Technology on a leash

May 19, 2022

A couple of weeks ago, Russian troops stole Ukrainian tractors and ‘gave’ these to Russian farmers. However, John Deere, the manufacturer of these tractors, was able to remotely disable this ‘smart’ farming equipment and render it useless. This example goes to show that, other than technologies of the past, the value of smart and connected devices no longer fully corresponds with their physical appearance. In most cases this is a good thing; connectivity adds value and regular updates promise to make the device better. Yet, the story of the Ukrainian tractors also shows how smart objects can suddenly lose value as well. In the same fashion, drone manufacturer DJI can remotely impose no-fly zones for drones, and many other devices, including cars, are sold with an ongoing subscription without which the object loses much of its value.

In other words we share the ownership and control over many of our digital devices with technology producers or governments. Through the Stack, these actors can provide updates, survey our use of the technology and even activate a kill-switch. While these forms of co-ownership are often born from a practical or economic perspective, e.g. focused on data extraction or recurring revenues, they are bound to result in moral interference as well. What we can or cannot do with our devices, be it tractors or guns, will increasingly be decided by their manufacturers and our governments.

Burning questions:
  • Will these forms of shared ownership really be widely accepted, or will governments and/or consumers demand a return to old-fashioned stand-alone equipment?
  • Co-ownership of ‘our’ devices, by producers, also implies that producers become partially responsible for what we do with them. Will this stop manufacturers from producing potentially harmful devices (e.g. weapons), or will they simply refuse to make these smart and connected?

About the author(s)

Fascinated by the interplay between technology and society, Sjoerd has studied the role of different actors in the innovation and implementation of new technologies throughout his career. At the thinktank, he is mainly involved in research and consultancy projects for clients, and strategic and thematic research for sister company Dasym. Among other themes, Sjoerd frequently writes and speaks about the power and danger of digital technology, as well as sustainability in both technological and institutional innovation.

You may also like