Thoughts on IoT's "dirty little secret"

In an inspired debut column at The Verge, pseudonymous Twitter moniker Internet of Shit raises a number of important critiques of the current fascination with "smart" devices. These devices are often unnecessary, sometimes unreliable, and constantly collecting data about your behavior. Nonetheless, they seem irresistible to consumers.

If you’re shopping for a thermostat you’ll see two choices: the boring but reliable Honeywell that doesn’t do much more than turn on your heaters, or the slick, shiny iPhone-esque Nest that promises to change the way your home is heated forever by just connecting to the internet. What would you choose? I can almost guarantee that you’ll end up with a Nest, or at least something similar.

So how do we respond to this trend. One tactic, which Internet of Shit has been employing for a year or so now, is public education. By shining a satirical light on these concerns, consumers become more aware of them. Our book, though admittedly far less funny, tries to do the same thing. But the column offers another suggestion:

What we really need from those building the Internet of Things is commitment. Companies should step up and guarantee the longevity of their products, no matter the cost or bind it might put them in.

Of course companies should make products that work as advertised. They should live up to their warranties. And consumers should discipline companies that fail to make good on their promises. That's just as true for Honeywell as it is for Nest. But as Alphabet/Google/Nest's treatment of Revolv owners underscores, a lifetime subscription doesn't mean much when the code that runs a device is under the exclusive control of its manufacturer. 

In addition to demanding better treatment from device makers, we need to give consumers back control over the devices they buy. If a software update removes valuable features, you should be able to revert to an earlier version or write an update yourself. If a server goes dark, consumers should be allowed to roll their own. Even a small community of users can guard against abuse when we treat them as owners of the code that makes these devices work. But as long as consumers are at the mercy of companies with interests that diverge from their own, their ownership and control of the products they buy will be at risk.