The Smart Device – Our Savior or Overlord?

Smart Devices have taken the United States by storm. While smart locks (allowing you to remotely open your home without your keys), smart thermostats (programmable and controllable via your device), and a myriad of other “smart tools” have been around for years, what has been really pushing these devices has been the influx of new smart speaker/hub devices – Amazon’s Echo series, Google Home, and the newly release Microsoft Invoke (there are rumors of an Apple Siri driven device coming this year). Now, with only your voice, you can set a timer, turn on/off your lights, adjust your thermostat, stream television shows, and (with Amazon’s new Alexa update preempting the release of Amazon Echo Show) call or text your mom. By the way, this is a limited list – you can do far more!

Reliance_Smart_Client

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

So what does this mean for us? With the proliferation of smart home devices, I’ve seen legitimate concerns and excitement across the aisle. Privacy has become a more prominent concern among tech consumers. While I have my share of tools and devices, I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t concerned about what data was being collected and how it is being disseminated. This is not just a concern about marketing (although many think it’s creepy that they purchase an item at the physical store and then find ads for it on their browser). Now that our digital lives, which seamlessly intersect with our physical ones, are becoming more cataloged and accessible, what does that mean for our future career and personal aspirations? Amanda Hess, columnist for the New York Times, recently wrote an op-ed entitled “How Privacy Became a Commodity for the Rich and Powerful.” If you have not yet read this piece, please do. It’s a powerful look at how our lives are now becoming monetized in ways that we cannot even imagine. Additionally, where does privacy end for us when it comes to government investigation? Edward Snowden’s exposure of NSA surveillance should remind us all that even if we are not under criminal investigation, our data is being collected and mined by the government.

However, on the opposite side of the coin, these devices do make our lives much easier. Yes, I do mean largely in the mundane – while my hands are covered in food residue I can just ask Alexa to set a timer or have her (when did I start thinking of “it” as a “her”?) turn off the lights after I leave a room so that I don’t have to walk across my living room in the pitch black, risking stubbing a toe or tripping on shoes. Of course it makes my life easier – just as Waze makes my drive home faster through Miami traffic, but perhaps I’m a little reliant on convenience! However, smart devices are having a profound impact on individuals with disabilities. It empowers them to be more independent and safe. For example, NBC news recently highlighted the experience of Todd, a quadriplegic 48 year old man. He spoke powerfully about how smart devices have enabled him to have lead a more fulfilling an independent life, and to be a better husband to his wife.

“A spouse should be your spouse. Your lover and your friend. Not a free caregiver,”

Todd’s experience is not unique as many individuals share how life-changing and impactful smart devices are for them. If you don’t believe me, check out the comments on Amazon Echo’s page. Their affordability (through their proliferation on the consumer market) make them accessible across socioeconomic divides; a user doesn’t need to fight an insurance company to gain access.

So what is the answer with smart devices? What level of privacy (if any) should we expect to forfeit? Who should over see this? How do we educate ourselves as well as children? To me, the last question is the most important. These technologies have exploded and common practice and legal overlay has not yet evolved to tackle them. If we don’t know what privacy we are giving up, then how do we know if it’s worth it? If these tools have become necessities (as many argue the internet now is), then is it legitimate to sacrifice our privacy to use them?

What do you think? What answers do you have or do you think we should explore?

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