THE BLOG
09/03/2014 06:04 pm ET Updated Nov 03, 2014

Will Connected Devices Disconnect the Family?

This was just released as a chapter in an ebook "Monetizing the Internet of Things."

Tolstoy famously said, "All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Why am I beginning a piece about the Internet of Things with a nod to the patriarch of the 19th century novel? Because I want to shift the focus of the conversation about connected devices and their technological implications, to a discussion of the human implications of a world where there are potentially hundreds of sensors monitoring thousands upon thousands of interactions in every household.

Families are a complex mixture of sharing and privacy. Over time, as technology has innovated, it has added new tensions to the inherent privacy tension. For example, television sets first entered our lives as big consoles that sat it in the living room. Everyone in the family watched the same thing, which meant parents knew every second of their kids' entertainment consumption.

But the advent of small, portable sets changed that. It meant that kids could watch what they wanted in the privacy of their bedrooms, outside of parental oversight. This created all kinds of struggles between children seeking independence and parents seeking control and insight.

The evolution of the personal computer magnified this tension. The days of the "family computer" seem like ancient history, but there was a time when there was a single giant digital structure in the kitchen or family room that parents and kids shared. As the Internet emerged - and within it the whole "net nanny" phenomenon - the issue was heightened as parents worried and children, particularly as they got older, chafed under the perceived panopticon.

Flash forward to the Internet of things, when dozens and dozens of physical objects in the house become connected devices that are capable of capturing, relaying and storing personal, individual information. Just think about the implications of that. Suddenly, ordinary activities and behaviors are instantly available and shareable to all, and the household becomes its own Big Data warehouse.

How much time did Zachary actually spend brushing his teeth? How many steps did Dad really take according to his FitBit -- and exactly where did he take them? How often and at what times over the weekend did Grandpa hit the Jack Daniels, and how much did he drink when? And what about data related to Internet-enabled pill boxes? The amount of data that's gatherable and crunchable from IoT in the average household is massive in its size, and meaningful in its implications.

It also raises questions like: Who in the household has access to the data from the refrigerator, the toilet, the car, the front door, the back door, the Nespresso? What happens when a divorce lawyer wants it?

Most of the focus on IoT is on projections for its astounding growth. Revenue will be bigger than smart phones, PCs and tablets combined, gushes Business Insider. Others are worrying about the cybersecurity implications. But remarkably little attention is being paid to the psychological impact of what happens when virtually every behavior, action and decision of each member of a household is potentially available to every other.

What will its impact be on spousal relations? What will it do the teenagers who -- under the best of conditions -- are fueled by hormones to drive for independence with a raging skepticism of their parents? What kind of struggles and countermeasures and work-arounds will erupt? What kind of behavioral tricks and nudges will be tried by those who have access to the data to encourage specific behaviors; who will the refrigerator text when it's being opened in the middle of the night for a midnight snack? With families in America under profound levels of stress, what are the unintended emotional consequences of the IoT?

In the fascinating book "A History of Private Life," the author notes that for centuries, public and private life was no different based on the living conditions of the vast majority of people, other than the very wealthy. Everyone lived out in the open in large rooms; the notion of privacy in the household is a comparatively modern invention. Paradoxically, the IoT -- a modern invention -- will return us to the time when the public and private stages were one. Let the modern family beware.