It’s a Monday night in 1963. You sit down to watch TV and put on ABC. You are presented with a black screen with a white glowing dot in the middle.
A deep voice intones:
“There is nothing wrong with your television set. Do not attempt to adjust the picture. We are controlling transmission. If we wish to make it louder, we will bring up the volume. If we wish to make it softer, we will tune it to a whisper. We will control the horizontal. We will control the vertical. For the next hour, sit quietly and we will control all that you see and hear. We repeat: there is nothing wrong with your television set. You are about to experience the awe and mystery which reaches from the inner mind to — The Outer Limits”
I remember as a kid watching the sci-fi anthology series The Outer Limits (re-runs, that is…I’m not quite that old) and I distinctly remember being frightened by that voice…by those words…the idea that I was no longer in control of my television and perhaps no longer in control of my life.
Yesterday, we crossed into the outer limits when Google clearly demonstrated just how in control they are – and by extension, just how much control emerging media companies have of our lives. In 2014, Google acquired smart-home company Revolv, maker of home-control devices powered by the Revolv Hub. And yesterday, they announced that they’re killing it. Not just killing the company, mind you – Google is reaching into the living room of everyone that purchased the Revolv hub and literally killing the device. It doesn’t matter that it’s your device. It doesn’t matter that you paid money for it. Google isn’t offering to let it keep running and simply not support it – they’re bricking the device, rendering it useless. The warranty is expired on these devices and so Google has no obligation to the purchaser. Oh and by the way, you agreed to this. When you registered your device. Surely you read all the fine print before you clicked “accept”, right?
Why is Google doing this? Because the Revolv no longer matches Google’s smart-home plans and they are abandoning the device – and the people who purchased it – in favor of technology from Nest, another company Google purchased.
As Cory Doctorow said on the website BoingBoing “This isn’t the earthquake, it’s the tremor. From your car to your light-bulbs to your pacemaker, the gadgets you own are increasingly based on networked software. Remove the software and they become inert e-waste.” And provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act lets many companies retain the rights to the software that powers your devices – which gives them the right to reach into your home and do anything they want with the devices you’ve paid for.
It’s a reminder that we are all linked, we are all inextricably intertwined with the technology and emerging media all around us. Facebook and Twitter have no obligation to you to continue to maintain your pages and tweets, if they decide to shut down this part of their service in favor of another. All those memories you have on Facebook, all of those memories, all of those connections – they can be gone tomorrow if Facebook decides to change its business model. The sum total of what they owe you is zero – especially since they’re services you’re not paying for.
The frightening thing, as in the case of Revolv and Google, is that it can happen with devices and services you actually do pay for.
So sit quietly and watch, folks. You’re not in control any more. Welcome to the outer limits.
Emerging Media Graduate Student