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The Thing of It Is: Free Will and the Internet of Things


About every 30 years or so Hollywood cooks up a horror movie titled The Thing. Even if the 1951 version, which I saw at a Saturday kids’ matinee when I was growing up, had a longer moniker (The Thing from Another World), posters and trailers emphasized “The Thing.” The Thing, particularized, is apparently quite scary.

I’ve been skimming the tech blogs, as I often do, and reading all about the recently ended Consumer Electronics Show in clip_image002Las Vegas, and for the first time that I can remember, there has been a certain hesitation in the reportage around the year’s “big thing” (as it were), the so-called Internet of Things. Plenty of commentators don’t even like the term, and just as many don’t seem all too keen on a world in which everything from our cars to our pillows to our refrigerators has a mind of its own, an e-minds that will soon be intent on delivering us a data-driven provider’s paradise of goods and services.

These cautiously skeptical reporters make their living exploring and frankly touting the wonders of new technology, so to hear even the slightest hesitation as they ponder the Internet of Things (we’ll see which acronym prevails, IoT or iOT) is worrisome. Blogger Timothy Stenovec, who moderated a panel on this topic at CES, posited a mattress sensor sharing news of your bad night’s sleep with other devices and directing you toward a rich fast-food breakfast—based not on your nutritional needs but on a purchased tie-in with fast food purveyors, who know that you’ll crave that bacon-and-egg-and-more delight when you’re hungry and tired. Why shouldn’t the Mr. Cholesterol chain buy into your datastream, if you, through some third-party app, are willing to sell it?

As Stenovic points out, consumers seem perfectly happy to sacrifice privacy for convenience (viz. Facebook), but will we be so eager to turn our lives over to technology when our wristwatch is sharing our every pulsebeat with a host of vendors eager to capitalize on the vagaries of our metabolism? I confess that I have also been compelled into some futurama1skepticism by the moral question of how a driverless car will decide whom to hit when collision is unavoidable.

In the articles I have read and radio pieces I have listened to, the only uncritical cheerleaders for this Internet of Things are entrepreneurs who are excited about making a killing on it. The interviewers and writers, usually given to ¤ all things internet, have been surprisingly circumspect in their consideration of these new wonders.

Apart from whatever surrender I may be forced to make of my personal data under an iOT or IoT regime, I think my biggest issue is that “smart” or “predictive” or “pre-emptive” technology—gadgets that anticipate my every need and desire based on patterns of past behavior combined with brilliantly subtle sales strategies—turn one’s whole world, physical as well as mental, into a vast echo chamber. If the chip knows what I need and where I am to go next, when will I ever stumble upon an unlooked-for delight or wind up taking my own road less traveled? When will I be exercising free will instead of responding obediently to a series of marketing algorithms so clever I won’t even know I’m being marketed to?

Educators already occupy a weird space where we want to make sure that we teach media literacy and “critical thinking,” skills whose purpose (among other things) in my humble opinion is to give our students tools to shield themselves against clever marketing algorithms and brilliantly subtle sales strategies. Simultaneously, we work to teach our students the very same persuasive skills and celebrate their entrepreneurial tendencies as they adapt technologies to new purposes, like “smart,” connected things. Call it ambiguous, call it schizophrenic—it’s definitely a space, if we choose to think about it, in which dissonance and mutual contradiction exist side by side with all of our enthusiasms, and we probably should stop every now and then to consider all this.

Of course it’s not an either–or proposition, this Internet of Things. It’s not really a B-movie monster from the Antarctic wastes that wants to kill us all. It wants, in fact, to help us.

Earlier I called the world the Internet of Things wants to create for us a “provider’s paradise,” and this to me is where it all goes wrong. We have pledged our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor to those who wish to sell us stuff, have given them power over our existence when even the most naive school child could have told us it should be the other way ’round, that in a righteous world this all of this technological power would offer us a consumer’s paradise, based on what we might actually want and even need rather than what the algorithm says we will purchase. And let’s face it, we allow ourselves to get pretty excited about those who live at the top end of the “provider” list—entrepreneur billionaires whose themselves, or whose minions, have created the algorithms that keep our money flowing into their coffers. What better way to celebrate a tech genius than to make sure we shower him (or less often, her) with our hard-earned dollars?

Figuring out just how far we are willing to go in doing this may call upon our own skills in media literacy and critical thinking, to pick and choose and on occasion to stand up against the gentle takeover of our refrigerators and pantries and pillows by this most well-meaning of technologies as it becomes a tool of the most profit-seeking of corporations. At some point we may wake up and revolt—either as Luddites or as canny hackers—against the goal of the machine—its aim of turning our environment into a bottomless money pit, an Internet of Things gently stripping us of our personal resources as it promises our souls and our our curious human spirits a cozy, digitally designed and perfectly fitted—based on our most recent order at Land’s End, perhaps—crypt.

We are called, each of us in our own turn and by still small voices, to decide whether The Thing, the smart thing, and its internet is a boon or in fact a monster worthy of a B movie. As educators we have an even more essential duty to our students to help them decide at what point to say “enough,” at what point to unleash the critical thinking we claim to value. The ability to choose whatever we desire may seem to be the ultimate freedom, but the story of King Midas reminds us that this very freedom might be nothing but the most tragic of constraints.

Having our heart’s desire set before us may seem like a gift from the gods, but I fear that the Internet of Things portends a world defined not by the infinitude of the human imagination and the human spirit but one ever more tightly limited by the puny and so predictable aspirations of commerce and mere human greed. The Internet of Things is attuned to our needs in the moment, but what does it know of aspirations, dreams, ideals?

I want to be more, and I want more—and less—from the things around me. Stuff is just stuff, but I, and we, are capable of imagining and creating more than “smart” Things. Whether it’s the “Mona Lisa” or just a great arrangement of “God Only Knows,” a 19th-century music box that plays Schubert or the Burj Khalifa, humans have done and can do far more than allow our lives to be determined by clever algorithms. I believe that as educators we have an obligation to stand up, even more strongly than these skeptical journalists, for the human over The Thing.