We are tenants on our own devices

Read the full story in Wired.

Today, we may think we own things because we paid for them and brought them home, but as long as they run software or have digital connectivity, the sellers continue to have control over the product. We are renters of our own objects, there by the grace of the true owner.

Of course, “smart,” connected machines do come with plenty of upsides. A modern washing machine doesn’t just agitate the clothes around for a fixed amount of time; it senses water levels and dampness and can adjust how long it spins so your clothes come out at just the right level of dryness. Cars are more fuel-efficient because their computers optimize many aspects of their operation, from fuel injection to braking. All of this is good for the environment and your wallet.

But that is not all that’s happening. Connectivity and embedded intelligence are being used by large corporations to increase their profits and to exercise as much control as they can get away with. Perhaps the most egregious example involves John Deere tractors—those iconic, bright green giants that rumble across big fields, noisily harvesting wheat, corn, and soy. For generations, farmers have repaired their tractors right on the farmstead. But in its push toward building ever more automated, sensor-packed agricultural equipment, John Deere has put draconian software locks on its tractors, forcing customers to visit the company’s own repair shops. Farmers complain they are charged exorbitant sums for even simple repairs. And they lose crucial time heading out to the shop during the harvest season. Desperate farmers have taken to hanging out in shady internet forums, looking for software that will get around John Deere’s locks, trying to assert their right to repair the tractors they ostensibly own.

 

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