Think pieces

Are we changing things or are they changing us?

Fit bit. Smart phone. Facebook. Car.

Each one of these gadgets affects your behaviour and that’s why you bought them in the first place; convenience, access to up-to-the-minute-data, being connected and reminded to do the right thing.

They also collect data and that data is going to be used to alter your behaviour in ways none of us expected. While the Internet of Things is there to serve you, it will also monitor you and influence you (if it isn’t already).

In ‘Three Ways the Internet of Things is Shaping Consumer Behaviour’, it seems the brave new world of always-on devices is becoming a complicated feedback experiment. A day like the following isn’t too far away…

Wake up

You wake up, and a small ‘ping’ on your phone reminds you to take the multi-vitamins you bought at the local supermarket. Both pleased and a little irritated (they’re tracking your purchases), you strap on your Fitbit and head out for a quick run.

Another ‘ping’ in your headphones and your favourite podcast gets interrupted by a traffic alert; you’ll need to leave 20 minutes early if you expect to get to work on time. Something, somewhere, knows where you are.

Okay, that’s weird but actually kind of helpful, so back home you head and jump in the shower and then the car. The car connects to your Fitbit and phone and as you pull out into the traffic, a reminder pops up to let you know about the breakfast specials at work. That’s the fridge telling the internet you didn’t open it.

Drive time 

A break opens up in the line of cars and as you accelerate the radio cuts out as a friendly voice lets you know you’re in danger of increasing your car insurance premium. You slow down, and it thanks you for being a responsible driver. It’s like having your mum beside you.

Amazingly, you get to work on time (dammit, they were right, whoever ‘they’ are) and when you get to your desk, you OH&S representative pops over to see how you’re feeling. They got a message that your heart rate was a little elevated. Just checking. Hm.

Work day

Along with the usual stream of junk emails, you’re beginning to notice ads for that Japanese ski trip you were talking about the other day (the one you Googled to see where it actually was). The dates correspond to your annual leave. It’s uncanny.

You grab a quick snack at lunchtime (that diet app is becoming a pain but okay, you should really have the kale salad) and back at the desk you see an email from your bank letting you know that credit has been approved for a $10,000 overseas holiday (plus an amazing travel insurance deal for snow sports, based on your Facebook profile).

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Devices by Jeremy Keith via Flickr

Beer o’clock 

Around 5pm, a phone alert lets you know that the frozen fish you’d forgotten about should be eaten within the next week. Your iPad pings you with a salmon recipe. You flick both off their respective screens and decide you won’t be controlled like this. You’ll join the others for a bite after work and live your own life. 

As you enter the bistro/bar/eatery, your phone buzzes that your daily kilojoule intake is already over the dietary requirements you entered when you got the diet app in the first place. “Go away” you mutter as you stride to the bar and order a round. Tapping your card at the register, your phone gets an email from your health insurer; it’s a cheeky enquiry as to whether this is the third night you’ve been out for a drink this week. Will you be safe to drive? 

Not Big Brother…yet 

This is not Big Brother, in the sense that no individual person may be tracking you and your habits, it’s big data; algorithms feeding patterns back to machines that learn from behaviours. In a sense, we have always let machines affect the way we live (think of the impact cars have had on our lives, cities and economies), but there was a time where we were ‘off the grid’ in terms of what we did and why we did it. 

We built devices generally to make our lives easier, but we had control over them. With the Internet of Things, they might be talking to each other and making their own decisions. Whether that’s good or bad is another matter, but it’s happening right now: Google’s Deepmind AI company has developed apps to give real-time alerts on acute kidney injury, processing patient data that was sold without them knowing. 

Subhajit Basu, associate professor of information technology law at University of Leeds, believes we’re watching the rise of two scientific tidal waves – medical advancement and big data processing power. He asks “But is that a problem? Once Big Data systems start to know me better than I know myself, authority will shift from humans to algorithms.” 

Ping.