Cyberpunk ambitopia

When I got my first iPhone, I wrote that its “compressed functionality underscores the extent to which the internet has changed things. If you had told me about it when I was a kid, I would not have been able to wrap my head around it.” It’s a camera, a calendar, an address book, a pocket watch, a GPS. It also takes calls, although I use it for text messaging more than voice.

When I imagined future technology as a kid, I often imagined smart houses. There was recently an on-line ad targeted to me for a front door lock that you can control from your phone. This is like the computerized houses of my elementary-school imagination. I should be excited, but I’m not.

The future has gritty problems that 1980s cyberpunk novels didn’t prepare me for.

Decay: Since I’ve had an iPhone for seven years and replaced it with a newer model once, it’s clear that many things it can do will only be operative for a few years. As the OS is updated, an app only continues working if developers keep maintaining it. So rarely used functionality might just be gone by the rare occasion when I need it, or the interface will have changed so much that I’m basically learning it from scratch.

However, I want a microwave oven that just works. I don’t want it to change its user interface when a software update downloads at 2 AM.

Fragmentation: Different companies have different operating systems. The problem is not just that they don’t work together, but that their business models involve making them incompatible.

When the iPhone first launched, there were explicitly two kinds of apps: native apps that you could buy from the App Store and web apps that were written in HTML and Javascript. Apple explicitly encouraged both, because they needed for there to be enough apps that people would have reasons to own an iPhone.

As the App Store grew, however, Apple stopped mentioning web apps. iOS still supports them, but they are kind of hidden and not as functional as they could be. Apple makes more money from iOS apps that are exclusive to their platform. The Android and Amazon App stores are similar.

Any smart device will belong to a particular ecosystem of software and other smart devices. Even with internet connectivity, different things won’t necessarily play well together. And it can be good business for companies to make sure that they don’t.

It’s inconvenient to have different remote controls for the TV and the video player, but it would be a nightmare if every appliance was linked to one of several different, incompatible control systems. It’s easier that my dumb coffee maker just has a rocker switch on the front of it.

Corruption: Although updates can break some functionality, I update software regularly because I don’t want to be behind the curve on security patches. Every thing in the internet of things has the potential to become a zombie bot. Even if it leaves dishes spotless, I don’t want my dishwasher to mine botcoin for foreign hackers or join a hoard of other dishwashers to launch a denial of service attack.

XKCD 1966
An apt XKCD comic by Randall Monroe.

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