The House That Spied on Me

Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu, at the Verge, conducted an experiment in smart home living. Kashmir tricked out her house in smart home devices, from coffee makers to beds, and Surya monitored the data being sent from the house through the internet to see what could be tracked.

Their article does a good job of bringing her experience to life; through observations and data: The House That Spied on Me.

I like to imagine that I’m going to keep my house simple and dumb for as long as possible. I don’t like creating that much data about what we do. But there will come a point where connection is a necessity for basic living. Insurance companies will expect to know about your habits. The government needs to know about your power consumption. Communicating with anyone requires a device that knows where you are.

I don’t mean to paint myself as paranoid or a luddite, but we are moving so quickly and so clumsily into this frustrating new world that it feels like no one is considering the implications of it all.

Friends and family are subjected to surveillance:

Getting a smart home means that everyone who lives or comes inside it is part of your personal panopticon.

Your behaviour changes as you’re constantly aware of being observed:

All of the anxiety you currently feel about being tracked online is going to move into your living room.

And for all of the tasks that are automated, there comes a new layer of tasks involved with maintaining the automators:

I thought the house would take care of me but instead, everything in it now had the power to ask me to do things.

At some point, the business world, or the government, or someone needs to start thinking about whether or not this is good for people. Or at least, whether or not it’s possible for people who use this stuff to even comprehend what they are trading in return for a coffee maker that can connect to Alexa.

Surveillance Capitalism

Maciej Cegłowski makes Pinboard.in. It’s one of my favorite places to put articles that I’m never going to read. He’s also a gifted writer and really thoughtful about the role of technology in society. I don’t know how to pronounce his name. Either of them.

He recently gave a talk about The Moral Economy of Tech in which he argues that social media is becoming a requirement of modern life, but using it is putting all of us in a bad spot: 

Companies that perform surveillance are attempting the same mental trick. They assert that we freely share our data in return for valuable services. But opting out of surveillance capitalism is like opting out of electricity, or cooked foods—you are free to do it in theory. In practice, it will upend your life.

The reality is, opting out of surveillance capitalism means opting out of much of modern life.

He then goes into “THE INEVITABLE LIST OF SCARY SCENARIOS” in which data is used against people. The scariest scenario being the one where we have to pay more attention to LinkedIn at international borders.

What we’ve done as technologists is leave a loaded gun lying around, in the hopes that no one will ever pick it up and use it.

I used to be in the camp of “I don’t care if anyone knows what I’ve checked out of the library,” but that was before we saw the extent to which crazy ideas could get crazy amounts of crazy people excited. Before Brexit and Trump and removing headphone jacks.

If you can’t play to a small room, analytics can’t save you.

We have never been more easily tracked (think technology provided by the likes of Luth Research and the MANY others.) The wake of data that we leave behind as we work our way through the world has made it easy for large organizations to lump us all into larger buckets of ever-bigger data. Seeing patterns of behavior from that viewpoint makes it possible to incrementally change things to affect that behavior, one way or the other.

But for most of us, big data is much less important. What matters is creating value for small groups of people. If you can’t move a dozen people, it’s unlikely that you’ll ever get to the point where big data will be helpful.

I’ve experienced this as a musician. Getting a room of 5-20 people to transform from individuals to an audience is incredibly difficult.

Emily Haines, the incredible talent that fronts the band Metric, put it really well in an interview (about fashion, of all things):

…the moments I’m most proud of are those first shows where we managed to get 15 people in a random bar to be committed to what’s happening with the music. I know it’s hard for people to imagine that would be the hardest shows we’ve ever played. I’ve played with Lou Reed, I’ve played to tens of thousands of people, I’ve played for the Queen, but nothing is harder than those moments when you have the conviction to play in front of those 15 people and own it.

If you can’t move a few people, it’s going to be hard to move thousands. It might be because of the Herd effect. It’s difficult for people to get on board with anything until they see other people doing it.

Nobody wants to be the first person on the dance floor. It’s not always easy to get a buffet line started. To be the first one to open a beer at a professional event.

But it’s also difficult to get yourself to fully commit in such an intimate setting. It can feel like stepping in front of a firing squad. Your feedback will be instantaneous, and it might be unfiltered. You might feel silly or self-conscious in a way that is much different than standing in front of a large crowd. If you’re in Texas, there might be beer bottles exploding against the chicken wire protecting the stage.

If you are bombing, you’re still committed. You have to finish whatever it is that you set out to do. That follow-through can be incredibly difficult. Especially when things start-off badly.

Learning to read a room is important. Learning to remain committed in the face of a room that may or may not be buying-in is critical. You might have to make adjustments as you are reading the room, but It’s ultimately staying committed that is going to get people to buy in.

It’s scary. People have a hard time doing it. But having the grit to put yourself back in that position again and again is how people learn to master a small room.

It’s how comedians learn to be great. It’s how musicians learn to be great. And it’s how creative people learn to be great.

If you can’t play to a small room, analytics aren’t going to save you.

Your Data and The Wrong Stuff

You aren’t worried enough about your personal data.

I worry about my personal data online now more than ever. I wasn’t concerned at all a few years ago. That was before I realized how much of it was being collected by how many companies. No spoilers, but it’s a lot more than just Google and Facebook.

Having used Ghostery on my laptop for the last six months, my eyes are open to the sheer number of trackers online. The fact that I haven’t heard of most of them might mean that I don’t know much about the business. But it could also mean that at least one-or-two of them are wobbly startups, clinging to life, a botched round of funding away from going tits-up.

This is the way your data privacy is violated. Not with a bang, but with a whimpering Stanford grad.

What happens to your data when one of these places goes to the great tech-conference in the sky? The next time you see it might be on your credit report or in some kind of ransom note.

I’m sorry sir, but your credit report shows that you have an unhealthy obsession with fusion jazz, and we’ll be unable to extend this loan to you. And if you don’t give us a thousand dollars, we’ll tell your kids about your Warhammer 40k collection.

But that is nowhere nearly as fascinating as what’s being called LOVEINT. It’s a problem common enough that the intelligence community has a government-speak acronym for it. Imagine high-school jealousy, pettiness, and emotional instability powered by Big Data.

Revenge is a dish best served cold, and with rosemary, at least that’s what your data profile indicated.

Richard wrote about it over at Sanspoint:

But another aspect of all that data collection is whether we trust who has access to it. I’m not talking about malicious hackers getting access into the Facebook database and finding out everything it knows about everyone. I’m more concerned about the stereotypical jilted ex who uses their access to do a deep dive into what their company knows about their former partner. No matter how well you lock down what other people can see on Facebook, someone—likely multiple someones—at the company have access into the database.

Yes, the people who have access to this stuff are likely big shots who have been vetted somehow. But never forget the NASA Astronaut that drove from Houston to Orlando wearing a diaper.

Even people with The Right Stuff can misplace it and spend days sitting in The Wrong Stuff.