The rise of the machines

Terminator Endoskeleton – Source: The Verge

In the future, everything will be interconnected. The process to make this happen is already very much under way.

These interconnected objects usually get summarized under the tag “the internet of things”, or abbreviated IoT. Vast amounts of data are gathered and processed along the way.

The promise of course is, that this connectedness will benefit us all – but can this be? [2]



A brief introduction to a more cautionary position on the internet of things: Adam Greenfield.

Whereas there are numerous positive takes on the internet of things issue, some voices urge us for a more skeptic view of these developments. Namely the writer Adam Greenfield offers a thorough critique in his book Radical Technologies: The Design of Everyday Live (Greenfield, 2017).[1]

His article for the Guardian[2] offers a condensed view of the ideas presented in chapter two of his aforementioned book.


Adam Greenfield[3]

  • born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1968
  • head of information architecture at the Tokyo office of Razorfish, one of the world’s largest interactive agencies
  • Nokia’s head of design direction for user interface and services from 2008 to 2010
  • founded an urban-systems design practice called Urbanscale, which describes their work as “design for networked cities and citizens.”
  • September 2013, Greenfield received the inaugural Senior Urban Fellowship at the LSE Cities centre of the London School of Economics
  • taught in the MArch Urban Design programme at the Bartlett School of Architecture of University College London. (MArch is a programme bringing together designers and thinkers from around the world for long-term research on the challenges of global urbanisation and the creative potential of design.)




IoT – the objects

Greenfield states that “the internet of things isnʼt a single technology,” [2] but rather “a planetary mesh of perception and response”.[1, p.31]

He identifies three main fields, or “scales”, where the IoT-technology is being applied[1, p.32].




Bodies – the quantified self

This is the most intimate scale. Here the IoT takes the form of wearable biometric sensors, basically “networked digital pedometers”, which count steps, measure the distance a person has traversed, and estimate the calories being burned. But there already exist more elaborate models that measure heart rate, breathing, skin temperature and even perspiration. [1, p.33]


Fitbit luxe – Source: Fitbit







apple watch – source: apple






iPhone generations – Source: youtube




Homes – the smart home

The connected objects of the smart home are usually marketed to the public for more convenience in everyday life. These objects come in various forms, for example thermostats, coffee machines, robotic vacuum cleaners, etc. [2]

Bosch Thermostat – Source: Bosch







iRobot Roomba – Source: iRobot







Amazon Dash Buttons – Source: Livewire







The culmination of this must be the digital assistants, voice controlled devices that can be used to control all the other connected devices in the home, but also to order groceries or reserve a table in a restaurant. By default, these devices have to listen to all the sounds happening around them. The actual recording and processing should only start, after a certain command word has been detected, like “Alexa”, “Siri” or just simply “Google.” [2]

Amazon Alexa – Source: Amazon







Public spaces – the smart city

source: TechTarget

“Most of us are by now aware that our mobile phones are constantly harvesting information about our whereabouts and activities. But we tend to be relatively ignorant of the degree to which the contemporary streetscape has also been enabled to collect information.” [2]


In the smart city, various sensors monitor and track changes in their environment. Data is for example gathered about traffic, air quality or water and energy usage to name just a few [1, p.48ff].

With the ever-expanding bandwidth of the internet, also cctv cameras get more and more connected. Not to long ago, these cameras used to record on tapes, later then of course hard drives, now the footage can be accessed in real-time. They might be used to monitor traffic, but of course a lot of these cameras are also installed in pedestrian areas. [1, p.50]





Why should these IoT-Objects cause us concern?

There are a number of dangers and annoyances that might arise because of the IoT. Greenfields main point is, that we should look back to a number of well documented examples in history, to foresee the possible ramifications. [1, p.57ff]

A frightening story Greenfield mentions, is the introduction of a centralised registry of people in the Netherlands, including their ethnic origin, shortly before World War II. When this dataset got into the hands of the Germans, it was used to target and then deport the jewish population. Consequently, less than five percent of them survived the war. [1, p.60f]


  • Nudging and normalization
  • Security and surveillance
  • Complexity of life





Nudging and normalization

Who decides, what the world we are living in should look like? The large companies who sell us their IoT devices not only have an impressive market power already, the people working in these companies belong to a small techsavy elite of engineers. [1, p.40] Their world view now constantly seeps into our own lives, nudging us into a certain direction. Greenfield writes about the quantification of the self:

“They are willing to do whatever it takes to reengineer the body so it gets more done in less time […] and in doing so transform themselves int all-but-fungible production units, valued only in terms of what they offer the economy.

What might be unproblematic as the niche interest of a technical subculture becomes considerably more worrisome when its tenets are normalized as a way of life appropriate for the rest of us. But it is of yet greater concern when it becomes mandate by actors that operate at a societal scale, and have the leverage to impose these choices upon us.” [1, p. 35]


  • Open Table app
  • Uber


Security and surveillance

Connected consumer products need simplicity in use (plug-and-play) and a very low selling price[1, p.42f]. Greenfield calls this not only “a security nightmare,” but also emphasizes that this is a direct consequence of our current business model[1, p.44]. He also cites “internet security legend” Bruce Schneier: “the parties that understand the vulnerabilities – device manufacturers – aren’t incentivized to fix them while the end-user doesn’t have the expertise to do so [1, p.45].

As a result, this offers “intruders an aperture through which they might install back doors, intercept traffic passing across the network, or launch denial-of-service attacks [1, p.44].

In the case of the “smart city”, imagine the combination of the connected cameras with facial recognition or even gaze tracking [1, p.50]. The revelations by Edward Snowden made it very clear, that at least the big national security agencies have quite extensive power to access smartphones, computers and maybe a lot of other devices.



Counter measures

  • Cover your camera



  • Encryption & passwords



  • camouflage
Source: CVdazzle



Complexity of life

“We should know by now that there are and can be no Pareto-optimal solutions for any system as complex as a city [1, p.55].”


Problematic areas

  • sensor deployment

Already the position of a certain sensor might influence the quality of the recorded data, because “data is easily skewed, depending on how it is collected.” [2]

“The claim that anything at all is perfectly knowable is perverse. However thoroughly sensors might be deployed in a city, they will only ever capture what is amenable to being captured.” [2]


  • manipulation and human distortion

People might consciously try to produce metrics favorable to themselves. [2]


  • democratic control of algorithms and AI

“Nowhere in the current smart-city literature is there any suggestion that either algorithms or their designers would be subject to the ordinary processes of democratic accountability.”  [2]





As it looks right now, here in Europe we’re much better off than people in the USA, as data security and privacy protection are under much more scrutiny.

Source: Screenshot


But also in the USA, a bit more than two years ago, Apple refused to cooperate with the FBI on “unlocking” a iPhone.



“The internet of things presents many new possibilities, and it would be foolish to dismiss those possibilities out of hand. But we would also be wise to approach the entire domain with scepticism, and in particular to resist the attempts of companies to gather ever more data about our lives [2].”







[1] Greenfield, A. (2017). Radical technologies : the design of everyday life. London, New York: Verso.

[2] Greenfield, A. (2017). Rise of the machines: who is the ‘internet of things’ good for? the Guardian, 6 June 2017

[3] Adam Greenfield on – retrieved 20 April 2018


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *