Smart devices decide for us, can we deal with that?

by Alexander van Deursen (translated article published in Trouw)

The range of devices that communicate via the internet, the internet of things, is growing very fast. Think of wearables (from fitness trackers to baby socks), digital assistant in the house, smart thermostats, refrigerators or televisions, or the self-driving car. With the exception of the implications for our privacy, which are being debated, most expectations are techno-utopian: the Internet of Things makes our lives healthier, cheaper, more sustainable, safer and more pleasant.

But this does require a population that can use that Internet of Things. That may seem simple at first. Where the 'normal' internet requires digital skills for dealing with hardware and software, these are partly superfluous with the internet of things. Data is processed in the background and decisions are made without user intervention. It's a matter of turning on the device and connecting to the internet. The smart thermostat has access to calendars, beds and cars and automatically adjusts the temperature taking into account our whereabouts. The self-driving car reduces our driving skills as the car makes decisions based on traffic conditions.

Passive USERS

Maar toch, zo simpel is het niet.

“Although the Internet of Things decides autonomously for us, there is a greater need for digital skills. Users deal with a system in which devices communicate with other devices and with other users who also communicate with each other. The amount of data collected is increasing and becoming more complex. For users, the rationale behind the many processes that take place out of their sight will be difficult to understand. Where the operation of earlier technology required a fully aware user, the internet of things is characterized by passive users who are not aware of what exactly is happening.”

Take the smart bracelet that can track our walking speed, blood pressure, heart rate, stress level and breathing activity. A user must consider which data is collected, what analyzes are required and who gets access to the data. These data reveal when someone is at home, is traveling to work, is getting enough exercise or is eating healthily.

Understanding and understanding how collected data is used requires strategic decision-making. Consider the damage that can be done when information gets into the hands of criminals. Or what happens when a defective wearable does not register your blood pressure correctly or detects that you are not moving much. Will the insurance premium go up?

MAINTAIN AutonomY 

Using the Internet of Things in a way that it provides benefits to someone, requires a high level of strategic skills. It are precisely these skills that are insufficiently developed in a large part of the population. Staying critical, maintaining autonomy, and being wary of those involved who want to manipulate the system to their own advantage is something most people don't learn. You just have to save yourself. We must take action to prevent a large group of less skilled people from being exploited. After all, they too are entitled to the many possible benefits of the Internet of Things.

The solutions will not be directly in education or in following a course. Producers must first become more open about the devices and systems they are developing and make it clear what options consumers have when it comes to data collection and processing. In addition, they must communicate these options to consumers in an understandable way. Consumer organizations can assess this and advise on use. Publicity about all the pros and cons, and conscious use of the Internet of Things is imperative. Later on, education will be important in order to acquire the necessary skills.