For some Texans, the dystopian sci-fi future we’re all dreading arrived late last week when state energy providers remotely changed home thermostats during a heatwave. As part of an energy-saving program called Smart Savers Texas run by a company called EnergyHub, participants opted to have their smart thermostats automatically adjusted during times of peak demand. This was in exchange for lowered power bills and entry into a $5,000 sweepstakes. But it took many by surprise. It’s important to stress the program was optional and that participants could opt out at any time. Thermostat adjustments would only last one to four hours at a time on weekdays from June 1 through Sept. 30, excluding holidays. “During summer peak energy demand days, we may briefly adjust your thermostat settings by a few degrees,” CPS Energy, a Texas energy provider, said on its website. “We’ll do this only as needed.” Still, the event raises questions about the “ownership” of gadgets we allow into our homes. Proprietary software often comes with hidden terms and license agreements. No one reads the fine print. This was likely why so many Texans woke up in a sweat last week, but it’s happened before. There are reports of “smart locks” locking people out of their homes and Ring alarms becoming part of the surveillance state. “The internet itself has become owned and captured by big banks and companies,” Mikey McManus, a technology consultant and co-author of “Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Ecology” told CoinDesk last fall. “Not everything should be connected.” Much of McManus’ work centers around preparing people for a reality where the world of atoms has been thoroughly disrupted or replaced by bits. We’re well on our way to an internet of trillions of nodes, or a “sea of informational devices,” where everything we do or touch is somehow integrated into the cloud. This new, potential data-centric epoch in human history is sometimes called the internet of things. “When we shift to trillions of computational devices, it’s not information in the device. It’s us living in the information,” McManus said. This could be a blessing or a curse, depending on how much authority we grant these devices to shape the world around us. And whether human operators are privy to know why or how adjustments are made. Bill Gates’ $123 million mansion famously had temperature and lighting systems installed that would adjust to guests’ preferred settings. That level of luxury is now available to middle class consumers with smart thermostats. But did we trade comfort and convenience for ultimate control? As tech firms and governments become ever intertwined, we should remember what we may be giving away when we go digital. For some, crypto is a digital revanchist movement – an attempt to reclaim ownership rights over cyberspace. This includes money, obviously, but also identity and communities. I don’t know if a blockchain would have prevented what happened during the Texas heatwave, or if that would even be preferable, but I do know the conversation around digital ownership is only getting more heated.
14 June 2021