How ‘Smart Tech’ Masks an Emerging Era of Corporate Control
‘Smart tech’ is a buzzword that’s been applied to everything from toothbrushes to TVs — and the cute marketing helps hide what’s really going on
You can easily trade all your dumb stuff for smart things. Smart is now becoming the new normal. You don’t even have to seek it out. Wait long enough and the upgrades will come to you — in your home, your work, your city — if they haven’t already.
Smart umbrellas light up to alert you that rain is in the forecast. Smart vehicles take over the drudgery of driving during rush hour. Smart, virtual assistants obey your every command, learn your preferences and routines, and automatically adjust accordingly. Think of a thing — whether it is a comb or city — and there is almost certainly a smart version of it available, if not multiple versions to choose from. It’s not always clear why things are made smart, but that hasn’t stopped the spread of smartness through society. Often it seems silly and unnecessary, if not annoying or creepy. But no thing, no space, is safe from smartification.
Besides signaling “high tech” or “new and improved,” what does it actually mean for something to be smart? The label is now applied haphazardly, so definitions are not always clear and consistent. But a good, simple definition, which works well for our purposes, is that “smart” means a thing is embedded with digital technology for data collection, network connectivity, and enhanced control.
Take, for instance, a smart toothbrush, which uses sensors to record when, how long, and how well you brush your teeth. Since it is Bluetooth enabled and software embedded, the smart toothbrush sends that brushing data to cloud servers owned by the manufacturer or a third party. You and your dentist can then access the data via an app, which provides “the user with real time brushing guidance and performance monitoring” that scores your daily dental hygiene, as one smart toothbrush on the market proclaims.
Depending on your dental insurance plan, your hygiene scores could also directly impact your monthly premiums. Good brushers get discounts, while bad brushers are punished. An honest tagline might read, “With a smart toothbrush, we know what happens in your mouth!” These “enchanted objects,” as an entrepreneur with the MIT Media Lab calls them, “will respond to our needs, come to know us, and even learn to think ahead on our behalf.” While the wonders of smart tech might feel like magical enchantments that enable us to cast digital spells, I intend to dispel any notions that we inhabit the charmed castle of Fantasia. If anything, it’s more like the witchy world of Sabrina, where every spell comes at a cost and unintended consequences abound.
The modest conveniences provided by smart tech are what we get in exchange for not asking too many questions about why our lives are now filled with data-collecting, internet-connected machines: Why is everything getting smart now? What else is going on behind the scenes? Who is really benefiting?
The occasional scandal — when a company is caught creepily tracking people or its databases are hacked — is enough to focus our collective scorn on a specific issue, but it’s usually not enough to spur deeper critical inquiry. The disgraced company will issue a mea culpa and all is forgiven — if not explicitly, then effectively when we forget about the trespass or just get used to offending events. And it’s back to business as usual. We are expected to continue buying, using, and upgrading according to schedule.
Smart tech is sold as the inevitable next generation of technology. You may choose not to proactively upgrade, but eventually that choice will be made for you. Whereas smart used to be the premium option, it’s now becoming the standard as things are integrated with sensors, computers, and Wi-Fi connections by default. This is more than just the “feature creep” we now expect with new gadgets, wherein more buttons and settings are crammed into the same appliance. The rapid rise of smart tech is not just the result of consumers demanding smarter things, smarter homes, and smarter cities.
Rather, the interests of corporations and governments hold vastly more influence than consumer choice over how or why certain technologies are made and used. Making things smart is big business: projections for the market value of the smart city sector alone — not including homes, offices, and consumer goods — hover around $1 trillion by 2020. While some market research firms are bullish — Frost & Sullivan projects the smart city’s value at $1.56 trillion — even the conservative forecasts tend to be north of $500 billion. The research firm Gartner predicts that the number of “connected things” in use worldwide will continue to grow exponentially, from 8.3 billion in 2017 to 20.4 billion in 2020. Media coverage of smart tech tends to be trapped between breathless excitement about cool gadgets and vague concerns about privacy and cybersecurity.
To be sure, smart tech can be pretty awesome and privacy issues are important. But the impacts of smart tech are much too significant and comprehensive to warrant such clichéd takes. A passive, shallow stance toward smart tech and its creators is a grave mistake. Smart tech is shaping up to be more than just a trend. It has become a pervasive, powerful presence in our lives and society. Thus it is marked as a technological paradigm in urgent need of critical analysis. We would be remiss to treat it as anything less.
It’s important to understand that each phase of the technical process — from design to use — is loaded with politics, and even born of politics. This might be read as a call to politicize technology. But that would mean technology was removed from political concerns and consequences. That’s not right.
Instead, this is a call to recognize the politics that have been, and continue to be, an integral part of technology all along. We should analyze the technopolitics of our emerging smart society by looking at three aspects: interests, imperatives, and impacts. In short, I argue three broad technopolitical points:
- Smart tech advances the interests of corporate technocratic power, and over other values like human autonomy, social goods, and democratic rights.
- Smart tech is driven by the dual imperatives of digital capitalism: extracting data from, and expanding control over, potentially everything and everybody.
- Smart tech’s impacts are a Faustian bargain of convenience and connection, in the Zuckerbergian sense, in exchange for a wide range of (un)intended and (un)known consequences.
Technology is a way of materializing interests. Far from being objective or neutral, it is embedded with values and intentions. Technology is, after all, the result of decisions and actions made by humans, and it is then used by humans with motivations and goals. As decades of careful study by social scientists, historians, and engineers has shown, no technology’s existence is inevitable and all technologies are shaped by social processes. Behind every technology is a bunch of human choices about what problems should be solved, how resources should be spent, why people should use this thing, where tradeoffs should be made, and many other choices that boil down to doing X instead of Y or Z. Even when there are good reasons for making those decisions, they are still based on certain motivations, principles, values, goals, and so on. Thus, it’s not a question of if technology is political, but rather: what are the politics?
Langdon Winner, a noted theorist of technopolitics, argued that “technology is itself a political phenomenon.” This does not only mean that technology is a thing in need of legislation that regulates its production, features, and uses. It means that technology is itself akin to a form of legislation, because of the way “technical forms do, to a large extent, shape the basic pattern and content of human activity in our time.” Whether it means crafting policy or building technology, what could be more political than some people having the power to make decisions about how other people live in the world? Legal systems are sets of rules for what is allowed, frameworks for what rights people have, and plans for what kind of society we will live in. Technical systems do the same things in different ways. They are sets of rules for what is (not) allowed, frameworks for what rights people (don’t) have, and plans for what kind of society we will (not) live in. Technologies are like legislation: there’s a lot of them, they don’t all do the same thing, and some are more significant, but together as a system they form the foundation of society.
Following from Winner, legal scholar Lawrence Lessig famously proclaimed that “code is law.” But this comparison almost doesn’t go far enough. In response, media theorist Wendy Chun has pointed out that computer “code is better than law” because of its unwavering adherence to the rules and commands of its programmers.
Even the most authoritarian dictator would be unable to enforce the exact letter of the law as strictly and consistently as a computer can execute its code. Just as with law, technologies are harnessed by elite groups to advance their own positions in and visions of the world. If technology is anything like a form of legislation, then we must scrutinize those who are the legislators. They are not merely engineers crafting better machines, innovators testing new designs, or entrepreneurs taking bold risks. They are technocrats creating systems that shape society and govern people. By neglecting the politics of smart tech, we allow powerful interests to reside in the shadows and exercise undue influence over our lives.
Backed by empirical research, there is consensus among political scientists that the United States is now more of an oligarchy than a democracy. The general public has little influence over which policies are put into law, while the preferences of the wealthy elite are almost always supported by policy. Not only can this same inequality in politics be seen in many other countries, but the oligarchy in making policy mirrors the oligarchy in creating technology. The design and development of technology is lorded over by the few, while the rest of the world must live with those decisions. When citizens are disenfranchised from influencing political processes, when they are shut out from meaningful channels of input and recourse, we rightly call such a regime authoritarian.
Why, then, should we be willing to tolerate the fact that the technopolitical systems that shape society and impact our lives are largely created by an elite cadre of — mostly white, mostly male, extremely wealthy — corporate executives, engineers, and investors? The issues of whose interests are included in (and excluded from) technology generally and smart tech particularly is a critical concern of our time.
Two major imperatives drive the design, development, and use of smart tech: collection and control.
Whereas interests are about whose values and voices are included, imperatives are about the overarching principles and goals that have deeper influence and wider reach. For example, the profit motive is an imperative of capitalism, which pushes firms to maximize profits, usually as the primary or only imperative. Understanding these imperatives and how they are manifested through smart tech will reveal much about how technopolitics operates in society.
The imperative of collection is about extracting all data, from all sources, by any means possible. It compels businesses and governments to collect as much data as they can, wherever they can. Just as we expect corporations to be profit driven, we should now expect them to be data driven. This is why so much of smart tech is built to suck up data. For many industries, data is a new form of capital, and thus they are always seeking and exploiting new ways to accumulate data.
The imperative of control is about creating systems that monitor, manage, and manipulate the world and people. It’s represented by the tireless surveillance systems that help corporations and police govern people, regulate access, and modify behaviors. This imperative leads to sensors embedded everywhere, everything connected to the internet, and the reliance on automation to oversee it all. Smart tech is built to expand and enhance powers of control, whether that’s remote control over objects via software applications or social control over populations via algorithmic analysis. The key concern is not with control itself but rather with who has control over whom.
Harvesting data requires the technical ability and social authority to probe things, people, and places. Control systems are fueled by data, which allows for more granular, more effective, and more instantaneous command over those same things, people, and places. Smart tech is the offspring of both imperatives.
It’s hard to underestimate the influence these imperatives have over the design and use of smart tech. They show up in a wide range of applications, spaces, and scales. This ranges from robot vacuums secretly mapping users’ homes so their manufacturers can then sell these “rich maps” to other companies, to insurers monitoring how people drive, exercise, and eat so that they can reward some behaviors and punish others.
As imperatives, collection and control are not new. We live under capitalism, and these imperatives have been integral parts of capitalism from the beginning. An entire library could be filled with studies about how capitalism continuously innovates new ways to extract profit and exercise power over everything — society and nature, human and nonhuman, mind and body. My aim here is to show how these dual imperatives operate in the age of digital capitalism and smart tech. We can then understand how, why, and for whom smart tech is designed. We can identify the trends and themes that influence technological development. We can make informed predictions about what to expect in the near future — if we continue down the same path.
Smart tech has gone viral — spreading, infecting, reproducing, disrupting, and thriving in nearly all spaces of society and parts of our lives. David Golumbia and Chris Gilliard, scholars of technology and culture, wrote an article in early 2018 that rounded up many of the “absurd” — and absurdly routine — ways that tech companies invade our personal lives, influence our behavior, ignore our interests, and enforce their own values. Here’s a sample from their long list of examples: A for-profit service tracks and sells prescription data. An app was proposed to “watch” for suicidal intentions on social media. A vibrator maker tracked its users’ sex lives without disclosing it was doing so. A school used the cameras in laptops it distributed to spy on its students.
Even though they all share the smart label, different types of smart tech are often treated as if they were (totally) separate from each other. The smart watch you wear, the smart home you live in, and the smart city you inhabit are rarely looked at together. Rather than analyzing them as pieces of a unified system, these connections are severed, as if smart tech operating in different places is somehow unrelated. This is ironic since the explicit goal of many major tech companies like Cisco and Google is to plug everything and everybody into a single meganetwork — a “system of systems” — which is, of course, constructed and controlled by them. IBM calls their project the “Smarter Planet,” which they boldly claim “was not merely the announcement of a new strategy, but an assertion of a new world view,” thus showing quite clearly the scope of their ambitions.
There are shared interests and imperatives that influence the design as well as use of smart tech across different types, scales, and spaces. In other words, instead of seeing these technologies as discrete and unrelated, we should see them as parts of a powerful, yet still emerging technopolitical regime of digital capitalism. Only then can we really grapple with their impacts on society.