Smarting from Smart Devices

After reading an article in a recent New York Times Magazine, I’ve been wondering about how smart devices are making us smart. Titled All Knowing, the article was part of the magazine’s on-going feature called “First Words” which explores the use of words and phrases in society and examines the origin and development of language.  According to the article, the word “smart” has its roots in the Old English word for “painful, severe, stinging.” If you’re puzzled with the connection, think of bumping your knee.  “Wow, that really smarts.”  Get it?

While the word was also used to describe being “quick witted” centuries ago, the word “smart” wasn’t connected to intelligence until the 20th Century. These days, however, smart is also applied to all sorts of “intelligent” devices.  We have smart phones, smart watches and even smart refrigerators.  A whole world of inanimate objects has suddenly become intelligent. Or have they?

Another way to interpret these “smart” appliances, the article’s author Jacob Silverman suggests, is to examine the impact they have on our lives. Most smart phones users claim that the data plans and connectivity gives them greater access to information and great ability to communicate collaborate and participate in the increasingly connected world. But these devices can also inflict pain. While the pain may not be severe or stinging, the unseen negative impacts are still present. Let’s broaden the lens a bit. Besides providing access and opportunity, the devices are constantly collecting information on their users. Whether through apps installed on or native to the device, smart phones are covertly collecting a slew of personal information on every user. But user data collection isn’t just limited to smart phones. Smart refrigerators are charting our purchasing patterns. Fitness devices are monitoring our exercise activities. Even personal assistants like Siri and Alexa are collecting tons of information in an effort to make the services they offer more efficient and better tailored to their users’ needs. But what happens to all of the data that’s being collected? I’m sure that some of this is outlined in the end user license agreements to which we all quickly click “I agree.” But this is one source of the potential pain inflicted by these devices. With more of our personal information in the hands of invisible others, I worry about the demographic profiles being created on each of us and how these data can be leveraged for commercial and political purposes.

I recognize that some readers may see this cautionary post as the musings of some crotchety old person complaining about all of these newfangled doodads. That’s not my intention. Instead, I want readers to critically examine both the positives and the negatives of the technologies we bring into our lives and educational environments. While we often highlight all of the great benefits afforded by new tools, we fail to recognize the subtle pain or risk the technologies may be engendering. With a little awareness and some educated decision-making, however, smart devices may smart a whole lot less.

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