Unintended Consequences — a SxSW meta theme

One of the sure fire things you can rely on in the world of technology and innovation is the law of unintended consequences. As systems become more complex, and connectivity between devices and platforms becomes a standard part of the development of any new piece of technology, the ability of the designer to predict knock effects diminishes.

In a panel at South by Southwest about Smart Cities and connected cars, I asked TFLs Ian Macbeth a question around last mile personal transportation (personal transportation pods, electric bikes and so forth). Ian made the point that whilst trends come and go (especially with things like hover boards and scooters), one of the more interesting debates is around the unintended consequence of a possible reduction in commuters fitness — especially as TFL have been promoting cycling and walking.

The Unintended consequence of IoT
Many of the talks at SxSW touched on this theme. Especially in the world of IoT. With more and more homes becoming ‘smart’ — Nest thermostats, connect lightbulbs, connected fridges and big players like Samsung and Google creating their own somewhat open standards to connect all these devices the issues that are coming up are around the knock on effects such systems have on privacy and security.

Ruby Zefo, a lawyer who runs the privacy and policy group at Intel, said that 90% of connected devices handle sensitive personal data much of it over insecure networks. What consumer considers that a connected lightbulb or internet enabled set of bathroom scales is routinely transmitting your Google account credentials around the cloud of data that floats around your house.

Consumers capacity to make choices about the security and privacy when then buy a new connected gizmo or download the associated app has always been limited by the complexity of the Privacy statement (Apple T&Cs anyone), but now they face the impossible task of considering the additional effects that interfacing their device into a larger connected system will have. Consequences that the original designers of the technology will not have been able to foresee.

Geeks don’t make for experts on parenting
Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia was bemoaning the fact that if you look at a Wikipedia article on childhood development you will find the content quite weak. However if you search for information on USB standards the is a huge amount of information.

Wales explained that is due mainly to the demographic of Wikipedia editors, who mostly tend to be male and geeky. This he said was because the editing functionality of the platform, which uses a special markup language called Wiki-markup, can put off non-techies. Therefore fewer non-techies and therefore fewer people with an interest in childhood development create content for the site. Net effect: more stuff on USB and less stuff about children.

Who’s problem is this to solve?
Brands are by no means immune to this. More and more consumer products from connected purchasing services (like Amazon dash) to activity trackers like Withings, FitBit or Sony’s LifeLog now connect to multiple digital touch points — any one of which could be filtered through a system that doesn’t take security and privacy as seriously as the brand does.

Fisher Price famously created and then discontinued a toy with an old unsupported version of the Android OS. At the time they didn’t consider what that toy might be doing or connecting to five years hence. Now, years later they are having to take responsibility for a product that they no longer make.

Brands are perfectly placed to help consumers become better informed. At a time when trust is at an all time low and consumers rarely feel loyalty towards a specific product, this is a great opportunity for brands to lead the way in thinking about and informing consumers of the unintended consequences of our connected world.

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