Of all the attractions at Walt Disney World, none is more dogmatic than the Carousel of Progress, a rotating stage show originally presented at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York. The Carousel of Progress is an animatronic history of consumer technology, as told by an unaging American family expressing starry-eyed wonder at the ever-increasing conveniences available to them — from modern plumbing and electricity to television, washing machines and home automation.
The show has undergone several updates since its debut, but its techno-utopian message remains clear: No matter the era, the entirely white robot family sings, there’s always a “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” promising ever greater convenience and contentment — thanks, of course, to General Electric, the Carousel of Progress’ original sponsor. (The company briefly forced the creation of a much less catchy theme song for the show called “Now Is the Time” because it was worried Americans would gaze off into tomorrow instead of buying appliances today.)
Disney’s consumer fantasy proved alive and well at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show, an overwrought annual spectacle where tech executives appear on unnecessarily large stages to unveil often unnecessary products that nobody asked for. This year, companies were more determined than ever to pitch the so-called Internet of Things, the questionable (and often perilous) trend of adding Internet connectivity to every mundane household item imaginable. It’s a stupidly simple racket: Just take anything that exists (shoelaces, refrigerators, toothbrushes, toasters) put a computer chip or camera in it, connect it to the Internet and — voila! Who wants boring old things when you can have smart things?
The appropriately named Twitter account Internet of Shit highlights some of the most cringeworthy examples from the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show. Sick of having to walk over to your refrigerator and open it? Smart refrigerators now have cameras that let you see inside using your smartphone. Tired of tying your own shoelaces? Try on a pair of smart shoes that loosen and tighten themselves with the touch of an app. If you’re trying to lose weight, why manually count the notches on your belt when you can wear a Samsung smart belt that tracks the size of your waistline? The Internet of Things isn’t just for humans anymore either: Now your pets can wear their own fitness trackers and even call you at work through paw-activated two-way video monitors.
With their overhyped sales pitches, companies seem convinced that Internet-connected everything is the next chapter in the triumphant story told by Disney’s Carousel of Progress. The sad truth is the Internet of Things has thus far been an endless parade of novelty junk appealing to first world laziness and privileged overindulgence. Even the more promising smart home devices, such as Google’s Nest thermostat, differ from their disconnected counterparts mainly in their ability to be accessed with a smartphone, making them just another thing to be checked on after our social media feeds and email inboxes.
So if these products aren’t poised to improve our lives in any major or meaningful way, why are companies so intent on selling them?
There are two answers: data and control.
Companies desperately want consumers to buy into the Internet of Things because it will allow them to colonize an entirely new galaxy of data. Silicon Valley and advertisers have already constructed a colossal market around the mining and monetization of private information; digital advertising, which depends primarily on tracking and exploiting the personal data of Internet users, exploded to a record $27.5 billion in revenue in the first half of 2015. Even companies that aren’t traditionally in the data-gathering business, such as Internet service providers, have started treating customers as quarries of data to be harvested and sold.
Now with the Internet of Things, any business can become a technology company. And companies are salivating at the idea of consumers voluntarily putting data-gathering devices in their homes and on their bodies — whether it’s a Nest thermostat reporting when you’re away from home, a camera-equipped smart fridge tracking your food shopping habits or a smart belt informing various unknown entities how your weight loss regimen is going.
If this sounds like a big win for corporations, it’s nothing next to the unprecedented amount of control they will be able to exercise in a world of always connected objects. With old-fashioned appliances, the dynamic was pretty straightforward: You buy a toaster, and it’s yours to do with as you please. But buying a smart toaster means buying software, which can be remotely and silently altered to function differently (or stop functioning altogether) at the whim of whichever distant corporation created it.
Many early adopters have already experienced this firsthand. After a recent software update, owners of Panasonic smart TVs noticed that their pricey big screens now randomly display ads when they adjust the volume. Samsung smart TVs eavesdrop on your living room conversations by default, automatically recording your voice to a distant server unless you opt out. And smart fridge owners have already been threatened by bugs exposing their Gmail accounts and locked out of certain features for over a year as they wait for the company to issue patches (which, in a few short months, it will no longer be under any obligation to provide.)
The Internet of Things thus threatens to reconfigure the entire notion of ownership, with corporations in the center and paying customers completely at their mercy. What happens when Samsung decides it’s no longer profitable to provide security updates for your $5,000 smart fridge? How about when Apple or Google starts deactivating your TV because you’ve been put on a government blacklist, disabling your car after you miss the deadline on an insurance payment or bricking your coffee machine because it reached its end-of-life date, according to a terms of service agreement that nobody reads?
Regulating Internet of Things devices would ostensibly protect consumers and prevent the worst of these practices. But apart from the formation of an Internet of Things Caucus last year, Congress has barely given us a hint of how it intends to do so. Meanwhile, more and more connected devices are quickly entering the market, meaning the most pressing questions will likely go unanswered until people are being victimized and companies are facing precedent-setting lawsuits.
The value of any piece of consumer technology ultimately boils down to whether it empowers or disempowers us. The Internet of Things may hold promise, but right now it is uniquely and dangerously poised to do the latter — especially if we’re too quick to confuse progress with allowing companies to colonize our tools, bodies and private spaces with cheap gimmicks.