Me and You and Algorithms We Know

Sarah Rose // Features Editor 

“Technology was meant to liberate women from drudgery, but we still speak to them the same way we did fifty years ago,” explains Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, industrial designer and author of Smarter Homes in an interview on CBC’s Spark. 

“Ja tvoi rabotnik, ja tvoi sluga.” That’s the interlude to Kraftwerk’s The Robots, it directly translates to: “I am your worker, I am your servant.” The English word robot is derived from the Russian rabotnik. Follow the etymological roots down and you’ll find rabota, the Old Church Slavonic word for servitude. 

One only needs to imagine a scene from Downton Abbey to be immersed in the home robotics of the early 20th century. Like a clockwork mansion, a home operates with various servants, maids, butlers, cooks, housekeepers, gardeners and other rabota in such a way that the only decision the lady of the house might make in a day is what to eat. 

Over the next century, every technology developed for the home thereafter is done to replace human rabota owned by the rich elite. A middle-class family wouldn’t have a maid, but they might have an electric washing machine. 

Fifty years ago, the electric washing machine did just that—it revolutionized housework. But how much did it really change ideas about women, work and the home? For Deschamps-Sonsino, pay attention to subtlety. From the gradual shift of re-orientating furniture away from others and towards the TV, to entire architectures designed and dedicated to housing technology, the way we see home has been altered beyond recognition. 

The abstraction of living in the world is produced first in the home. For the past century the concept of home has been an ideological battleground for ideas about future living—and ourselves. In 1923, Swiss architect Le Corbusier called homes “a machine for living in.” From the grid of electrification, to city architecture and now the internet, home is not simply a place. It’s the nexus of human interaction and connection in the 21st century. 

“The home is a space that is also too easily pointed as ‘female’ while the technology sector remains predominantly ‘male.’ For me, the ‘male gaze’ is transformed, in the area of smart homes, into the male brush: how a man paints a mental image of what happens to women at home and therefore how he designs solutions for her,” writes Deschamps-Sonsino. 

Part of the problem is that the empire of design has become synonymous with good. It reinforces the idea that good design is good business that makes good people. This concept has becoming so complete, so ubiquitous that the word design itself means “good”. Despite the fact that, as authors Colomina and Wigley write in Are We Human?, this very same concept is present and active in weapons, incarceration, surveillance, invasion, policing and terrorism. 

“The home space is becoming weaponized, filled with an increasing amount of tech that we don’t understand anymore,” Deschamps-Sonsino warns. 

Enter the smart home, or as we often call her: Alexa. 

Alexa is only one piece of technology that knows more about us than our family and friends, and she’s made possible by the Internet of Things. “‘Thing’ is almost the problem in the phrase ‘internet of things’ because people sort of see ‘things’ as an empty vessel with which to pour all their desires and aspiration,” says Deschamps-Sonsino. These things, specifically, are internet connected machines embedded with sensors that gather, store and analyze data. Deschamps-Sonsino points out that the same number of Alexa’s were shipped in three years as iPhones were in one week. The Globe and Mail reports that at the end of 2017, there were 3.8 billion connected IoT devices out there—ranging from heart monitors to toasters. In five years, they won’t just be powering the home, but a fourth Industrial Revolution. 

According to sociological theory, there’s only six degrees of separation necessary to connect any one person on the planet with any other. The smart home is perhaps the most deranged application of this concept. After going out for a jog, who should be able to access the personal information (location, GPS, etc.) collected by a fitness tracker? Sensor embedded machines subsequently reduce this kind of descriptive privacy dramatically. One expert demonstrated how easy it was to hack into a radio-frequency controlled insulin pump to remotely administer a lethal dose. Other hackers don’t have an issue with disabling a smart lock or the Nest security in a home. But not all attacks are so overt and direct—or from a singular malicious third party. 

Consider the recently released Google Hub, setting it up takes less than a few minutes. Particularly if you skip past all the fine print and privacy agreements describing how Google is going to share your data with commercial businesses, monitor all your activity via Chrome and the battery level to track how often you use it. 

Ed Thomas, principal analyst at GlobalData isn’t optimistic. “The hardware revenue they’ll derive from those sales is secondary to what the speaker delivers for them: they get a vast amount of extremely valuable user data,” says Thomas. According to a survey of 400 IT executives from Altman Vilandrie & Co, nearly half of all IoT devices have been breached in the past two years. 

For Deschamps-Sonsino, the repetition is clear. 

While smart home devices promise to make us more independent, they create a dangerous dependency predicated on ignorance and necessity. This is especially true considering how a large majority of connected home devices are being used for other forms of coercive control, such as in domestic abuse. “Fixing things is only the beginning of a career in technology. It is the key to building up knowledge and independence,” writes Deschamps-Sonsino as if taken directly from a pamphlet on abuse. 

These smart home hubs are what Thomas and other tech analysts dub as a gateway device. A tech-enabled gateway drug designed to create dependency, before moving us on to the other IoT devices. “Trojan horse is another way of putting it,” Thomas says in an interview with The Guardian. A trojan horse being a term co-opted in the 70’s by the US Air Force to refer to a type of malware that masquerades as something legitimate whilst being designed to allow a hacker to take control of the system. The similarity to how companies like Google and Amazon operate is morbidly striking, given how both systems of attack rely on social engineering to operate. This is especially true for the IoT. 

Social engineering is a form of psychological attack directly on humans using the devices, rather than the devices themselves. Defending oneself from the malicious rhetoric depends on sharpening one’s metacognition – before you hack a machine, you need to hack a person and people are easy to hack. The Harvard Business Review reached a similar conclusion: “The major sources of cyber threats aren’t technological. They’re found in the human brain, in the form of curiosity, ignorance, apathy, and hubris.” 

Shifting the locus of control on the design and creators of smart objects is a temporary solution, but a solution nonetheless. Deschamps-Sonsino suggests more mothers designing and creating smart objects that reflect their own experiences. “It’s time we revisit the source of these ideas and questioned the solutions we’re presented with,” she says.  

The ambition to reform the environment instead of the human contains a hidden, and false, assumption about the interrelationship of humans and their environment that disregards the new mediator: interface. How can humans remain unaltered at the center of a new architecture? 

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