BY Orit Gat in Opinion | 03 JAN 23
Featured in
Issue 231

How Your Smart Mug Listens To You

Orit Gat unpacks the rise of ‘smart’ technologies and how they’re being harmfully manipulated

BY Orit Gat in Opinion | 03 JAN 23

In the 1995 thriller The Net, Sandra Bullock plays Angela Bennett, a brilliant and socially isolated systems analyst who never meets anyone IRL: she prefers web chat to phone calls; she orders her pizzas online; she is single and lives alone. After she discovers a malicious security breach, her entire personal record – credit cards, medical history, driver’s licence, name – is erased by hackers who are out to get her and there is no one to confirm who she is. In order to undo her identity theft, she needs to reach the FBI and prove the cybercrimes she’s uncovered.

Almost 30 years after its release, The Net has aged significantly. The film was released at a time when new technologies were beginning to determine daily life and many people felt alienated from these changes, which they had no way of challenging and no way of grasping. The difference today – when homes, cars and public spaces are connected in an all-encompassing network designed to digitise and automate our lives – is that most people have come to accept this, desiring the comforts of a system that attempts to anticipate their needs.

When your coffee mug can send you push notifications and promotional emails, it might seem a bit of a joke, but the superfluous nature of an internet-enabled mug is not the issue. Now that software is built into devices we never thought would require software, there is a new problem: what is the actual commodity we’re engaging with as consumers? When we use a self-driving car, for instance, are we interacting with the car or the software that runs it? This is a question of how we think about technology and the objects surrounding us, but also a question of legal liability: when your self-driving car collides with another self-driving car, whose insurance pays out? Or when your abusive ex-husband still has access to your front door via an app, who will protect you?

Commissioned illustration by María Jesús Contreras, 2022

The term ‘tech abuse’ was adopted to describe reports – mostly by women – of partners tracking their movements via smart doorbells, raising the temperature of their homes to insufferable degrees via linked thermostats, or locking them out of their cars. It signals that the problem is not in the technology itself but in the way it is weaponized; it also points to the fact that this is possible. But it’s not only your ex-boyfriend who is interested in tracking your daily life. It’s also the corporations that make the things you buy. Amazon knew plenty about its customers before its virtual assistant, Alexa, moved into their homes; still, it’s not irrational to be anxious about the data Amazon could further collect through the inbuilt access in Alexa devices.

Smart products are designed to evolve: they learn our habits in order to serve us better. One result thereof is that the networks which control and facilitate our lives are directed less and less by humans and more by artificial intelligence. According to a 2021 security report by Barracuda, humans make up less than 40 percent of internet traffic. The rest is driven by non-humans – bots, hacking tools, toasters – which do not consider or abide by abstract social constructs such as ethics and responsibility. The door to misuse and abuse was already left ajar; the network’s widening distance from human design leads to new anxieties.

Bullock may have seemed paranoid in The Net, but the movie was a visualization of a very reasonable fear: what if something goes wrong? Because most of us, then and now, don’t and can’t know how the things that surround us work, we have to have faith that the thermostat will not turn or be turned against us. We built these things, and then told ourselves an infinite number of stories – Jurassic Park (1993) and The Terminator (1984), among numerous others – about how they could attack us. What we need is an understanding that every device, from a Ring doorbell to a self-driving car, can contain within it the extent of our concerns about the risks posed by technology, from being locked out (literally and metaphorically) to the question of legal liability and the possibility of any such device being abused. The stories we tell about them expose anxieties about not being able to break free of a world we made ourselves.

This article appeared in frieze issue 231 with the headline ‘Net Escape’.

Main Image: Commissioned illustration by María Jesús Contreras, 2022

Orit Gat is a writer and art critic. She is a contributing editor of The White Review and Art Papers.