The range of devices that communicate via the internet, the internet of things (IoT), is growing rapidly. Think of wearables and activity trackers, digital assistants, smart thermostats, smart refrigerators or televisions, or the self-driving car. With the exception of the consequences for our privacy, the expectations are mainly techno-utopian: the IoT is expected to make our lives healthier, cheaper, more sustainable, safer, and more pleasant.
This does, however, require a population that can use the IoT. This may seem quite easy at first. Where the 'normal' Internet requires digital skills for operating hardware and software, and for online information, communication, and content creation, these are partly unnecessary with the IoT. Data is processed in the background and decisions are made without user intervention. It seems a matter of just turning on the device and connecting it to the internet. But it is not that simple. Although the IoT decides autonomously for us, our research shows that 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 very complex. For users, the rationale behind the many processes that take place out of their sight will often be difficult to understand. Where the operation of earlier technology required a fully aware user, the IoT is characterized by passive users who are not aware of what exactly is happening.
Take for example activity trackers that can track our walking speed, blood pressure, heart rate, stress level, or breathing activity. A user must consider which data is collected, which analyses are required, and who gets access to the data. These data reveal when someone is at home, traveling to work, getting enough exercise, or eating healthy. Understanding how the 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 your insurance premium go up?
Two years ago, the project 'Any Thing for Anyone' (NWO VIDI) was launched to investigate digital inclusion in relation to the IoT. After all, there are many potential benefits for individuals and for society. Smart devices can support individuals in making better decisions, for example about energy consumption or health. In addition, the production of so-called big data that smart devices collect is a public good that policymakers can use for critical decisions.