We spend a lot of time focusing on the epic side of free software and user freedom: joys come from providing encrypted communication options to journalists and political dissidents; losses are when IoT devices are used to victimize and abuse.
I think a lot about the little ways technology interacts with our lives, the threats to or successes for user freedom we encounter in regular situations that anyone can find themselves able to understand: sexting with a secure app, sharing DRM-free piece of media, or having your communications listened to by a “home assistant.”
When I was writing a talk about ethics and IoT, I was looking for these small examples of the threats posed by smart doorbells. False arrests and racial profiling, deals with law enforcement to monitor neighborhoods, the digital panopticon — these are big deals. I remembered something I read about kids giving their neighbor a pair of slippers for Christmas. This sort of anonymous gift giving becomes impossible when your front door is constantly being monitored. People laughed when I shared this idea with them — that we’re really losing something by giving up the opportunity to anonymously leave presents.
We are also giving up what my roommate calls “benign acts of rebellion.” From one perspective, making it harder for teenagers to sneak out at night is a good thing. Keeping better tabs on your kids and where they are is a safety issue. Being able to monitor what they do on their computer can prevent descent into objectively bad communities and behavior patterns, but it can also prevent someone from participating in the cultural coming of age narratives that help define who we are as a society and give us points of connection across generations.
People sneak out. People go places their parents don’t want them to. People stay up late at night reading or playing video games. People explore their sexuality by looking at porn when they’re underage. People do things their parents don’t want them to, and these are things their parents are increasingly able to prevent them from doing using technology.
I met someone at a conference who was talking about potentially installing a camera into the bedroom of their pubescent child — the same kind designed to allow parents to monitor their babies at night — because their child was playing video games when they “should be sleeping.”
This appalled me, but one of the things that really struck me was how casually they said it. Technology made it not a big deal. They already had one in their baby’s room, putting another in seemed simple.
I would happily argue all the epic points that come out of this: creating a surveillance state, normalizing the reality of being monitored, controlling behavior and creating a docile population. These are real threats, but also, seriously, poor sleep hygiene is just a thing teenagers do and it’s okay.
These benign acts of rebellion — staying up later than we’re told to, chatting with our friends when we’re not “supposed to” — are not just important points of cultural connection, but also just important for our own individual development. Making mistakes, doing dumb things, acting the fool, and learning from all of this is important in the process of defining ourselves. Technology should not be used to hinder our personal growth, especially when it offers to many opportunities for us to better explore who we are, or makes it safer for us to continue to rebel in the myriad ways we always have. Rebellion is important to our narratives — it’s certainly integral to mine. I hope that people younger than me don’t lose that because of the fear others hold.