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…