The internet is clearly dividing into at least two things. The first is, and always was meant to be the great liberation of information which would catapult creaking democratic entities into a new era of transparency and accountability. It would facilitate a free exchange of ideas and knowledge—the sort of thing that Wikipedia sought to achieve (and perhaps does, if not wholly successfully). The second internet thing is the internet of things. Lots of people see this later development (perhaps after seeking advice from Alexa) as a way of assisting them cope with modern life (I was rather impressed on the doorstep whilst canvassing the other day when one resident didn’t tell his dogs to stop barking but merely said ’Alexa, shut up!’ in order to turn his music off). Simple tasks performed by in-house internet connected appliances will inevitably lead to more complex tasks being performed too. I am always reminded of E.M.Forster’s short story The Machine Stops to provide us with a clue as to what happens when the machine does actually stop. And on occasion it will, and we’ll stand around waiting for it to fix itself having ourselves forgotten how it works.
But in another sense what is the internet of things if indeed we ourselves are not the ’things?’ This is a world where we are made to fit the internet rather than the other way round. I will comment on what is a trite but common experience. I have been sent by Sainsbury’s an email telling me that I can get £15 off my next online order worth at least £60. A little later the email tells me my ’coupon’ is worth £13 off £60. I thought I would alert Sainsbury’s to their obvious mistake. Which one is it—£15 or £12? To advise them of their error I thought of using their ’Contact Us’ tab. This merely takes one through a list of preset questions with preset answers. There is actually no obvious route to ’contact us.’ It’s just a faux friendly dead end. At the end of the process I got the message that my effort had been recorded. Whilst this may be a trivial case (and frankly you always spend more on these money off offers than you intend to) the same cul-de-sac approach is now taken by nearly all large businesses online, (especially) including those you do actually rely on (e.g. energy companies).
I have the strong sense that we, who once ruled the all-powerful sovereign Kingdom Of The Consumer (ha!) are being prepared for a techno-subservience nobody has yet quite understood. It may be convenient at present to deal with online businesses without too much hassle, but at the slightest drop of a hat we can be left high and dry. BT customers are discovering this with their transference to super fast broadband, which when it goes down leaves them without any form of communication at all (unless they have subscribed to another provider’s mobile service I presume). Things will go down, won’t they (and yes it’s sometimes your fault for tapping the wrong keys or some such)?
Against this new age of unresponsiveness (or strictly permitted responsiveness) stand the regulators and our austerity hollowed-out democratic institutions. Are they more likely to give you any more personal attention than the things they adjudicate? It’s possible, but not uniform (I won’t recount another recent experience, except to point to a very early blog post about the unregulated plague of CCTV cameras on every street). I wonder if the Consumers Association is on top of this creeping defenestration of the once noble consumer? Twenty or thirty years ago we lamented the demise of the ‘citizen’ as the consumer became ‘king.’ Now this ‘king’ is being replaced by ‘thing’ but the phrase ‘The Customer Is Thing’ doesn’t inspire much confidence.