Take smart speakers — the kind that respond to vocal prompts and questions — as an example. It’s exactly the sort of technology that gives people pause. Is this thing listening to me all the time? What about these weird stories of smart speakers laughing or cursing, or randomly recording a conversation and sending it to the owners’ contacts? The tech press has gotten better and better at chronicling the latest troubling answers — for instance, people may in fact listen to your voice activations as part of the process of refining the device’s functionality — and detailing what, if anything, you can do about it.
Nevertheless: As of last year, a little more than a quarter of American households owned a smart speaker, according to one estimate. The category leader is the Amazon Echo, equipped with the Alexa voice-recognition software; Amazon says it has sold more than 100 million Alexa devices.
Certain tech-use indicators have in fact leveled off in recent years, but that’s mostly because they correspond with categories that are already thoroughly established and widespread: Around 95 percent of consumers in the United States say they have or use a cellphone, and 89 percent have or use the internet, according to Pew. But dig a little deeper into that data, and it turns out that “new connected devices continue to emerge” and we continue to embrace them. In addition to voice assistants, smart TVs and wearable devices are growing in popularity.
Perhaps most remarkable, if you think we’re in the midst of tech backlash, is the traction of the aggressively hyped “smart home” trend, encouraging you to link your locks and lights and other household infrastructure to the internet. Amazon (which intuitively ought to be suffering in a tech-backlashed environment) recently announced that the record sales on its most recent Prime Day promotion included “millions of smart home devices.”
A particularly striking example touted by the company: gangbuster sales of Amazon’s own Ring video doorbell system and related home surveillance and security products. Ring has formed partnerships with hundreds of police departments, encouraging users to share video directly with law enforcement. And the device and its associated neighborhood-communiqué app have been criticized for essentially encouraging racial profiling and general paranoia. Amazon has denied that Ring currently uses the company’s spookily named Rekognition facial-recognition software (which is used by law enforcement agencies and businesses). But as reports by BuzzFeed and others have pointed out, the device’s terms of service allow the company to use Ring-collected recordings to help develop new products and services. It’s not hard to imagine this pointing to a future when the camera will “recognize” who your neighbors are.
That sounds like the sort of potentially invasive and controlling technology that would spark a public outcry — if not actual marching in the streets, then at least intense pressure on public officials to keep the tech giants in check, and on the tech giants themselves. But as with other unnerving-sounding innovations — self-driving cars, beacon devices that let retailers track customers’ in-store behavior, delivery drones, cashier-less stores — we mostly just shrug. Or, as in the case of the Ring, actively participate in the aggressive spread of a technology whose potential implications are unclear.
So if there is no tech backlash, why is that? Probably a combination of factors. For starters, technology can be complicated, and most of us don’t bother to read terms-of-service agreements, let alone try to understand how something like Alexa, or even Facebook, really works. By and large, tech companies prefer it this way, and they either actively obscure the way their algorithms make decisions or passively encourage you to focus on the post-user-manual idea that technology “just works,” and you don’t need to worry about whys or (especially) hows.