Welcome to the Matrix: Enslaved by Technology and the Internet of Things

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John W. Whitehead, Founder, the Rutherford Institute

John W. White­head, Founder, the Ruther­ford Institute

There will come a time when it isn’t ‘They’re spy­ing on me through my phone’ any­more. Even­tu­al­ly, it will be ‘My phone is spy­ing on me.’” ― Philip K. Dick

If ever Amer­i­cans sell their birthright, it will be for the promise of expe­di­en­cy and com­fort deliv­ered by way of blaz­ing­ly fast Inter­net, cell phone sig­nals that nev­er drop a call, ther­mostats that keep us at the per­fect tem­per­a­ture with­out our hav­ing to raise a fin­ger, and enter­tain­ment that can be simul­ta­ne­ous­ly streamed to our TVs, tablets and cell phones.

Like­wise, if ever we find our­selves in bondage, we will have only our­selves to blame for hav­ing forged the chains through our own las­si­tude, lazi­ness and abject reliance on inter­net-con­nect­ed gad­gets and giz­mos that ren­der us whol­ly irrelevant.

Indeed, while most of us are con­sumed with our self­ies and try­ing to keep up with what our so-called friends are post­ing on Face­book, the mega­cor­po­ra­tion Google has been busi­ly part­ner­ing with the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Agency (NSA), the Pen­ta­gon, and oth­er gov­ern­men­tal agen­cies to devel­op a new “human” species, so to speak.

In oth­er words, Google—a neur­al net­work that approx­i­mates a glob­al brain—is fus­ing with the human mind in a phe­nom­e­non that is called “sin­gu­lar­i­ty,” and they’ve hired tran­shu­man­ist sci­en­tist Ray Kurzweil to do just that. Google will know the answer to your ques­tion before you have asked it, Kurzweil said. “It will have read every email you will ever have writ­ten, every doc­u­ment, every idle thought you’ve ever tapped into a search-engine box. It will know you bet­ter than your inti­mate part­ner does. Bet­ter, per­haps, than even your­self.”

But here’s the catch: the NSA and all oth­er gov­ern­ment agen­cies will also know you bet­ter than your­self. As William Bin­ney, one of the high­est-lev­el whistle­blow­ers to ever emerge from the NSA said, “The ulti­mate goal of the NSA is total pop­u­la­tion con­trol.”

Sci­ence fic­tion, thus, has become fact.

We’re fast approach­ing Philip K. Dick’s vision of the future as depict­ed in the film Minor­i­ty Report. There, police agen­cies appre­hend crim­i­nals before they can com­mit a crime, dri­ver­less cars pop­u­late the high­ways, and a person’s bio­met­rics are con­stant­ly scanned and used to track their move­ments, tar­get them for adver­tis­ing, and keep them under per­pet­u­al surveillance.

Cue the dawn­ing of the Age of the Inter­net of Things, in which inter­net-con­nect­ed “things” will mon­i­tor your home, your health and your habits in order to keep your pantry stocked, your util­i­ties reg­u­lat­ed and your life under con­trol and rel­a­tive­ly worry-free.

The key word here, how­ev­er, is con­trol.

In the not-too-dis­tant future, “just about every device you have — and even prod­ucts like chairs, that you don’t nor­mal­ly expect to see tech­nol­o­gy in — will be con­nect­ed and talk­ing to each oth­er.”

By 2018, it is esti­mat­ed there will be 112 mil­lion wear­able devices such as smart­watch­es, keep­ing users con­nect­ed it real time to their phones, emails, text mes­sages and the Inter­net. By 2020, there will be 152 mil­lion cars con­nect­ed to the Inter­net and 100 mil­lion Inter­net-con­nect­ed bulbs and lamps. By 2022, there will be 1.1 bil­lion smart meters installed in homes, report­ing real-time usage to util­i­ty com­pa­nies and oth­er inter­est­ed parties.

This “con­nect­ed” industry—estimated to add more than $14 tril­lion to the econ­o­my by 2020—is about to be the next big thing in terms of soci­etal trans­for­ma­tions, right up there with the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion, a water­shed moment in tech­nol­o­gy and culture.

Between dri­ver­less cars that com­plete­ly lack­ing a steer­ing wheel, accel­er­a­tor, or brake ped­al, and smart pills embed­ded with com­put­er chips, sen­sors, cam­eras and robots, we are poised to out­pace the imag­i­na­tions of sci­ence fic­tion writ­ers such as Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asi­mov. By the way, there is no such thing as a dri­ver­less car. Some­one or some­thing will be dri­ving, but it won’t be you.

The 2015 Con­sumer Elec­tron­ics Show in Las Vegas is a glit­ter­ing show­case for such Inter­net-con­nect­ed tech­no gad­gets as smart light bulbs that dis­cour­age bur­glars by mak­ing your house look occu­pied, smart ther­mostats that reg­u­late the tem­per­a­ture of your home based on your activ­i­ties, and smart door­bells that let you see who is at your front door with­out leav­ing the com­fort of your couch.

Nest, Google’s $3 bil­lion acqui­si­tion, has been at the fore­front of the “con­nect­ed” indus­try, with such tech­no­log­i­cal­ly savvy con­ve­niences as a smart lock that tells your ther­mo­stat who is home, what tem­per­a­tures they like, and when your home is unoc­cu­pied; a home phone ser­vice sys­tem that inter­acts with your con­nect­ed devices to “learn when you come and go” and alert you if your kids don’t come home; and a sleep sys­tem that will mon­i­tor when you fall asleep, when you wake up, and keep the house nois­es and tem­per­a­ture in a sleep-con­ducive state.

The aim of these inter­net-con­nect­ed devices, as Nest pro­claims, is to make “your house a more thought­ful and con­scious home.” For exam­ple, your car can sig­nal ahead that you’re on your way home, while Hue lights can flash on and off to get your atten­tion if Nest Pro­tect sens­es something’s wrong. Your cof­feemak­er, rely­ing on data from fit­ness and sleep sen­sors, will brew a stronger pot of cof­fee for you if you’ve had a rest­less night.

It’s not just our homes that are being reordered and reimag­ined in this con­nect­ed age: it’s our work­places, our health sys­tems, our gov­ern­ment and our very bod­ies that are being plugged into a matrix over which we have no real control.

More­over, giv­en the speed and tra­jec­to­ry at which these tech­nolo­gies are devel­op­ing, it won’t be long before these devices are oper­at­ing entire­ly inde­pen­dent of their human cre­ators, which pos­es a whole new set of wor­ries. As tech­nol­o­gy expert Nicholas Carr notes, “As soon as you allow robots, or soft­ware pro­grams, to act freely in the world, they’re going to run up against eth­i­cal­ly fraught sit­u­a­tions and face hard choic­es that can’t be resolved through sta­tis­ti­cal mod­els. That will be true of self-dri­ving cars, self-fly­ing drones, and bat­tle­field robots, just as it’s already true, on a less­er scale, with auto­mat­ed vac­u­um clean­ers and lawnmowers.”

For instance, just as the robot­ic vac­u­um, Room­ba, “makes no dis­tinc­tion between a dust bun­ny and an insect,” weaponized drones—poised to take to the skies en masse this year—will be inca­pable of dis­tin­guish­ing between a flee­ing crim­i­nal and some­one mere­ly jog­ging down a street. For that mat­ter, how do you defend your­self against a robot­ic cop—such as the Atlas android being devel­oped by the Pen­ta­gon—that has been pro­grammed to respond to any per­ceived threat with violence?

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, in our race to the future, we have failed to con­sid­er what such depen­dence on tech­nol­o­gy might mean for our human­i­ty, not to men­tion our freedoms.

Ingestible or implantable chips are a good exam­ple of how unpre­pared we are, moral­ly and oth­er­wise, to nav­i­gate this unchart­ed ter­rain. Hailed as rev­o­lu­tion­ary for their abil­i­ty to access, ana­lyze and manip­u­late your body from the inside, these smart pills can remind you to take your med­ica­tion, search for can­cer, and even send an alert to your doc­tor warn­ing of an impend­ing heart attack.

Sure, the tech­nol­o­gy could save lives, but is that all we need to know? Have we done our due dili­gence in ask­ing all the ques­tions that need to be asked before unleash­ing such awe­some tech­nol­o­gy on an unsus­pect­ing populace?

For exam­ple, asks Wash­ing­ton Post reporter Ari­ana Eun­jung Cha:

What kind of warn­ings should users receive about the risks of implant­i­ng chip tech­nol­o­gy inside a body, for instance? How will patients be assured that the tech­nol­o­gy won’t be used to com­pel them to take med­ica­tions they don’t real­ly want to take? Could law enforce­ment obtain data that would reveal which indi­vid­u­als abuse drugs or sell them on the black mar­ket? Could what start­ed as a vol­un­tary exper­i­ment be turned into a com­pul­so­ry gov­ern­ment iden­ti­fi­ca­tion pro­gram that could erode civ­il liberties?

Let me put it anoth­er way. If you were shocked by Edward Snowden’s rev­e­la­tions about how NSA agents have used sur­veil­lance to spy on Amer­i­cans’ phone calls, emails and text mes­sages, can you imag­ine what unscrupu­lous gov­ern­ment agents could do with access to your inter­net-con­nect­ed car, home and med­ica­tions? Imag­ine what a SWAT team could do with the abil­i­ty to access, mon­i­tor and con­trol your inter­net-con­nect­ed home—locking you in, turn­ing off the lights, acti­vat­ing alarms, etc.

Thus far, the pub­lic response to con­cerns about gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance has amount­ed to a col­lec­tive shrug. After all, who cares if the gov­ern­ment can track your where­abouts on your GPS-enabled device so long as it helps you find the fastest route from Point A to Point B? Who cares if the NSA is lis­ten­ing in on your phone calls and down­load­ing your emails so long as you can get your phone calls and emails on the go and get light­ning fast Inter­net on the fly? Who cares if the gov­ern­ment can mon­i­tor your activ­i­ties in your home by tap­ping into your inter­net-con­nect­ed devices—thermostat, water, lights—so long as you can con­trol those things with the flick of a fin­ger, whether you’re across the house or across the country?

As for those still reel­ing from a year of police shoot­ings of unarmed cit­i­zens, SWAT team raids, and com­mu­ni­ty upris­ings, the men­ace of gov­ern­ment sur­veil­lance can’t begin to com­pare to bul­let-rid­dled bod­ies, dev­as­tat­ed sur­vivors and trau­ma­tized chil­dren. How­ev­er, both approach­es are just as lethal to our free­doms if left unchecked.

Con­trol is the key here. As I make clear in my book A Gov­ern­ment of Wolves: The Emerg­ing Amer­i­can Police State, total con­trol over every aspect of our lives, right down to our inner thoughts, is the objec­tive of any total­i­tar­i­an regime.

George Orwell under­stood this. His mas­ter­piece, 1984, por­trays a glob­al soci­ety of total con­trol in which peo­ple are not allowed to have thoughts that in any way dis­agree with the cor­po­rate state. There is no per­son­al free­dom, and advanced tech­nol­o­gy has become the dri­ving force behind a sur­veil­lance-dri­ven soci­ety. Snitch­es and cam­eras are every­where. And peo­ple are sub­ject to the Thought Police, who deal with any­one guilty of thought crimes. The gov­ern­ment, or “Par­ty,” is head­ed by Big Broth­er, who appears on posters every­where with the words: “Big Broth­er is watch­ing you.”

Make no mis­take: the Inter­net of Things is just Big Broth­er in a more appeal­ing disguise.

Even so, I’m not sug­gest­ing we all become Lud­dites. How­ev­er, we need to be aware of how quick­ly a help­ful device that makes our lives eas­i­er can become a harm­ful weapon that enslaves us.

This was the under­ly­ing les­son of The Matrix, the Wachows­ki broth­ers’ futur­is­tic thriller about human beings enslaved by autonomous tech­no­log­i­cal beings that call the shots. As Mor­pheus, one of the char­ac­ters in The Matrix, explains:

The Matrix is every­where. It is all around us. Even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your win­dow or when you turn on your tele­vi­sion. You can feel it when you go to work… when you go to church… when you pay your tax­es. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.

What truth?” asks Neo.

Mor­pheus leans in clos­er to Neo: “That you are a slave, Neo. Like every­one else you were born into bondage. Born into a prison that you can­not smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.”