How Connected Do Our Products Need To Be?
If everything you own can be controlled remotely by someone else, do you truly own anything? Take a walk through modern homes and you will find internet connected devices ranging from smart appliances to smart speakers. What these manufacturers don’t tell consumers is that they are not the only ones with control over their products. This painful reality has become apparent for Americans who can’t get into their vehicles or turn on their air conditioning through no fault of their own. Before investing in a world filled with internet connected things created to optimize their lives, Americans must first evaluate the dangers that come with this future and decide if losing control of their belongings is worth an ounce of productivity and efficiency.
Tens of thousands of Colorado residents felt the heat on August 30th when they found that they were not able to adjust their thermostats during a heat wave because of an “energy emergency”. These Xcel Energy customers were enrolled in a rewards program that gave them bill credits while giving Xcel control over their smart thermostats. An Excel spokesperson clarified that customers chose to be part of the program, and this was the only time it happened in six years.
Rather than illustrating the benefits of the program, this incident has revealed just how dystopian a world filled with subscription services and remotely controlled devices can be. Imagine if this program were mandatory due to a so-called climate emergency? The EU is already considering a proposal to make it mandatory to reduce electricity during hours of peak use. Having the ability to turn down your thermostat with your phone really loses its appeal when your government can say when and if you can.
Back on November 19th of last year, Tesla owners all over the world were shocked to find that they could not use their companion phone app to communicate with their vehicle because of an unintentional server error on Tesla’s part. This meant that those Tesla owners who had certain models that could only be accessed via the app couldn’t even open the door to get inside, much less start it. Elon Musk tweeted that they had found the issue and promised that it would never happen again, but who could keep such a promise when errors like these are not always predictable?
A similar issue with a Tesla vehicle was described in a July 25th Twitter thread by Jason Hughes. In it, Jason talks about a customer he has who is the third owner of a Tesla vehicle. A previous owner of the car had its battery swapped by Tesla, but through a mistake on Tesla’s part, the battery had been upgraded. Having been in the possession of Jason’s customer for years, the car was remotely configured by Tesla to restore it back to its original efficiency, meaning Jason’s customer woke up one morning to find that his car could drive around 80 miles less per charge. To add insult to injury, Tesla informed him that he could pay $4,500 to get it back to the way it was the day before. Through a simple remote software push a government entity could force Tesla to stop their customers from charging their vehicles at certain times to lessen pressure on the energy grid.
More and more of the products we buy are heavily reliant upon software and have the ability to connect to the internet. They are advertised as time savers, allowing customers to automate the mundane tasks of their lives to free them up for more important things. However, there is an immense danger that lies within this promise. Giving up control of these items to faceless mega-corporations that are pressured by authoritarian governments means you are no longer the owner.
With a flick of a button, you can be locked out without as much as a warning. Perhaps you posted wrongthink on social media so you need to lose access to your smartphone. Perhaps the climate emergency requires you to languish inside your eighty-degree home in order to reduce your carbon footprint. All of it will be done in the name of progress, efficiency, and the greater good. Should we give up the control of the things we own for the ability to save a few seconds of our time? Do we really need to squeeze every amount of productivity out of our day, optimize every process, and digitize every decision in our lives? Americans must stop and evaluate whether this is the future they truly want.