6 minutes reading time (1205 words)

The infinite network: in conversation with Dr. Sarah Rawlins

The infinite network: in conversation with Dr. Sarah Rawlins My Friend Cayla, Hello Barbie, Fisher Price Smart Bear. Image c/o National Science and Media Museum

The speed at which Internet-connected devices have been introduced to the consumer market has vastly exceed that of society and policy. For every domestic advantage, there is seemingly a tradeoff in policy and security.

For its new exhibition "Never Alone: What Happens When Everything is Connected?", the National Science And Media Museum explores this multitude of overlapping issues and considerations in relation to the Internet of Things. With additional contributions from Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, "Never Alone" aims to cover the IOT explosion from a social, cultural, and artistic perspective.

We caught up with exhibition developer Dr. Sarah Rawlins to ask her about the points and issues arising from the exhibition.


Where do you believe that regulation has got us in 2018? It feels like technology, particularly the companies of Silicon Valley, is way ahead of legislation – and that even when presented with empowerment, such as with GDPR, customers find it to be unnecessary friction. What's your view?

SR: I agree that it feels like regulation is playing catch up, and to me, the crucial areas where it is lacking is data privacy and data protection. Tech companies may seem to be way ahead of the game, but Apple CEO Tim Cook recently stated that he believed more regulation was 'inevitable' as a result of the free market 'not working'. The fact that 72% of respondents to our survey were in favour of greater regulation, which took place several months after the introduction of GDPR, shows that they have similar feelings. But without knowing how it will impact on the service they receive it's hard to say how consumers will react to any changes to the services.


Do you believe that the consumerisation of surveillance has allowed it to be easily, and perhaps perniciously, acceptable? When asked if people would like to be under surveillance 24/7, most people would naturally say “no“ but this is obviously what happens, though passively, with Alexa.

SR: Interestingly, we're asking 2 further questions of visitors in the Never Alone exhibition: 'Would you install wifi connected security cameras in your home?' (so far 57% of respondents say they would) and: 'Would you be happy for facial recognition technology to be used in public spaces?' (47% of respondents say they would). There is clearly a difference between actively choosing surveillance in your home, such as through a security camera, or as you say 'passively' through a smart speaker. The key thing to me is whether people are able to make an informed choice about what they are agreeing to? It's just as important to know what's happening to the information collected by the security camera as it is the Alexa.


Do you believe that there would ever be a backlash against where we are with this situation, and if so, how would it manifest itself?

SR: I can't predict the future unfortunately, but there is definitely a sense that certain issues are becoming more and more pressing. I know people who have said they will not buy certain devices because they feel uncomfortable about the information they will be divulging, and ultimately I think commercial viability will play a big part, along with some of the other factors we're seeing.

On the flip side, I've recently signed up to Uber, despite having concerns about the data I had to agree to share. However I read the whole terms of service and decided that on balance I wanted access to transport when and where I needed it, and perhaps if I didn't have any cash. But again the point is that I made an informed decision, and I certainly envisage a scenario when the choice between which tech service you choose may hang on the terms they offer. It's not necessarily that way at the moment, but it could change.

Conversely, given the supernational nature of the Internet, surely any attempt to “regulate" it is pointless?

SR: In Never Alone we're not talking about the internet as a whole, but specifically internet connected devices, and I don't see why, in the future, companies wouldn't have to abide by certain regulations in order to get approval for their devices, similar to a Kitemark. Last month (October 2018) the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport published its first code of practice for connected device manufacturers and technology developers, and the exhibition has contributions from Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, author of Smarter Homes: How Technology Will Change Your Life and designer of the Good Night Lamp. Along with other representatives from the tech sector, Alexandra is working towards an IoT Mark. If regulations did come in, then devices such as wifi-enabled kettles may just fall by the wayside if they are not serving an obvious purpose and have to fulfil regulatory obligations in order to get to market.

Even when such companies get into trouble, as has been the case with Facebook's recent moral meltdown (or, rather, the uncovering of it), we still use their services and contribute to their profits. How can this death spiral ever be resolved… in fact, can it be resolved?

SR: I'm not sure we're in a death spiral - that suggests that the relationship between tech companies and consumers is set in stone, when I expect it can and will change. In many cases we're still in the early days of those relationships.

Facebook has already moved on from the mantra 'Move fast, break things' which, although that related to developers, could be argued also reflects a growing understanding of its social responsibility. I'm fairly certain they'll be working tirelessly on ideas to regain any trust they've lost in the recent crisis, and we've seen it has cost them significant amounts of revenue, even for them! It brings us back again to the point that commercial performance will be a clear driver for an organisation. Also, do we really believe that no other similar platforms or services other than the ones we see today will start-up and give consumers a choice?

Do you foresee a situation where, in a society full of personal implants (as per the survey results) and we become truly connected beings, there will be a group, or a subset of society, which is not just technically off-grid but physically too – that they have decided to completely disconnect themselves from the Internet? Will we have the connected, the “can't afford to be connected", and the “decides not to be connected"?

SR: Although it wasn't necessarily what the question was asking, we already do have internet connected medical implants (which have been a plot device in the TV series Homeland, and also revealed to be a real-life concern relating to an American Vice-president).

Generally, I think the wider question of the 'have-nots' and the 'do-nots' is already being asked with the technology we have today, but historically we do know that successful tech becomes smaller, cheaper and more prevalent, and therefore gradually becomes 'invisible' to the users. The issue is how long this process takes and what the impact and implications are while this is happening. If someone opts out, that's their choice but if you can't be connected for a financial or social reason then that can create serious problems and reinforce inequality.


Dr. Sarah Rawlins is Exhibition Developer at the National Science and Media Museum, Bradford. Never Alone runs until 03/02/19. For further information, visit the Museum website.

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