By now, we’re all familiar with the Internet of Things. Making the rounds in tech circles for years, the IoT is now finally spilling over into the every day world of millions of people just as analysts have been promising for years. To consumers, the convenience and functionality that internet connected devices offer in contrast to their offline counterparts is seems to be ever more enticing. “Smart Thermostats” – arguably the most front-line IoT technology – grew “rapidly” in popularity through 2015 according to a report by Berg Insight published in June 2016, while devices such as Amazon’s Echo offer unrivalled convenience through always-listening, internet-connected personal assistants.

It is undoubtedly the home which receives the most attention from IoT providers. As the Economist put it, IoT homes “could transform the lives of individuals as dramatically as the spread of the mobile internet.” But the Internet of Things is not catching on quite as quickly as one might imagine. In fact, the economist reported in June 2016 that only 6% of American households own some kind of internet-connected appliance, and that 72% of people are not willing to buy into smart-home technology for at least next few years (according to a study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers).

So if so few consumers are apparently willing to participate in what is being widely touted as “the future,” why is it such a huge topic in tech today? One obvious answer is that businesses – not households – stand to gain a lot from adopting such technologies. Increased connectivity between systems combined with new levels of artificial intelligence and machine learning will inevitably result in higher productivity and efficiency in the business world. This extends into the home also, only with the same beneficiary.

With smart appliances filling our homes, almost endless amounts of data will be streaming out from our homes and into the hands of the companies who sold us the devices, and as we know from looking at social media platforms, data is a valuable commodity. In addition, one major focus of IoT appliances for technology companies thus far has been in making shopping easier. Amazon are key players in this regard, with their Amazon Dash Button providing consumers with an easy and instant method of spending money. Amazon are now making it even easier to spend money in fact, allowing you now to order items through voice control with their Amazon Echo Dot.

It is therefore my argument that the main driving force behind the surgent rise of Internet of Things appliances is not consumer demand as one might imagine. Instead it is the providers of the technology who are forcibly pushing the idea of a “smart home” onto us for their own benefit.

Now of course, you might say, it is in the interest of a company to sell you something. But when you couple the hesitancy of consumers to adopt these new technologies with the apparently unreadiness of the technology itself evidenced by the lack of security that I discussed in a previous post one must begin to question just how beneficial these IoT appliances stand to be for the average household.

The Internet of Dangerous Things???

There’s also the question to be asked about just how useful the Internet of Things actually is. One existing project that takes a parody approach to answering this question is

The ideas we created for the Internet of Useless Things aren’t far from some we saw at CES this year, where too many products were connected to other devices for no logical explanation. Sometimes, the industry seems to be creating a lot of products with a little bit of everything cool built on top. This project is all about reminding developers that less is often more.

Evidently, there is an argument to be made that companies are simply falling over themselves in the rush to enter the IoT market, resulting in a myriad of “useless” internet connected devices.

One step further than useless; is it possible for IoT devices to be dangerous to its users? Of course with security concerns among IoT devices as numerous as they are, it may not be farfetched to imagine hackers or viruses gaining control of household appliances and, through malicious intent or otherwise, causing physical or mental harm to the user. But what about devices that through their own design (or lack thereof) cause harm to the user?

The “Cool”-Box

The aim of the “Cool”-box project (hereby referred to simply as the Coolbox) is to explore into this question, about whether IoT devices could in fact be designed in a harmful manner on purpose, or at least put the safety and interests of the user in second place behind the objectives of the designer. The Coolbox has therefore been designed to exaggerate this possibility. It will be an IoT device that actively aims to cause harm to its user to the benefit of an outside entity.

We identified three design objectives that match our vision for such a device:

  • Cause harm to the user
  • Publicise private behaviour
  • Benefit an outside, larger party e.g. Big Business at the expense of the user

We took a more subtle approach to the first objective, in order to avoid causing pain or injury to any potential users. Therefore we looked at more behavioural dangers, eventually leading us towards alcohol consumption as our form of “harm”.  With alcohol acting as our medium for harm, we looked for an object that fits within the sphere of the everyday. A fridge felt too cliché, but a coolbox seemed a manageable and realistic household item for distribution of alcohol (and thus harm).

We envisioned, then, a coolbox that through technology encourages the user to drink much more than they would otherwise. To achieve this, we looked at what draws people towards alcohol. One major theme that cropped up throughout our research is that of peer pressure. There are of course many pressures that can lead people towards a drink, and one main contributing factor that leads people to drink is their peers. Psychology Today (2015) puts the pressure of those around you among the top causes of why alcoholics succumb to the temptation of alcohol, while governmental campaigns have been aimed towards helping alcoholics gain the ability to refuse a drink and avoid succumbing to peer pressure.

We therefore designed the Coolbox to act in the same behaviour as a friend who is always trying to get you to have a drink. When you enter the Coolbox’s proximity, it will begin to tempt you into taking a drink through the use of spoken voice to mimic the behaviour of voice-communicated devices such as Amazon Echo, and to feign artificial intelligence. Spoken voice as the method for communication and interaction also fits within Elisa Giaccardi’s principles of commensurability.

If the user falls for the Coolbox’s temptation and takes a drink from within, this is when the next two of our design objectives are triggered. The first of which, publicising private behaviour, is approached playfully by our design. Upon removal of an alcoholic drink from the Coolbox, the internet connectivity of the device comes in to play and broadcasts the fact that you’re drinking alcohol to all of your friends through social media and invites them all over for a party. In doing this, not only is a normally private activity of having a drink at home being made public and turned into a social event, but the temptation to cause harm to yourself is being increased whilst also spreading the temptation to all of your friends through the network.

Finally, when the Coolbox nears emptiness, it shall be designed to automatically order more alcohol to itself over the internet. This function exaggerates what I see as IoT devices’ goal to help users spend more money more easily in the vein of the Amazon Button. The surge of online shopping has made it extremely easy to order products online directly to your door, but following the rise of takeaway apps such as Justeat and HungryHouse, others have seen an opportunity for fast, home delivery of alcohol. It is our vision that the Coolbox will preemptively order from services such as these to keep itself stocked with alcohol to tempt you, and potentially your friends with, thus meeting our third design object of benefiting an outside party at the expense of the user.

My next post will look closely at the development of the project itself.