When Everything is Smart, Nothing is Smart: The Negative Impact of IoT Dependence

by Jeff Wiener on May 22, 2015

It appears the sky is the limit when it comes to development of the Internet of Things, as there truly are no bounds to what people can think of that needs to become ‘smart,’ or network connected. Whether it’s smart dinnerware–including a fork that lets you monitor your eating and food intake habits, or a plate that instantly identifies, weighs, and journals everything you eat–or even cookware like a smart frying pan that will turn even the most novice of cooking buffoons into an instant culinary master, everything in our lives will soon be connected and in constant communication with everything else around us.

In this burgeoning new world order it seems that no doodad or whatchamacallit is too small or too insignificant to be part of the Internet of Things, with the digital world operating under the assumption that everything will instantly be better when its given network connectivity and branded ‘smart.’

But I have to wonder, when did we forget how to effectively use a frying pan, or a plate, or a toothbrush or a toilet for that matter? Do we really need every minutia of our existence connected to some all-encompassing network? Not only that, but what happens when that network fails and we suddenly find ourselves without the requisite knowledge or skill to operate or perform the simplest of things? Will ‘smart’ tech make us dumb?

Simply put, when everything is smart, nothing is smart, and the human race will be worse off when our collective dependency on technology becomes increasingly absolute.

As noted tech blogger Tony Poulos explains, there is a fundamental flaw in the thinking that everything in our lives could benefit from network connectivity, a microcosm of the flaw that technology in general can fix every problem we’re faced with. The flaw, you see, is that the more we come to depend on technology, the more we frame every problem we face in technological terms, the more we forget how to reason, problem solve, or exist without it. As the old adage goes, “To the man with a hammer everything is a nail.”

So even though, as Poulos writes, “The digital world has deemed that every intangible element needs to become smart in order to play a part in the new world of machine-to-machine (M2M) communications and the Internet of Things (IoT),” it is incumbent upon all of us to question the increasing dominance of network connected products in our daily lives, to ponder not only the short term gains of such technology, but the long term impact as well.

Now some will say our lives are undoubtedly better with a connected frying pan as but one example, as then the vast majority of people will benefit from increased culinary ability without the massive time investment it once took to master such skills. We should be teaching our children not necessarily how to research, discover, and learn, but instead how to utilize and implement the tools available to us to enrich our lives.

While that certainly seems like the beginnings of the sort of existence Aldous Huxley described in his famous book, Brave New World, it also raises the serious issue of what happens when the technology is gone or is unavailable? When we give up the chance to learn things for ourselves, how will we ever function without the tools we now depend on?

That’s not to say, of course, that some things won’t benefit from network connectivity, from becoming ‘smart,’ but only that even with things where technological integration has obvious benefit—like self-driving cars, for instance, as network connectivity will undoubtedly reduce traffic fatalities—there are still downsides—how long until we really lose the skills needed to ‘drive’ a car?—and those downsides could impact humanity for generations to come.

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