The door refused to open. It said, “Five cents, please.”
He searched his pockets. No more coins; nothing. “I’ll pay you tomorrow,” he told the door. Again he tried the knob. Again it remained locked tight. “What I pay you,” he informed it, “is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.”
“I think otherwise,” the door said. “Look in the purchase contract you signed when you bought this conapt.”
In his desk drawer he found the contract; since signing it he had found it necessary to refer to the document many times. Sure enough; payment to his door for opening and shutting constituted a mandatory fee. Not a tip.
“You discover I’m right,” the door said. It sounded smug.
From the drawer beside the sink Joe Chip got a stainless steel knife; with it he began systematically to unscrew the bolt assembly of his apt’s money-gulping door.
“I’ll sue you,” the door said as the first screw fell out.
Joe Chip said, “I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it.”
This passage from Philip K Dick’s Ubik has been doing the rounds recently, following a tweet from Ian Steadman:
Philip K Dick's "Ubik" (1969) manages to explain in half a page why the Internet of Things will suck under capitalism pic.twitter.com/PPnGEH5AzX
— Ian Steadman (@iansteadman) February 9, 2015
Steadman’s tweet has been enthusiastically retweeted and picked upon. See, for instance, Slate’s article Philip K. Dick Warned Us About the Internet of Things in 1969. That Slate article, like much of the attention Steadman’s tweet has garnered, misses the point spectacularly; it goes on to explain how terrible IoT is, and how prescient Dick is being.
The important words in Steadman’s tweet weren’t “Internet of Things”; the important word was capitalism.
Joe Chip clearly lives in a connected future. We know his homeopape machine talks to some kind of network, requesting news in a particular tone and fabricating it for him.
We know that the devices that make up his conapt know about his credit rating, and hence can refuse to work without either a line of credit or cash money.
The question really is: why does the apartment and its devices know about his credit rating? Why should it matter?
The clue is in the word contract. Joe Chip has signed a Terms of Service (TOS) agreement for his apartment.
Terms of Service, or End-User License Agreements, are problematic because they tend to exist for things you don’t really own: things like software, where even when you purchase it outright you agree to endless EULAs about what you can and can’t do with it; things that have a client-server relationship, where even if you own one end of it – the client – the server is still inside the domain of the corporation; things like subscription services, where the nature of the service (or the content within it, for a service such as Spotify) can change at any time.
It’s that Terms of Service that makes Joe Chip’s conapt suck. It doesn’t suck because it’s connected; it sucks because Joe Chip doesn’t own his own stuff. The TOS/EULA turns everything into hire purchase.
Subscription services make the expensive affordable (the very problem that hire purchase long ago set out to solve). A $600 iPhone is “free” on a particular contract… which often works out more expensive than the airtime and total cost of the phone. But ‘free’ is tempting, especially as the future becomes more expensive to partake of, and when cash upfront isn’t available. How many people have been stung when their ‘free’ device breaks inside a contract?
Joe Chip might have been, because, as we discovered earlier in the chapter (Chapter 3), he is broke:
“Mr. Chip, the Ferris & Brockman Retail Credit Auditing and Analysis Agency has published a special flier on you. Our reciept-slot received it yesterday and it remains fresh in our minds. Since July you’ve dropped from a triple G status creditwise to quadruple G. Our department – in fact this entire conapt building – is now programmed against an extension of services and/or credit to such pathetic anomalies as yourself, sir. Regarding you, everything must hereafter be handled on a basic-cash subfloor. In fact, you’ll probably be on a basic-cash subfloor for the rest of your life. In fact-”
He hung up.
Joe Chip has been able to afford things he technically couldn’t – his apartment, his lifestyle – by sacrificing something non-monetary for the privilege. He gives up particular freedoms in order to own things. Insert endless variants of “if you’re not paying you’re the product being sold” here, but note that Joe has made that an active choice: he is selling himself to own things.
What’s more insidious than the future Joe Chip lives in is a future where that isn’t a choice. IoT is so often dependent on that client-server model – which in and of itself isn’t an issue – but the ToS/EULA that comes along with it can be used to sneak all manner of other horrors onto the unsuspecting customer.
And what’s worse is when the static object, the object that intuitively feels self-contained, turns out not to be – hence the outrage about the Samsung TV that might be ‘listening’ to you. In this case, the sacrifice is that voice-recognition is easier outsourced CPU power and large, constantly updated databases somewhere on the Internet, rather than stored, statically inside a box – but how many people are really aware that a TV, even a Smart TV, is more often a two-way device than not?
The Amazon Echo is obviously not self-contained; it is a parasite that lives in your home, has a nebulous and confusing set of functionality, and which never fails to have me screaming what is the catch?
Objects that talk are useful, but objects that tattle aren’t. Joe Chip’s objects ought to make his life better, but that clearly stopped a long while ago. The horrors described in that chapter of Dick’s novel haven’t come to be because they objects are connected; it’s because of design choices the manufacturers have made to support those objects, and the financial strictures they, and Joe Chip, operate within.
That’s the nugget to really think about: Joe Chip’s house, and Samsung’s TV, are like that because somebody decided to make them that way. Maybe not somebody; maybe many somebodies; maybe somebodies operating within other processes.
In another tale of a strange lock, Bruno Latour writes that “things do not exist without being full of people, and the more modern and complicated they are, the more people swarm through them.” The Berlin Key, or how to do words with things, explores how social relations and societal forces are rendered in technology – and also, in the other direction, how technology is coerced by society. You can’t talk about the object divorced from the society and cultures it represents, but you also can’t discuss it without some attention to the technology of the object itself. And, bound up in that object, are people and culture and convention and politics.
The Berlin Key is a cracking essay. (It’s also a fascinating object).
Like the Berlin Key, Joe Chip’s lock also represents the society he exists in, encoding interactions, assumptions, and economics. An SF novelist like Dick can uses this as a shorthand for the world he wants us to see in a single thing.
But the Samsung TV – or the August Smart Lock – aren’t fictional inventions that serve as scene-setting and dramatic devices. They’re really things we can have – I hesitate to say ‘own’ – right now. And they are full of people, swarming through them, and those people bring the culture the exist in, along with the cultures they’d like to exist in in future.
And that means they’re full of a whole boatload of late capitalism. It’s important to acknowledge that explicitly, even if I’m not quite sure what to do about that.
I am pretty sure, though, that Joe Chip’s problem was never his door.