The Internet of Things: Are We There Yet?
As Siri, Alexa, smartwatches, and more interactive technological devices find their way into our lives, it becomes difficult to imagine losing the convenience of digital assistants. Our personal devices connect us with the world, but our assistants harness the power of data and use it to our advantage. As our ability to collect, analyze, and use data evolves, we come closer to achieving what is commonly referred to as the Internet of Things. This is the idea of connecting all objects to the internet and all objects to each other so as to better serve us. However, with this picture of a technological future starting to become the present, it is important for us to consider our previous concerns and evaluate how this system could be integrated into our world as we know it.
One major concern with the Internet of Things is the protection of such a massive quantity of user data. In light of the recent Facebook data scandals, it is clear that we have not been able to achieve robust privacy practices in much simpler systems. Despite this, we continue to add new devices to our personal networks with little regard for the safety measures. As an example, it has been recently reported that Amazon has employees listening to Alexa recordings. There are a variety of ways to make one’s Alexa theoretically stop listening to their conversations for a period of time, but the whole point of the Alexa is that it listens. If our only way to defend our data is to opt out of systems that want to use it, we lose the benefits of using those systems.
Assuming data could be properly protected and infrastructure was made to support that quantity of information, society is still left to determine how to handle having such technology available for use. Internet-based technology aside, it is valuable to consider how technology as a whole affects society. Researchers believe that generations should be defined not by age, but by media (Gumpert and Cathcart). People are connected as a group by the media experiences they share. The way we communicate evolves from our technological experiences. The technological gap between our oldest and youngest generations is even more extreme than it would be from an age perspective because they have an incredibly different relationship with modern technology.
It is because of these differences that the Internet of Things could have interesting effects on these oldest and youngest generations. Children are growing increasingly accustomed to the presence of technology in their lives because they have grown up with it always around them. A new concept circulating in recent years has been the idea of whether or not kids are obligated to be polite to virtual assistants. Should children treat the robot like a person and use manners or speak to it however they want because it cannot tell the difference? Several virtual assistants have been updated to include politeness protocols where they respond more positively to polite requests. Children have no difficulty seeing a robot as a fellow person and responding accordingly. With this in mind, interactions with technology in general can be beneficial for children, as certain types of technological interactions have been linked to improved learning and comprehension (Johnson).
On the other hand, the oldest generation did not grow up with technology anywhere near as interactive as today’s virtual assistants. They can very clearly distinguish between humans and machines, and they know when they prefer one or the other. While many older adults are finding uses for voice-based smart home technology, there are still some areas where excessive technology is deemed inappropriate. Earlier this year, a hospital was accused of insensitivity after it had a remote doctor tell an elderly patient via a mobile tablet device that he was going to die. While the mobile doctor provides face-to-face interactions with a doctor, it is not the in-person face-to-face interaction most people of any generation would expect for such sensitive news. However, especially for those unaccustomed to interacting with technology in this form, it could be particularly distressing.
With all this in mind, it is becoming increasingly important that we understand how to best incorporate technology into our lives. While it can be beneficial for children in certain ways, we also need to ensure children are safe from harmful internet content. We want to protect everyone from insensitive treatment involving technology or data privacy issues. Even though we have invested our interest in enhancing the devices we can use to connect to the world around us, it may be beneficial to take a step back and focus on the infrastructure and planning needed to safely and successfully implement all this additional technology into our lives. In order to achieve the full Internet of Things, we need to be ready to handle everything that comes with it.
Gary Gumpert & Robert Cathcart (1985) Media grammars, generations, and media gaps, Critical Studies in Mass Communication, 2:1, 23-35, DOI: 10.1080/15295038509360059
Johnson, Genevieve Marie. 2010. Internet Use and Child Development: The Techno-Microsystem. Australian Journal of Educational and Developmental Psychology (AJEDP). 10: pp. 32-43.