Automating Romance? Intimate Hazards of the Internet of Things

Molly McHugh worries at wired “The Internet of Things Can Automate Romance. Is That Bad?

Specifically, she is riffing off the capabilities of IFTTT, which is a general-purpose scripting service for personal assistance and reminders. In this context, this kind of facility (they call them “recipes”, I call them programs) is used for reminders (about birthdays, anniversaries, etc.), for monitoring events (e.g., noticing activity by significant others), and generally for helping you be a more social person.

As McHugh makes clear, this is a little ironic, because many relationships are challenged by the distraction posed by personal mobile devices. Now we are trying to use the same technology to at least partly undo the disorder. At least your apps have some idea how you are supposed to act. (“I see from her credit card records and photos that she bought new shoes—tell her they look great. The black ones. The ones on her feet, you bonehead!”)

Today’s version of this service is creepy enough. Digitally stalking and tracking people you love is problematic. Auto generated or “suggested” social messages may or may not be good for relationships.

McHugh rightly wonders about extending this concept into the burgeoning world of the Internet of Things. Zillions of sensors, massive streams of data easily available. Add some analytics and data APIs. Voila! We can both spy on and predictively model the behavior of our loved ones.

Forget about protecting yourself from NSA snooping, do you really want your boy/girl friend tracking all your movements (even in your home), who you talk to, and every device and product you use? Do you want him or her using predictive models to make inferences about you “mental state” and manipulate your decision-making?

We are now going to have to work out new social norms and “relationship rules”. I think there two important areas that we will need ot deal with.

First is the question of monitoring, i.e., spying on, each other. While “transparency” can engender trust in public activities, it may be the worst thing in the world for some kinds of personal trust. When it is possible to track someone very intimately, what is appropriate? Is love possible without trust?

For that matter, how do these norms of appropriateness evolve as you become close to someone. Things you would do for a stranger, you don’t do for a friend or lover. Things you might never do with a stranger, you would definitely do with a spouse. An evolving exchange of data and access privileges could become yet another part of the dance of intimacy.

This really is new ground.  Noone really knows what we should or should not do.  It is easy to pose questions that can’t be answered easily.

Stalking someone without permission is wicked and possibly a crime. Stalking your one year old may be good parenting, stalking your 17 year old may be push him to fear you. Stalking a lover with implicit permission might be an act of devotion, a betrayal, or a fantasy come true. Heck, I don’t know.

The second issue is predictive modeling, behavioral prompts, and generally using computers to “enhance” your own social behaviors. Automatic reminders of a birthday is one simple example. This is based on a rudimentary model of social relationships that says, “she wants me to remember this date”. More complex scripting based on visible digital activity is easy to imagine. Noticing that a significant other is staying home and buying medicine might trigger a “get well” note from you.

At best, this kind of service is a “cheat”, faking social awareness in ways that may make life a little smoother. We all mean to notice and behave this way, and the computer is helping us do so.

At worst, this technology gets into the ugly area of bullying and manipulation. Monitoring digital contacts, using social network analysis, purchasing and GPS data, and then predicting “bad behavior” based on these variables is the stuff of secret police, not loving people. Trying to game the other person, discovering their triggers and most “receptive” moments is just flat out creepy to me. But, again, we will have to work out what is acceptable behavior here.

It’s certain to get weird and complicated.  Soon, we have to worry about whether this guy is really charming or just has good “charmware”. And what about a “breakup is coming” prediction? How do we use those omens?  Does a statistical prediction become a self fulfilling prophecy?  Or should we ignore the signs (like we usually do), and walk off the cliff (again!)?

What if two people are both gaming the data at the same time? This could be a new low in dating behavior!

I foresee a great romantic comedy in the near future: two strangers meet and their software falls in love. They are maneuvered into a relationship by their helper apps, even though they neither know nor really like each other. Will the humans grow to love each other? Will they throw away their apps and learn to notice each other on their own? How will it come out?

In a sense, this whole question is just a very small scale version of the general challenge posed by the IoT. (E.g., see Howard’s Pax Technica). But it is interesting to think of how this will play out.

For years, we have had governments and companies exploiting and abusing this technology for years, but that is pretty abstract.

Pretty soon now, though, we will see headlines about a case where someone spied and manipulated someone into a relationship, and perhaps stalked them after a break up. Possibly with violent and tragic results. All with off-the-shelf apps.

Then we’ll start hearing about who owns your data, and where your data goes.

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