Me, The Device

We have learned to be skeptical of E-mail first. Then, of fishy web pages. Now even stray USB sticks can be dangerous to plug into your computer. We have learned that we need to be critical of our digital surrounding; sometimes by the stories of others, sometimes the hard way.

Ransomware is the most recent ingenious idea to profit off of digital naïvité. This piece of malware most deviously holds your data for a ransom. Quite literally. It encrypts vital data and then asks for ransom to decrypt it again.

We have learned that cybercriminals can take over your laptop camera and take pictures or record moments of privacy and intimacy. This has caused a wave of new products to be china-produced: Camera lids. More and more we employ some cover for the cameras in/on/around our devices; Self-made with ducktape or bought in packs of 10 on Alibaba.

At the same time, we seem to stand before the imminent rise of the „Internet of Things“ (IoT). To us, this means a lot of things of Internet: Every toaster, fridge and waffle iron will want to be connected to the internet. Every trash can, every couch and every car — every single product will be „smart“ and craves to be „connected.“ Enabled by low electronic cost and the hope for a new, unknown penetration of the consumer life, the IoT is not easily dismissed as some fad. Not so long ago electronic started replacing mechanic where possible. In the same manner connected will eventually supersede electronic. We will have a ubiquitously computing world.

This opens a new frontier for surveillance. In their report on the future of surveillance in the face of encryption, the Berklett group from Harvard states: „Networked sensors and the Internet of Things are projected to grow substantially, and this has the potential to change surveillance drastically. The still images, video, and audio captured by these devices may enable real-time intercept and recording with after-the-fact access.“ And further, come to the conclusion: „These forces are on a trajectory towards a future with more opportunities for surveillance.“

When I look at my laptop‘s camera, I never feel quite comfortable. Is someone watching? Now imagine your every furniture, surface and appliance are internet-capable. To many people, this feels not as disturbing as I think it should.The attitude towards such devices and their obvious surveillance properties seems for must people to be one of indifference. An impressive array of 7 microphones in a smart device — the Amazon Alexa — is scary, but that does not hold back most people from buying such a device. The benefits and the promises of benefits are too tempting. Pondering on this, I could not help myself but wonder:

What if all these devices were not just regular electronic appliances, but real people — staring into your living room?

With this question in mind, I decided to be a device. I was to be a smart device. Among the likes of Siri and Alexa, I would be another smart and connected device.

Much like the awkward situation in the Swedish movie Kitchen Stories (2003), where a researcher is tasked to observe and track the kitchen behavior of an odd Norwegian single man, I imagined this way of „surveilling“ someone would cause lots of estrangement.

I spent an evening in a friend‘s flat sitting in my cardboard box, disguised as a „smart device“. The whole evening was both an insightful and humbling experience; and a sweaty, stinky one. I did get quite a different result from what I expected. I tried to provoke estrangement and awkwardness. Instead, my friends started actually using me. Perhaps in part because they felt obligated to help me by playing their part, and more importantly because I was hidden away in a big cardboard box, blending rather well with the living room environment. At first, they were hesitant and very polite: „Could you perhaps be so kind to show us the YouTube video of the talking cat?“ The longer the evening went on, the harsher and the more practical the instructions became: „No, the other one!“ and „Go back!“

Slowly but surely I began to fade away from their direct awareness, and similarly I became what I set out to be. I became a smart device. I executed orders. I looked up cat videos. I navigated the social media streams. I replied. I helped reply. I did what I was asked and advised otherwise when I considered there was a better action to take.

And so I became one with the machine. Me, the device.