I worry. About my family. My house. My dumb possessions, and my treasured ones. Doesn’t everyone? “Happiness,” Don Draper opines in Mad Men’s pilot, “is the freedom from fear.” Companies sell people solutions to those fears—even if they are contrived ones. Listerine, invented to cure a made-up condition called halitosis. Nike, whose kicks are used for sloth more than athleticism. Apple, whose modernist, glass-and-aluminum shields hide compulsion.
Just as people originally bought mobile phones to protect against hypothetical emergencies, so internet-connected smart devices now often sell comfort from fear. Motion cameras that deter evil babysitters. Recording doorbells that stave off solicitors and burglars. Propane scales that avert cook-out disaster. Sensor-tentacled boxes that warn against flooding.
Individually, such fears and their solutions are harmless at best, vain at worst. But when many people use these products, there are real reasons for concern. When it comes to smart devices, that includes profound security deficiencies—exemplified by the recent botnet attack that used insecure cable boxes and internet cameras to take down DNS services. Yet the total vision promised by the Internet of Things trades the uncertainty of fear for the certainty of scrutiny. To watch everything with gadgets necessitates that they also be able to watch you watching. Even more than you think they already can.