The Internet Of Things: A Modern-day Version Of An Old Dilemma

The so-called "Internet of Things" poses a modern version of a very old dilemma. That dilemma revolves around feelings of control. 

On the one hand, the connectedness of the appliances and objects in our lives promises a dramatic increase in our personal efficacy in life. We now have the potential to activate a kind of "virtual personal staff" that takes responsibility for performing duties on our behalf, silently, diligently, without a need for conscious attention from us — indeed without us even being present. This virtual staff can remember the scheduling of routine chores that we might forget. It can act on our behalf while we sleep. It can "keep the home fires burning" even as we travel far and wide. 

However, this new opportunity for added control over our lives comes at a cost: when we surrender responsibility for elements of our lifestyle management, we surrender an element of control over our lives as well. If we're  not watching while these actions are performed, if we're asleep, or traveling, we can't be sure just how these actions will be performed. We can't even be sure that the actions even will be performed. And we can't be sure in the end that our "cybernetic staff" might not be performing actions that are completely at odds with our desires. 

Much has been written in the media of late about the prospect of hackers influencing our cyber staff — to drain our bank accounts, or to drive our cars off of the road. These are just the most dramatic examples of cyber staff gone wrong, and they tap into our now sadly ever-present fears of terrorism. 

But in reality we don't need terrorists to cause problems with the Internet of Things. Because it is still a group of things, and things, at least in our times and on this planet, are subject to entropy. And with entropy comes inaccuracy and error. The garage door starts to come back down even as we're only halfway into the garage; the stew comes on as scheduled but the temperature is 30° higher than it should be so the stew boils over; the automated bill payment functionality develops a glitch and all of our payments go out a week late. 

The problem of losing control when you share responsibility for the tasks of your life is hardly a new one. I'm sure all of us have watched an old movie in which some member of the aristocracy complains that "you can't get good help anymore." The Internet of Things has simply democratized this problem. 

In the end, I'm sure a good many of us will decide that the boon to our lives created by the Internet of Things outweighs the risks and frustrations involved in surrendering control along with responsibility. And I suspect that the risk that a hacker will run your car off the road will be about as large as the risk that the taxi driver you hired to take you home from the airport falls asleep and drives off of the road.

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