The Coming Commodification of Life at Home

As internet-connected devices and appliances accumulate, one academic foresees “the monetization of every move you make.”

An illustration of various occupants of an apartment building going about their daily lives
A 1947 illustration of daily life in an urban apartment building (GraphicaArtis / Getty)

“Imagine this,” says an advertising consultant named Barry Lowenthal. “I’m a smart toaster, and I’m collecting data on how many times the toaster is used.”

I’ve just asked Lowenthal what he, as an advertiser, would be able to do with data transmitted from an internet-connected appliance, and I happened to mention a toaster. He thought through the possibility of an appliance that can detect what it’s being asked to brown: “If I’m toasting rye bread, a bagel company might be interested in knowing that, because they can re-target that household with bagel advertising because they already know it’s a household that eats bread, toasts bread, is open to carbs. Maybe they would also be open to bagels. And then they can probably cross that with credit-card data and know that this is a household that hasn’t bought bagels in the last year. I mean, it’s going to be amazing, from a targeting perspective.”

The thought experiment I put to Lowenthal—the CEO of The Media Kitchen, an advertising consulting firm—wasn’t some far-off hypothetical. Over the past several years, the American home has seen a proliferation of “smart,” or internet-connected, devices and appliances. There are, of course, smart speakers (which roughly a quarter of American homes have) and smart thermostats, as well as smart thermometers, smart mattress covers, smart coffee makers, smart doorbells, and even, yes, smart toasters. After Amazon recently announced the release of a slew of products compatible with its Alexa voice assistant, including a smart microwave and a smart wall clock, an executive for the company said he could imagine “a future with thousands of devices like this.”

These thousands of devices, or even just hundreds or tens, would capture an unprecedented amount of data about domestic life. They present a possible future in which the experience of doing stuff at home converges with the experience of being online, in which a company can catalog people’s daily habits and present them with more of what it thinks they’ll like—the transformation of the home into just another tech platform.

Ellen Goodman, a law professor at Rutgers University who studies information-privacy law, expects that the data accumulated in smart homes will primarily be of interest not to advertisers like Lowenthal, but to the device makers. If the milk is running low in a smart fridge, maybe the manufacturer has a partnership with a grocery-delivery service that would make sure the dairy is replenished. Or perhaps an internet-connected sound system could beam back data that would help the device maker sell various accoutrements; electronic-music fans might be prime candidates for subwoofers.

Goodman sees a number of ways in which smart appliances could make the consumer’s life better. For one, because the devices are connected to the internet, their manufacturers could observe failures or glitches before a frustrated customer even notices them and calls for help. More broadly, companies could start to get a lot more visibility into how people use their stuff, which might help them improve their products in a way customers like.

But Goodman focused on two main dangers when considering homes full of internet-connected devices. The first was, as she puts it, “the monetization of every move you make.” In an environment where every sip of milk, every hour of TV watched, and every board game played could be used to try to sell you something else—to say nothing of the potential bombardment of hyper-specific ads—people’s behavior might change. Maybe I want a glass of whiskey before going to bed, but I don’t want any systems logging it—would I pour one anyway? It’s not hard to imagine a “private drinking mode” or some sort of open-source app that could be used to conceal one’s true behavior from watchful devices.

These systems could have a more active role in shaping behavior, too. Tech companies specialize in serving up things that are like the things people have preferred in the past, which generally means that “what we do, we get more of it,” Goodman says. “Can we imagine that in terms of our real-life behaviors in our home?” Even if the effects are salutary—maybe the smart showerhead learns its user’s preferred water temperature, or the smart fridge discourages its owner from eating junk food late at night—“I think there’s just a kind of compromise of one’s freedom, to have anything replicated, reified, reinforced in ways that you’re not choosing,” Goodman says. This is already happening with the media and entertainment that people encounter on YouTube or Spotify, but smart homes could transpose this dynamic into physical space.

Goodman’s second larger concern is that big tech companies—Amazon, Google, and the like—might be able to use the data they collect to gain advantages in various markets. A transportation start-up, for example, would have a hard time competing with a much bigger company that has data, thanks to its smart devices, on when people are leaving home each morning to commute to work. And a household whose smart fridge has come to know its most granular food preferences might hesitate to switch to another brand, because the new fridge would need to be trained from scratch.

As useful as all this information would be to manufacturers, there would be no shortage of applications for it in the advertising world.“It’s one of those things we’ve [as an industry] been talking about for years—it’s coming, it’s coming, it’s coming,” Lowenthal told me. “It just hasn’t come yet.” He said that an internet-connected toothbrush could yield a cache of valuable data—how many times people brush a day, what toothpaste they use—that would appeal to, say, toothpaste companies. It’s just that smart toothbrushes aren’t common enough yet in any given bathroom.

Even if they do catch on, Lowenthal said it’s not clear whether people will want a toothbrush that transmits their data to advertisers (or to anyone). But he can imagine people coming around. Even if many Americans are currently wary of what big tech companies are doing with their data, Lowenthal thinks that they nonetheless adore something that lets them turn on the lights without using their hands or adjust the temperature of their living room from the other side of the world. And if they’re thrilled with the product, they’ll be more comfortable being monitored by it.

The squeamishness that some may have about their data led Lowenthal to speculate, though, that two tiers of products could emerge. “It wouldn’t surprise me if there are some companies that wind up costing more and positioning themselves as premium because they tell consumers that they’ll never sell their data—it almost becomes a differentiator,” he said.

For instance, iRobot, the maker of the Roomba, has access to a trove of floor-plan data that marketers would be eager to use. But the company doesn’t sell it. “Our customers invite us into their most personal spaces—their homes—because they trust that our products will help them do more,” a company spokesperson wrote in an email. “iRobot takes that trust seriously. And we believe that our customers have a right to privacy in their homes.”

Companies that are more willing to share users’ data introduce a variety of privacy concerns. “Many of these [smart devices], when taken by themselves, do not represent significant privacy risks,” says Pam Dixon, the executive director of the World Privacy Forum, a nonprofit research group. The larger concern is where data goes once it’s stored on a company’s servers. How long is it kept? Can users delete it? Will a third-party company have access to it, and if so, what will it be used for? If the answers to these questions aren’t clear, people’s personal data might be accessible to all sorts of businesses—advertisers, insurers—without their knowledge.

Dixon says that these questions are particularly relevant when it comes to the biggest tech companies: “If there’s a single platform that knows where you’re driving and your thermostat [temperature] and your security-cam installation and other aspects of your life, I do think that warrants a higher degree of scrutiny.” When I asked Amazon how it would respond to critics who argue that it is accumulating too much data on people’s daily lives, a spokesperson said in part that user data “helps us build and deliver better customer experiences,” including helping the Alexa platform better anticipate its users’ needs. The spokesperson also noted that users have the ability to delete the data that their Alexa-compatible devices record. (Google did not respond to a request for an interview.)

No general law in the U.S. dictates how personal data may be used, so for the most part, it’s up to companies to decide how to use personal data and how much to disclose about their data usage. Dixon would like to see companies be more transparent about that information.

It’s not clear when or if the smart home of the future will arrive. “In some ways, we’re already there,” Goodman said at one point in our conversation. “This is not super futuristic.” But in other ways, we aren’t. My toothbrush is still a piece of plastic that can’t commune with the cloud. It seems the main obstacle to the realization of the fully smart home doesn’t have to do with unease about data collection, but rather with convincing people that a microwave that can take voice commands is better than a microwave that can’t. And then, the data collection will follow.