Murray Goulden and colleagues write some interesting thoughts about the Internet of Things combined with ubiquitous mobile devices, specifically, “smart home” applications which can observe the user’s own behavior in great detail. In particular, they point out that these technologies generate vast amounts of interpersonal data, data about groups of people. Current systems do not manage and protect individual personal data especially well, but they don’t have any provisions at all for dealing with interpersonal data.
“smart home technologies excel at creating data that doesn’t fit into the neat, personalised boxes offered by consumer technologies. This interpersonal data concerns groups, not individuals, and smart technologies are currently very stupid when it comes to managing it.”
The researchers discuss social psychological theory that examines the way that groups have social boundaries and ways to deal with breaching the boundaries. For example, a family in their home may have conversations that they would never have anywhere else, nor when any outsider is present.
This isn’t a matter of each individual managing his own data (even if the data is available to manage), but understanding that there is a social situation that has different rules than other social situations, rules which apply to all the individuals.
In-home systems have no understanding of such rules or what to do about them, nor are there any means for humans to manage what is observed.
Their paper makes the interesting point that this stems from the basic architecture of these in-home systems;
“The logic of this project – directing information, and so agency, from the outer edges of the network towards the core – is one of centralisation. The algorithms may run locally, but the agency invested in them originates elsewhere in the efforts of the software engineers who designed them.” (, p.2)
In short, the arrogant engineers and business managers don’t even understand the magnitude of their ignorance.
I have remarked that many products of Silicon Valley are designed to solve the problems that app developers understand and care about. The first apps were pizza ordering services, music downloads, and dating services. There are endless variations on these themes, and they are all set in the social world of a young, single, worker (with disposable income).
For more than two decades, “smart home” systems have been designing robot butlers that will adjust the “settings” to the “user’s preferences”. I have frequently questioned how these systems work when there is more than one user, i.e., two or more people live together. The lights can’t be perfectly adjusted to everyone, only one “soundtrack” can play at a time, etc. Noone has an answer, the question isn’t considered.
I will say again that noone with any experience or common sense would ever put a voice activated, internet connected device in a house with children, let alone a system that is happy to just buy things if you tell it to. Setting aside the mischief kids will do with such capabilities, what sort of moral lesson are you teaching a young child when the house seems to respond instantly to whatever they command?
Goulden doesn’t seem to have any solutions in mind. He does suggest that there needs to be ways for groups of people to “negotiate” the rules of what should be observed and revealed. This requires that the systems be transparent enough so we know what is being observed, and that there be ways to control the behavior.
These issues have been known and studied for many years (just as a for instance take a gander at research from the old Georgia tech “Aware Home” project from the 1990’s, e.g.,), but the start up crowd doesn’t know or care about academic research–who has time to check out the relevant research.
Goulden points out that if these technology are really obnoxious, then people will reject them. And, given that many of the “features” are hardly needed, people won’t find it hard to turn them off.
“Their current approach – to ride roughshod over the social terrain of the home – is not a sustainable approach. Unless and until the day we have AI systems capable of comprehending human social worlds, it may be that the smart home promised to us ends up being a lot more limited than its backers imagine.”
- Anind K. Dey and Gregory D. Abowd, Toward a Better Understanding of Context and Context-Awareness. GIT GVU Technical Report GIT-GVU-99-22, 1999. http://www.socs.uoguelph.ca/~qmahmoud/teaching/fall2006/pervasive/context-intro.pdf
- Murray Goulden, Your smart home is trying to reprogram you in The Conversation. 2017. https://theconversation.com/your-smart-home-is-trying-to-reprogram-you-78572
- Murray Goulden, Peter Tolmie, Richard Mortier, Tom Lodge, Anna-Kaisa Pietilainen, and Renata Teixeira, Living with interpersonal data: Observability and accountability in the age of pervasive ICT. New Media & Society: 1461444817700154, 2017. http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/1461444817700154