The Perils of Home Automation

The following guest post analyzes how recent innovations in home automation could impact us in areas we may not realize.


Speculative fiction commonly depicts bleak visions of the future, but the content is typically reactionary to current, real-world events. Such fiction examines the duality of technology, which is an integral part of contemporary society, but also a constant source of anxiety. Where this sort of literature really stands to benefit humanity is where it invites speculation about the sustainability and sensibility of our societal infrastructure. In other words, this sort of fiction begs the question: “what could happen to the world if destructive modern trends persist?”

What’s more than a little troubling is that with recent news stories such as the Edward Snowden whistle blowing fiasco, or even the recent news about Google purchasing the smart technology developer Nest, it seems that dystopian science-fiction  tropes of decades passed seem to becoming (at least partially) political crises manifest in the real world.

A common theme in dystopian science-fiction is that the misapplication of technology itself could bring about the end of civilization as we know it. These were trends that seemed to have been born out of anxieties that were mounting around the time of the Industrial Revolution at the turn of the 19th Century. Certainly, the English writer H. G. Welles explored these ideas through his written works, notably In The Time Machine and The Sleeper Awakes, both of which deal with late 19th century English protagonists who end up catching a glimpse into future societies that are morally and ethically inequitable.

World renowned psychoanalysts like Sigmund Freud wrote extensively about the psychological impacts of a society that was becoming increasingly dependent upon machines. Freud, like Ernst Jentsch before him, wrote extensively about “uncanny” feelings that humans typically seemed to have in response to automata, dolls, other words, a prevailing view held by psychologists at the beginning of the 20th century was that people felt a certain level of revulsion in response to both non-human entities which either resembled or behaved like humans, and conversely, that people felt ill at ease seeing the human body relegated to in-human, mechanical functions. The proliferation of factories and machinery seemed to induce some sort of collective identity crisis.  

Science-fiction took a markedly different turn after World War II. The United States bombing campaigns of civilian Japanese communities demonstrated that if some of the world’s most innovative minds were recruited, they would be capable of using their genius towards destructive ends...ends which were more destructive than anything the world would have been able to imagine up to that point. The world was no longer grappling with abstract paranoias about misapplied technology, but had in fact caught a glimpse of how potentially destructive the technology could be.

And because of how the United States prospered after World War II, industry and the development of technology, for both military and domestic applications, thrived. Someone who wrote wonderful, although deeply disturbing, fiction in response to these developments was Ray Bradbury, who wrote The Martian Chronicles at the height of the cold war era, which included the short story August 2026: There Will Come Future Rains. Among the many things that Bradbury wrote about were homes of the future that were fully automated, which could cook meals, light cigars, and speak in perfect English..but unfortunately, the human race had been annihilated during a nuclear attack. Bradbury took jabs at both the gratuitousness of luxurious technologies in the United States at the height of the cold war era, and the potential destructiveness of misapplied technology.

Nowadays, consumers are becoming increasingly conscientious about their energy consumption habits, and are looking for companies to develop sustainable methodologies which don’t deplete natural resources and don’t introduce other pollutants or toxins into the environment. While this is good fundamentally, it has created for a situation where consumers also have to be cautious about “greenwashing”--companies perpetuating falsehoods about how “green friendly” their products are purely as a marketing strategy.

It becomes especially worrisome in the case of home automation technology, where the potential security risks could outweigh the convenience. Part of the concern is that if you  compare the features offered by the newest home automation technology, one of the biggest selling points seems to be giving people the ability to set their home security settings, control their home lighting and entertainment systems, and even monitor closed circuit cameras from tablet computers and even mobile phones. Suddenly, a misplaced or stolen phone could represent a key to your entire home security system and whatever other systems the phone is set up to control - not a comforting thought!

It’s worrisome also because, with Google now a major player in the home automation field and interested in placing their devices in every home, they will be able to collect even more personal data about everyone than they have ever had previously - even if it’s just data about utility usage like electricity and water. To what end will they use that data? We’ll leave it to contemporary science-fiction writers to contemplate that. But consumers must be cautious, lest they make themselves vulnerable under the guise of convenience

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