Technology Safety Privacy Devices Data

CES and the new ethics of a smart future

January means a lot of things to a lot of people - it's a time of resolutions, personal challenges, and beginnings. With over 115,000 attendees in 2023, for those of us in the tech world, January also means the Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

CES is a global nexus for technological innovation, an inspirational showcase from industry leaders introducing the new wave of must-have devices. This year, the CES Smart Home Expo promises to be larger than ever, standing as a testament to the evolving landscape of our homes. The spectrum of smart-home device categories on display reflects the transformative journey we are on, reshaping the way we interact with our living spaces.

Protected home
Protected home

This year CES is showcasing advancements in:

  • Sustainable energy

  • Home security

  • Integrated thermostats

  • AI-driven appliances

  • Age tech

  • Residential robots

  • Accessibility tech

  • Pet monitoring tech

  • Integrated kitchen and bathroom tech

  • Work-from-home solutions

  • Air purification

  • Whole home health

CES’s impressive and granular list is both remarkable and unsurprising. Smart home technology evolving into areas as niche as pet monitoring, age tech, and whole home health is notably intimate. What started with PCs and phones and moved to cameras and vacuums is now a full smart home suite, with every part of life previously unconsidered now available for digitizing and streamlining. Consumer Technology Association reports that 432 million U.S. households contain smart devices, a statistic irrefutably supporting the allure of smart-home convenience. This enormous consumer demand for and adoption of smart devices over the last decade frames the above list as a natural progression.

However, CES isn’t just a marketplace for desirable gadgets or a showcase for cutting-edge technology, in 2024 it ignites a deeper question about the interplay of the digital and physical and the implications of smart device ubiquity in our everyday lives. This harmonious ideal of technology gently hand-holding every facet of our life, from our entertainment to our home security to our personal health, is seemingly utopic. Short of flying cars, it’s the Jetson’s-esque future America idealized in the mid-twentieth century. 

But the easy rarely comes easy, and the convenience that has propelled the proliferation and homogenization of smart living is inextricably linked to a potentially alarming trade-off: what is the real impact of smart living on our privacy, autonomy, and social dynamics?

Unintended consequences 

In 1957, Disney’s Tomorrowland introduced an attraction called the Monsanto House of the Future. A collaboration between Monsanto, MIT, and Walt Disney Imagineering, the Monsanto House of the Future was an optimistic vision of future living, supporting automated devices and appliances, space-efficient design, and ‘innovative materials’. The Monsanto House of the Future was constructed entirely of plastics, complete with a structural plastic frame and plastic furniture, lauded for its durability and versatility. 

Today we can reflect on the flaws of the Monsanto House and its vision for the future. We have deeper insights into sustainability and environmental impact. This informed lens offers an almost comical perspective, the 50s’ future appearing innocent and twee in light of 70 years of research, development, and socioeconomic evolution, demands, and priorities. 

By the same token, it’s impossible to know with any detail or granularity what the next 70 years of technological and societal development will look like. What we do know, with 100% certainty, is that there is every chance in 70 years we could look back at today’s vision of the future and find it comical or twee - if we’re lucky. Unlike the Monsanto House of the Future, today’s consumer appetite for technology has already set our future on a distinct path: the smart home. 

What will be the unintended consequences of the smart home? 

The ethics of a smart future

A smart future introduces a multitude of nuances to various spheres of our lives. Whereas the fallible vision of the 50s found its most egregious flaws in easy-to-identify physical and material decisions, a smart future leans more towards a social reset. It’s a blurring of the digital and physical worlds, it’s a dissipation of invisible and previously unnecessary, unknown, or unacknowledged boundaries. Default private aspects of our lives become accessible. 

The aspirational smart home requires an unspoken payment: a constant livestream of our lives. 

This livestream isn’t the overt kind. It’s not a reality show, it’s not broadcast on a social platform. It could include always-on microphones, sensors, and cameras, but at its core it is a continuous collection of data, building a complete portrait of your habits, personal details, and private life. 

Smart devices function by monitoring. Monitoring the temperature of your living room to keep you warm or cool. Monitoring your floor plan to vacuum every corner. Monitoring your steps and heart rate to keep you fit. Monitoring your front door to know if there’s movement, including when you come and go. 

It could be argued that the greatest unintended consequence of a smart future, for consumers, is relinquishing personal privacy to a previously unfathomable degree.

The integration of smart devices into our daily lives, to this extent, raises profound ethical questions. How does a smart future impact our human rights? How do we maintain ownership of personal data? How do we prevent the misuse of private data? How do we negotiate privacy in exchange for convenience?

Resolving a smart and private future

There is no short and simple solution to this recent yet ever-pressing conundrum of smart privacy. 

It would be optimistic and sadly naive to assume all manufacturers subscribe to an ethical responsibility when considering data security in product development. The balance between technological innovation and safeguarding individual privacy is not only a new, unregulated, and unpredictable sphere, it’s one with misguided incentives - produce quickly, produce cheaply, and meet an exponentially growing demand. 

There must be pressure put on manufacturers to maintain transparent data practices and develop robust security measures. This can come from legislation and it can come from consumers voting with their wallets. However, consumer autonomy is only possible when combined with public awareness and education surrounding data collection. There must be responsibility put upon industry experts, relevant media outlets, and government representatives to raise awareness of the potentially insidious partnership between the convenience of a smart future and our sacrificial privacy. 

The ethical considerations of a human-centric smart future require a collaborative effort from technology stakeholders, policymakers, and consumers.  

This is just the tip of the iceberg. The full ethical and social impact of a smart future is yet to be uncovered. The impact of technology on society will be helpful and fierce and unknowable. It rests on us all to remain human-centric in a digital world.

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