There was a time, at the turn of the millennium, when we were trying to cope with the fact that we live with sapient technologies. It was new, to be thinking of cohabitation with things that speak, interact, listen, and act in tandem with us. I still remember the time when the first pagers and cellphones arrived — how difficult it was for people to figure out the social etiquette for living with these devices.
From those early days, we have come a long way. Digital things are everywhere — and we talk to them everywhere and everywhen. On a regular day, our phones are on our dining tables, our devices are buzzing with notifications silently in our pockets, and they are guiding us in our everyday practices. They are not just bringing us information but also listening to us, pre-empting our moves, doing things that we have not even imagined yet. Living with technologies is old — the new normal is living in technologies.
I was recently reminded by a research team that the cars we drive are giant super-computers with engines. That a new car on the roads has more computational processing power than the land-rover on Mars. Our cars are indeed computing devices and we sit in them, depending on a variety of computational processes to keep us safe, as we are hurled at high speeds ahead. Our smart homes, too, are slowly becoming sapient surfaces with specific functions. Microwaves that remember meal times, coffee machines that sense our proximity and start brewing or refrigerators that keep track of our expired food — they are all very basic computing devices that we are already used to.
However, our life is not just with the devices but the immense networks of other devices that they connect with. I got reminded of this very starkly on a recent trip to India, when I realised that the SIM card that I had bought the last time has been deactivated for non-use. At the same time, procuring a new SIM was going to need patience, time and Aadhaar authentication, which won’t happen at the airport. Additionally, there were no wifi hotspots to use in the middle of the night. Thus started the longest night of my life. In that four-hour digital blackout, I found myself thinking of my condition as a state of disconnectedness, of paralysis. I was surrounded by my two phones (don’t ask), my iPad, my laptop, and, armed to the teeth with charging cords and power-banks. Yet, none of them were of any use.
Once disconnected from the cloud that caters to my entertainment and the services that keep me talking, it was as if all my devices were useless. I scrolled through multiple screens and then gave up, resigning myself to looking at others with data, with malignant longing. It was with great shock that I realised that my devices are only gateway machines. Despite all the money and effort I have spent in selecting specific hardware combinations and care equipment, without their capacity to speak to other machines-servers, controllers, nodes — they are almost entirely pointless.
So used am I to instant interaction, reciprocation and feedback with my devices, I forgot that I am actually in conversation with an Internet of Things that far exceeds my immediate intimacy with my personalised screen. Somewhere in there is a powerful reminder of why data protection and security are so critical, but also fragile in the connected Web. Because we can do almost anything that we like to keep our individual devices secure, but the large networks that give them life and animate them are completely out of our control. In the face of this uncontrollable void, the best we can do is hope that things will be safe. And that illusion is not going to last long — in these moments of disconnection, one realises it. Thankfully, before the head got filled with the dark side of digital connectivity, I chanced upon an old movie I had saved on my laptop to show in a class once. It was Wall-E. I decided to just watch that film about a world where the only live thing was a robot, and in some strange way, found it very comforting.