"Smart devices introduce a fundamental ambiguity over who is in charge"

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Opinion: "smart" technology promises to make our lives easier by learning what we like and giving us more of it, says Reinier de Graaf. But who will really be in control when the machines know everything about us?


The US recently rolled out a law from 1789 in an attempt to get Apple to unlock the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter. There was a logical argument for applying the centuries-old All Writs Act in this case – Syed Rizwan Farook may be tied to international terrorism and unlocking his phone could uncover similar plots.

However, there is a flip side. As our environment becomes ever more connected to the internet, and the Internet of Things infiltrates our domestic sphere (and perhaps soon our bodies), we are seeing a fundamental shift in the control of our data as our few remaining privacy barriers crumble.

In 1982, a soft drinks vending machine at Carnegie Mellon University became the first device to be connected to a computer network. It was able to report on the amount and temperature of its contents. Today, thanks to the miniaturisation of microprocessors, connected devices are able to anticipate and cater to our every need.

So it is no surprise that we now turn to them in our most private circumstances: our home. By far, connected consumer devices for domestic use make up the largest market for "smart" industry.



Nest Labs, owned by Google, markets their Learning Thermostat, which allows users to remotely control the temperature in their homes from their smartphones. The thermostat learns to anticipate its users' patterns, so it can eventually regulate the temperature on their behalf.

Future-Shape, a German company pursuing large-area contactless sensor systems, has developed a textile floor surface with 32 sensors per square meter, which tracks movement to switch on the lights and open doors for us.

TOTO, a Japanese manufacturer specialized in bathroom technology, has launched the Intelligence Toilet II, featuring a urine sample catcher that measures glucose levels, urine temperature, and hormone levels, using the data to regularly transmit a health report to your computer (and anywhere else) via WiFi.

At January's International Consumer Electronics Show, Samsung revealed a transparent touchscreen to replace window glass, which they claim will be available within 10 years. And so on.

The number of smart technologies that can be integrated into our homes seems endless. In 2015, British Gas announced a range of smart home products designed by Yves Behar, who said: "In the future, everything will be smart, connected and make my life easier in some way. More importantly, the technology is invisible – I never have to pull out my phone, hide my face in a screen even push a button, for the product to work. I think this is the shape of things to come: invisible design, where things magically happen around me..."

The alarming, but also interesting thing in all of these developments is the displacement of control. In each case – the thermostat, the toilet, the floor, the window, and on a larger scale also the traffic and weather sensors in our smart cities – the devices are designed to both react to and trigger changes in circumstances.

In doing that, these devices introduce a fundamental ambiguity over who is in charge. They analyse our behaviour over a longer period of time, which they then transform into an automated pattern that regulates the world around us, until eventually this world, continuously doctored and perfected, fits us like a glove.

The patterns we leave, however incidental or random, become automated, eternal. They are our new truths. (Is it a coincidence that there is an acute resemblance between smart city marketing speak and biblical language?) The more these patterns are engrained, the more they become a straightjacket. Our unique identity, our behavioural DNA, becomes a form of solitary confinement from which there is no escape.

Thus far, the exchange of data in the Smart Architecture realm is primarily between humans and their objects. Various "smart" utensils collect information on our behaviour and relay that information back to us so that we can monitor and potentially modify our behaviour. In the near future, that pivotal position of humans in the exchange of information is by no means a given.

The theoretical incorporation of all devices, institutional as well as private, into the Internet of Everything, will also permit the exchange of data between objects themselves. Through ever more sophisticated artificial intelligence, the various artefacts in our lives will interact with their environment and one another in an increasingly autonomous manner.

Objects will directly transmit information to other objects, without the intercession of humans. Our devices will independently act on whatever information is available at any given moment.

In the 1970s, architect Peter Eisenman designed a series of houses as a demonstration of the autonomous logic of (architectural) form over function – of the inescapable apartness between man and object. Eisenman provocatively referred to the inhabitants of his house as intruders to emphasise the feeling of estrangement that ensued from architecture's liberation from its prior anthropocentrism.

Forty years later, the smart house takes that notion to a new level. As the elements of our home increasingly acquire lives of their own, we become the estranged visitors in the world we have so perfectly created around us. In that sense, smart technology makes us all intruders.

The rise of smart devices, and the vast amounts of data which are being gathered and processed from individuals, have already raised concerns. America's National Security Agency (NSA) and the UK's Government Communication Headquarters (GCHQ), among a dozen other national governmental bodies and agencies, were embroiled in the mass surveillance scandal revealed to the world in 2013 by Edward Snowden. In this instance, data was indiscriminately gathered under the guise of national security.

Smart buildings, and smart devices embedded in their elements, could provide an endless stream of data for governments and corporations to use, effectively monitoring the most minute aspects of people's lives, and over time learning about each individual's habits.

In 2013, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tom Coates connected his home's smart devices to Twitter. House of Coates reports its everyday activities – "Someone just activated the Sitting Room Sensor so I'm pretty sure someone's at home," and: "Looks like Tom's gone out. I saw him check in at Four Barrel Coffee." (This is remarkable, if only for its incredible banality.)

Smart devices need not be under a malicious cyber-attack, but could be quietly mined for information either by corporate or governmental interests using built-in "back doors". For instance, European lawmakers have already considered requiring all cars in their market to include a mechanism that would allow the police to stop it at any given time. In 2014, Jim Farley, a senior executive at Ford said: "We know everyone who breaks the law, we know when you're doing it. We have GPS in your car, so we know what you're doing. By the way, we don't supply that data to anyone."

But even with back doors supposedly secured – apparently in the Apple case, the code to unlock the iPhone does not even exist – potential hacking of the connected environment poses a major security threat.

Today, when the average consumer database is hacked, the worst possible outcome is a loss of money and dignity. In the future, on an individual level, implanted medical devices could be caused to malfunction, and smart buildings, for all their intelligence, could become vulnerable to sabotage.

In 2014, a University of Michigan researcher was able to gain control of nearly 100 wirelessly networked traffic lights. As early as 2011, security researcher Jay Radcliffe demonstrated that an automatic insulin pump often used by diabetics could be hacked and its function ceased. Economist magazine raised a similar concern for our dwellings in 2014: what if boilers could be hacked and made to explode? As security expert Joshua Corman said: "If my PC is hit by a cyber-attack, it is a nuisance; if my car is attacked, it could kill me."

In the short run, government intrusion into our personal data may seem to have certain benefits. However, these benefits pale into insignificance compared to the damage which could be caused by those with more nefarious goals.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.


Reinier de Graaf is a partner in the Office for Metropolitan Architecture (OMA) where he directs the work of AMO, the research and design studio established as a counterpart to OMA's architectural practice.

  • Pearson

    I think it’s a silly question proposed at the start. Of course we will still be in control. If an entity that knows me refuses to order me a pizza because “it knows what’s best for me”, then yes, we have a problem. But that just isn’t the case.

    Smart technology will serve us, make suggestions but at any moment we can get up off our arses and make decisions for ourselves. This dystopian nonsense is just an excuse to fill column inches.

    • Jan Limon

      The power technology will reach is beyond your comprehension. There are problems that are going to come that you can’t even imagine at this point.

      • GDavies

        It looks as though it is beyond your powers of imagination too based on all the examples you have given here.

        • Jan Limon

          Right… That is the point.

    • James

      By and large, I agree with you.

      Except that, for example, Google’s prototype self-driving vehicle has no steering wheel, and no gas or brake pedals; so user control in the experience of driving has effectively evaporated as a result of smart technology.

      In a future where a traditional grocery store actually does not exist (i.e. you have some ‘smart’ or ‘autonomous’ techno-extrapolation of already existing grocery delivery services that bring food right to your door), you could also be potentially robbed of your opportunity to go out and get a pizza.

      Okay, not really. I’m playing devil’s advocate a little bit. But let’s say you go out and have your pizza. And your ‘techno-mouth’ knows how many calories you consumed; and then that information is communicated to your ‘smart-shopper,’ which then incorporates that data when it’s ordering your groceries for the coming week… As the complexity of the communications network increases, your ability to choose to go and have a pizza without it effecting the rest of your daily routine decreases.

      The question of smart technologies becomes a design problem when the software that is created starts to fundamentally change the way that we design and build objects (like the Google car) and cities (like the absent grocery store) such that the variety of available choices decreases. Just because we can doesn’t necessarily mean that we should. And I think that De Graaf does a great job here of pointing out why designers should take pause and consider seriously the implications of increasingly smart tech.

  • Doubtful Dodger

    We need to sort out issues surrounding the ownership of data.

  • Ammaarah Felix

    One has to wonder how many times we can keep having the same discussion/argument. The sooner we accept the anonymity of technology, the sooner we can move on with our lives. It’s not like we can stop it now anyway.

  • JonX

    Google’s AI just beat the world’s best Go player too. It’s a daunting prospect for humanity in my opinion.