The things we trust change too quietly

Products used to come with instruction manuals. Now they come with an app and terms and conditions that you don’t read, don’t understand, but must accept. Those terms and conditions change over the lifetime of that product, and there’s not much we can do about it.

In fact, most of the time we’re really not aware of how our relationship has changed as a result of those changes. This is a new problem. It’s what happens when people who are used to making websites – which change and grow and go away relatively quickly and cheaply – start putting things in your home. We need to be reassured that as those devices change and evolve, we’ll be told about it. If a car’s safety systems have been disabled in an update, owners need to know.

This has, very quickly, become a problem a lot of people understand. The Norwegian Consumer Council’s terms and conditions reading captured attention around the world, Nest’s decision to effectively disable Revolv devices drew vocal criticism, and products like Little Printer and Nabaztag silently gather dust in shelves or cupboards.

That’s affecting how people use things.

Norwegian Consumer Council invited guests to read through more than 30 hours of terms and conditions (Photo: Forbrukerrådet)

Telling stories is telling lies

“Ginny!” said Mr. Weasley, flabbergasted. “Haven’t I taught you anything? What have I always told you? Never trust anything that can think for itself if you can’t see where it keeps its brain?” ― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I’ve come back to this quote a lot recently. Not being able to see how a thing thinks or why it’s making decisions is affecting how we use things. There’s a whole spectrum of ways that people react to the ‘seamlessness’ of connected devices, and the opaque way ‘smart’ products make decisions.

When some people don’t understand how a thing works or what it does, they make up stories to regain some control of the situation.

Others just don’t use things they don’t trust. I’ve spoken to people who turn their Nest thermostats off when they leave the house because they don’t want them monitoring it whilst they’re out. That’s pretty counterintuitive; it stops it doing what they bought it to do.

Both of those approaches reflect a lack of trust in what connected objects do, or what they might do. That’s understandable. If we’re not sure if our cars are lying to us, why should we believe our homes are telling the truth.

The way these products talk to us has to change. If the government can write in plain English, why can’t Apple? We need human readable explanations alongside software so people can understand what they’re using.

E-ink point-of-sale display with real time security updates: part of IF’s work exploring the future of consumer advocacy (Photo: Iona Wolff /IF)

Bridging the gap between making and campaigning

I think consumer advocacy groups need new ways of identifying how people use these objects. They need to work out what they can do to make sure people can trust the things they bring into their homes. Right now, the barriers to that are cultural and technical.

Alex Deschamps-Sonsino talks a lot about how difficult it is to access manufacturing when you’re making small-scale connected products, even when that’s the sole focus of your organisation.

As a studio, we’ve found that ‘learning by making’ has been an excellent way to understand the products we’re exploring, but it’s still clear that there’s a huge gulf between what we’re doing and manufacturing a connected product. If you’re an advocacy organisation, that gulf must seem even more massive.

So we have to make the church of consumer advocacy broader than it is right now. It’s critical that experts can connect with the likes of Which? and the ICO so the products people use are clearer and more accountable.

This post is part of a series about the Future of Consumer Advocacy, supported by Near Now. Read part one and part two.

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