When a Norwegian folk-pop duo decided to call themselves the Kings of Convenience back in 1999, they wound up with a few minor hits. They should have become venture capitalists instead—they would have made billions. That’s because the story of technology, over the past 15 years, is the story of convenience trumping all. If you can make something more convenient, you’re well on your way to a dynastic fortune.
Steve Jobs understood this when he released the iPod in 2001: the sound quality, through flimsy in-ear headphones, was pretty bad, but a thousand songs in your pocket? That trumped everything. Then, he unleashed the iPhone on the world. Pretty soon, anything could be in your pocket.
First came the software: your pocket was now home to your bank, and your bookstore, and even your taxi dispatcher. Then came the Internet of Things. You can now unlock your front door from your phone, or check to see how many eggs there are in your fridge, or find a parking spot, or track your weight, or your home’s energy usage, over time, or make some coffee, or turn up the heat in your weekend house before you get there in the winter, or ensure the chemical balance in your swimming pool is perfect before you get there in the summer. Or maybe you just want to change the song playing over your home stereo system. Whatever it is you want to do, you can do it—at least in theory. Today, there’s an Internet of Things solution to countless problems you probably never even thought of as problems. (Welcome, the carry-on bag that weighs itself, the bikini that tells you when you’ve been in the sun too long, the trash can that pings you when you’re running low on bags.) There’s even a popular Twitter account, @BoredElonMusk, devoted to rattling off countless ideas that teeter on the fine line between inspired and idiotic. (“Prescription smartphones screens for people who don't want to put their glasses on to check something real quick in bed,” “solar patio umbrellas that automatically tilt to face the sun,” “elevator buttons that let you cancel after you hit the wrong floor.”)
The Internet of Things hasn’t taken over our lives quite yet, mainly because getting there from here is non-trivial. You need to basically replace everything in your home: your lights, your appliances, your HVAC system, you name it. But already it’s pervasive enough to be mildly terrifying. Smart fridges have been hacked to reveal their users’ Google passwords; baby monitors have been hacked so that your infant can be spied on by anybody in the world; even cars have been hacked so that they suddenly break down while doing 80 mph on the highway. Which is not to say that smart cars are more dangerous. In aggregate, they will save lives, not cost them. Nevertheless, if it’s connected to the internet, it can be hacked—and almost everything is, or will be, connected to the internet soon enough.
The individual damage that could be caused by such hacks is enormous. Nowadays, hackers can not only invade your privacy, or wipe your computers, although those are bad enough, but can shut down your car, lock you out of your home, even cause you bodily harm. Clearly, the potential downside from the Internet of Things is vastly greater than the upside of being able to ask your phone whether you remembered to turn off the oven, or whether you’re running low on red wine. Worse, the manufacturers of internet-connected devices seem not to care whether they’re secure or not: a recent security review of nine popular baby monitors, for instance, gave one a grade of D-minus, while failing the other eight entirely. And remember: any insecure device on your network—just one—is likely to be able to give hackers access to pretty much everything else on your network. “Your privacy is an illusion,” as the slogan has it; well, so is your network security. We’ve given it all up, for the sake of convenience.
Does this mean that we should all become paranoiacs who abjure all smart devices, drive only vintage cars, and obsessively change our passwords? No, it doesn’t. Life’s too short to fight the inevitable, and since we’re all vulnerable anyway, we might as well get the maximum benefit out of our newfangled jeopardy.
Ethicists distinguish between two different ways to judge the impact that a technology has on a population. The “Minimize Great Additional Burdens” view says that if a small number of people bears a disproportionate brunt of the costs, then the technology is a bad thing. The “Consolidate Substantial Additional Benefits” view, on the other hand, says that if many people end up better off, that can outweigh a few people who end up worse off. The Internet of Things will create countless small benefits for millions of people. That means it’s going to make the world a better place—even though an unlucky few will inevitably end up paying a heavy price.