The National Science and Media Museum’s new exhibition Never Alone: What Happens When Everything is Connected? explores trends and issues around internet connected devices, which now outnumber the amount of people living on earth.
Never Alone (16 November 2018 – 3 February 2019, free entry) examines the proliferation of smart objects over the last decade. From the humble webcam to children’s toys (such as the doll banned in Germany due to potential misuse as a surveillance device) there is a growing list of connected items found in the home: audio speakers, wearable technology, thermostats, kitchen appliances, light bulbs, and more. It is estimated that more than 8 billion devices can now be found in households and part of daily life across the globe.
Opening just one month after the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport published its first code of practice for connected device manufacturers and technology developers, the exhibition looks at the impact these objects have had on entertainment, communication, lifestyle, security and health, and consequences that in some cases have only recently been considered.
For consumers these objects are seen as a positive development, helping to make improvements in efficiency, convenience and enjoyment in various aspects of life. There are also concerns this rapidly-expanding industry is operating in largely unregulated and unchartered territory, with access to personal data that few people fully understand.
The exhibition looks at five subject areas – objects that relate to tracking, biometrics, surveillance and smart homes. The final section is titled ‘bias’, which explores the ways devices can reflect the human values of their programmers and developers.
Dr Sarah Rawlins, exhibition developer at the National Science and Media Museum, said: “Never Alone looks at the incredible progress of connected devices and the information that drives them. We make the historical comparisons, for example with equipment that physically measured people’s faces using the Bertillon system developed in the 19th Century, and Sky News’ facial recognition software which helped app-users identify celebrities while watching Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding.
“Connected devices are becoming more and more prevalent, and while there are undoubted benefits, there are concerns that guidelines and regulation are playing catch-up.”
Other objects on display include connected children’s toys, such as the My Friend Cayla doll, which appeared in many ‘toy of the year’ lists on release in 2015/16 but was subsequently banned in Germany for falling foul of communications laws against concealed surveillance devices. These feature alongside 19th century wearable cameras and modern security and CCTV equipment.
A new version of Dima Yarovinsky’s artwork I Agree will be exhibited – an installation of printed terms of service that users sign up to before they can operate connected devices. The prints are laid out across the gallery walls and floor on A4-width strips, demonstrating the physical size of the contracts that come with technology such as the Amazon Dot and the Ring Smart Doorbell. The print of the Fitbit activity tracker’s terms measures 9.5m in length.
Also included in the exhibition are contributions from Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, author of Smarter Homes: How Technology Will Change Your Life and designer of the Good Night Lamp – an internet connected nightlight that communicates between households.
Alexandra explains that new technology becomes ‘invisible’ as more and more people adopt it and grow used to its presence, which can lead to complacency when thinking about the implications.
She said: “People want to be safe and their privacy is important. We know security is also important so we need to build those things into the devices.
“I’ve been working with the global community on this idea of regulating devices from the ground up on a project called the open IOT (internet of Things) mark. This is enabling designers to make things that are more secure, more sustainable and well-supported.”