Two years ago, I found myself on a business trip to California, driving with the morning traffic from Los Gatos to San Francisco.
I have traveled this way many times in the past and had my trip all planned and figured out, except for the last couple of miles in the city. San Francisco is a complicated place with lots of traffic, people everywhere crossing the road in front of you, and lots of one-way streets. Difficult for an outsider who is used to a simpler lifestyle of Colorado.
Thus, to avoid the inefficiencies, complications, extra stress, and possible loss of time, I launched a navigation program on my cellphone, relaxed, and started following its directions.
My curiosity was quickly awakened when, instead of asking me to take 17 to 85 North, the program sent me on a small road towards Saratoga Ave. While thinking about it, I was enjoying a nearly empty road. Then, before reaching Saratoga Ave, the program asked me to turn again – this time on an even smaller street. The street was also nearly empty and after a few miles of relaxed driving I successfully reached 85.
So far, the trip was a delight.
I was enjoying the ride until I was within a mile or so from 280 North towards San Francisco. At this point, to my surprise, the navigation system asked me to exit on Steven’s Creek Blvd. What? I could already see the sign for 280 North towards SF and decided that this was a navigation mistake. And so I simply ignored this advice and continued forward on 85 North.
In no more than 30 seconds I was stuck in a traffic jam while the program was still giving me the instructions on how to exit on Steven’s Creek, travel some short distance, and get back on 280 North. I realized at this point that the program was always correct and was just trying to simplify my life and save me a few minutes by finding the least busy route.
This is all great, I thought, but how does it always know where the good route is? It doesn’t have any “traffic sensors” to rely on, right?
At this point I had a minor epiphany (and I imagine the majority of people is fully aware of this) when I realized that I was carrying such a sensor in my hand all the time. In fact nearly every phone around me was reporting back to the mother-ship the owner’s location, speed, and direction – at any given time. Millions of sensors embedded into millions of devices everywhere. And a computer somewhere far away was constantly monitoring them, analyzing them, reaching lightning-fast conclusions, and converting them into recommendations. The Internet of Things in action.
- The speed of sensors has simultaneously declined? And a lot of sensors are clustered together? Likely a traffic jam.
- High sensor speed? Likely, this road is not congested.
- Not many sensors report back from this street? Empty street, I guess.
But a second later I had another epiphany – a bigger one, which made me concerned.
Until that moment I was always thinking of my navigation system as a tool that blindly follows my will and does anything possible to make my trip safer, faster, and more comfortable. A loyal assistant without personality.
At that moment, however, I realized that the assistant could be also constantly manipulating me and others on the road and off the road – all of us who blindly follow its recommendations. The ease at which it was able to send me to streets I didn’t even know existed and away from the path I was planning to follow quickly led me to the following realizations:
- I am not just being informed about the road anymore. It is more than that now.
- The navigation computer can make me go literally anywhere it wants – assuming I am completely new to the area.
- If it decides so, it could by itself create traffic jams at specific places by sending lots of cars to one location all at the same time
- It could make me and others pass by some billboard, 7-11 store, or restaurant and even slow the traffic down to give us all an opportunity to study the ad or decide to stop by for a bite
- It could completely paralyze the traffic to benefit a selected person or give advantage on the road to some preferred clients
- It can cause me to be late for the flight or train or business meeting
- It can keep some areas of the city ecologically cleaner by re-directing traffic around those areas
- It can do a lot of other things – depending on its algorithm
In other words, I have realized how much power this “simple” IoT tool has over all of us – and that is just for people on the road.
At this time, I almost felt an all-seeing eye of the machine watching my every move and constantly adding this data to a nearly limitless data repository – all to be compared, analyzed, and to ultimately predict every move I will make. And to change my move (and my life) if it is to the benefit of the machine.
Then, I decided to turn my navigation system and the location services off and go “off the grid”. But SF is a difficult place for an outsider to navigate, I was in a bit of a hurry, and – after some internal battle between the rebel and the pragmatist – I decided to keep the system “on” just a little bit longer. “But I will turn it off tomorrow!” – I told myself.
That was 2 years ago. I am still using it every single day.