In a move that seemed almost too ironic to be true, Amazon in 2009 remotely erased George Orwell’s 1984 from thousands of Kindle devices. The web giant’s spokesperson explained the book had to be removed because it was added to the store by a company that didn’t hold the rights to it. Amazon became a sort of Big Brother in the real world even as it erased the character from the digital one. This move and others like it point to a problem that could only increase in scale as we enter into a world where technology occupies a space at the very center of our lives.
People are now moving towards using more centrally controlled, or “tethered,” information devices like smartphones and e-readers in order to increase security and ease of use. But there’s a tradeoff here. The more tethered to the network our devices become, the easier it is for institutions to regulate them and the harder it is for users to tinker with them. Our devices are becoming appliances that, as Internet expert Jonathan Zittrain puts it, “can [only] be updated by their makers and [are] fundamentally changing the way in which we experience our technologies. Appliances become . . . rented instead of owned.” This is the kind of change that allows you to own 1984 one day and see it vanish the next. Companies simply have more control over the products and content they sell you because they can modify and monitor them from afar without your consent.
Where We’re Headed
We’ve become fairly accustomed to tethered appliancization on our smartphones and laptop screens. Soon, this model will make the jump to new kinds of “wearable computing” devices. Earlier this year, Google announced Project Glass – augmented reality glasses designed to overlay contextually relevant information atop the real world. The idea is to get technology out of the way and make it easier to share moments from your life in real-time.
If Google has its way, you might use these glasses for all sorts of things. If you’re a car mechanic, you could wear Glass and have information about what exactly you need to fix displayed right in front of your eyes. If you’re a doctor, maybe you’d use these during surgery to get easy access to important vital statistics without taking your eyes off the patient. Project Glass could also allow you to easily navigate a new city or give constantly up-to-date information during a natural disaster. No matter the use case, this technology would arguably more integrated into daily life than anything that came before it and regulation could take on a whole new level of eeriness. Tethered technologies like Project Glass make surveillance inexpensive and practical for regulators. If the government wiretapping our mobile phones, what’s to keep them from doing the same with high-tech glasses? Surveillance would become less like Big Brother looking down on you and more like a first person-shooter video game. It’s not too hard to imagine that Project Glass might one day become ubiquitous. A government would only need to regulate Google in order to change the way that hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, experience the world. While the U.S. might not be willing to go to such lengths, it’s not inconceivable to think that Chinese or Iranian governments would.
Famed Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen likes to claim that software is “eating the world.” If that is indeed true, its next meal could very well be the auto industry. Google and others are working on a self-driving car that has already been approved in several places, including California. An autonomous car would be a kind of PC in its own right and would take the idea of “tethered appliance” to a whole new level. Car companies could micromanage our driving behavior in the same way that media companies dictate the use of our DRM-protected mp3s and ebooks. Self-driving cars could be forced to self-report to local police upon breaking the speed limit and tyrannical governments could even remotely disable cars or set curfews on their use in order to prevent people from mobilizing. Given that all these “mobile devices” would be connected to the network, the barriers to surveillance would be minimal. All kinds of new questions would arise: who, for example, would be responsible for car crashes? What new, unfair practices could car insurance companies think up? Major policy changes could be implemented as “minor technical adjustments” to code or technology in the car. We would sacrifice full ownership of our cars in the same way we’ve done with PC software and increase regulability for the sake of security (a tradeoff that, as we’ve seen in the PC world, is not always a beneficial one).
Let’s also consider the emerging practice of biohacking – a field that fearless teenagers and experienced doctors alike have shown interest in. To biohackers, computers are hardware, apps are software, and humans are wetware. “Gone are Microsoft’s windows into the digital world, replaced by a union of man and machine,” they say. These hackers see humans as the next frontier for technology and believe cyborgs will eventually become the norm in society. They implant chips into their bodies in order to connect to the network and experience novel things like electromagnetic fields and cybernetic telepathy. If this were to happen on a grand scale, humans would ultimately become tethered appliances themselves. Self-driving cars and wearable computers are layers built on top of the human experience. Biohacking brings technology, and thus regulability, to a far deeper level and forces us to rethink the idea of what it even means to be human. In a scenario where cyborgs do indeed become the norm, governments and companies would be able to regulate our very existence in the same way that they today regulate software, cars, and digital content.
I’m painting a very bleak picture here of a dystopia that certainly won’t come around tomorrow or even in the next few decades. It is, however, important to take the long-view and entertain seemingly improbable ideas – especially in an industry that’s moving so blindingly fast.
A Glimmer of Hope
With its new Kinect, Microsoft seems to be taking a different approach that may help us avoid the freakish future outlined above. While it can certainly help you master your Lady Gaga dance moves or improve your tennis skills, what’s most interesting is what the Kinect can do when it’s not chained to an Xbox in your living room. Developers have gotten their hands on the Kinect and used its advanced sensors and imaging technology to implement all sorts of creative hacks. Microsoft has even endorsed this practice; it set up a $20,000 fund to help companies interested in toying with the Kinect and came out with an ad promoting such innovation earlier this year.
From controlling robots, to enabling virtual fitting rooms, to helping blind people walk, the potential of the Kinect seems boundless. Though the appliance is “tethered,” it allows for a huge amount of generativity. In other words, independent users can tweak it to their own liking and come up with new, inventive ways to use it. Microsoft set an example here that the entire industry should follow. This kind of “hackability” leads to more innovation and will offset the costs of increased regulability that these tethered appliances often bring.
“Imagine the ways we’ll seem backwards to future generations”
Startup expert Paul Graham likes to think up new startup ideas by imagining the ways we’ll seem backwards to future generations. We, it seems, would certainly seem backwards if we abandoned tethered appliances altogether for fear of regulation. The benefits of connected devices are far too numerous to count. In order to maximize their potential, technology companies need to follow Microsoft’s lead and keep platforms open enough for innovation and secure enough to combat malware. Apple doesn’t necessarily have to turn their App Store into the Wild West, but their policies should at least be more transparent. Why, for instance, can’t this developer get his drone strike-tracking app approved? Governments need to meet these tech companies halfway and enact policies that facilitate innovation rather than hamper it. As tech companies grow increasingly powerful, they can serve as checks on the power of abusive governments, but only if they allow users to do a little of the hacking themselves.