intriguing, doesn't it? How great would that be? The one time a year that you actually can't remember what you put in your refrigerator. On the other hand, how the hell can your fridge tell what you have? What are the odds that this technology will even come close to functioning as advertised? Would it not be more reasonable for your grocery purchases to go to a database and for you to tell that database when you've actually used or thrown out ingredients? Even if your fridge was smart, you'd have to wire up your dry-goods pantry in a similar way and commit to only storing food in areas that are under surveillance.

The commentator went on to write,

I do agree that security is a huge, huge issue, and one that needs to be addressed. But I really don't see how resisting the "Internet of things" is the longterm solution. The way technology seems to be trending, this is an inevitability, not a could be.

Resisting the "Internet of things" is not being proposed as the long-term solution. It is being proposed as a short- to medium-term solution because the purveyors of this shining vision of nirvana have proven themselves time and again to be utterly incapable of actually delivering the panaceas that they promise in a stream of consumption-inducing fraud. Instead, they consistently end up lining their own pockets while we all fritter away even more precious waking time ministering to the retarded digital children that they've birthed from their poisoned loins and foisted upon us.

Stay out of it, for now

Hand-waving away the almost-certain security catastrophe as if it can be easily solved is extremely disingenuous. This is not a world that anyone really wants to take part in until the security problems are solved. You do not want to be an early adopter here. And you most especially do not want to do so by buying the cheapest, most-discounted model available as people are also wont to do. Stay out of the fight until the later rounds: remove the SIM card, shut off Internet connectivity where it's not needed and shut down Bluetooth.

The best-case scenario is that early adopters will have their time wasted. Early rounds of software promise to be a tremendous time-suck for all involved. Managing a further herd of purportedly more efficient and optimized devices is a sucker's game. The more you buy, the less likely you are to be in charge of what you do with your free time.

As it stands, we already fight with our phones, begging them to connect to inadequate data networks and balky WLANs. We spend inordinate amounts of time trying to trick their garbage software into actually performing any of its core services. Failing that -- which is an inevitability -- we simply live with the mediocrity, wasting our time every day babysitting gadgets and devices and software that are supposed to be working for us.

Instead, it is we who end up performing the same monotonous and repetitive tasks dozens of times every day because the manufacturers have -- usually in a purely self-interested and quarterly revenue-report driven rush to market -- utterly failed to test the basic functions of their devices. Subsequent software updates do little to improve this situation, generally avoiding fixes for glaring issues in favor of adding social-network integration or some other marketing-driven hogwash.

Avoiding this almost-certain clusterf*#k does not make you a Luddite. It makes you a realist, an astute observer of reality. There has never been a time in history when so much content and games and media has been at the fingertips of anyone with a certain standard of living. At the same time, though, we seem to be so bedazzled by this wonder that we ignore the glaring and wholly incongruous dreadfulness of the tools that we are offered to navigate, watch and curate it.

If you just use what you're given without complaint, then things will never get better. Stay on the sidelines and demand better -- and be prepared to wait for it.

  1. Or a smart car or anything smart that works perfectly well without being smart.

  2. To be clear: the author is not necessarily excluding himself here. It's not easy to turn on, tune in and drop out, especially when your career is firmly in the tech world. It's also not easy to be absolutely aware of what you're giving up in as you make use of the myriad of interlinked services offered to you every day.

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