Smart buildings: What happens to our free will when tech makes choices for us?

3 mins read
Smart buildings technology Occupant privacy concerns Personalized experiences Building technology control Freedom of action

Smart buildings, which are essential to the idea of smart cities, are a new class of structures in which technical innovations like sensors are built right into the building’s design. By using real-time feedback mechanisms and forward-looking management of interactions between humans and the built environment, bright buildings promise to personalize the experiences of their occupants.

This personalization entails using complex profiling models and continuously monitoring the activities of occupants. While these problems raise privacy concerns, this is a case of missing the forest in favor of the trees. The issues brought on by the rapid adoption of modern technologies in our living spaces go much beyond this.

Addressing Occupant Privacy Concerns in Smart Building Technology Control

Interactions between building occupants and nested technology are silent and unknown thanks to widespread computing. As a result, the huge presence of computers running continuously in the background is not brought to the attention of the occupants.

For instance, personalization enables us to always have the ideal temperature and brightness in our workspace. This would be ideal if the occupants ‘ freedom of action and, more importantly, their free will were not sacrificed as a result of this personalization.

Choices will be made for us or even forced upon us as technology increasingly mediates our experiences in the built environment, depending on the profile the building’s technology device models have created of us in accordance with the objectives (mercantile or otherwise) of those who control them (like technology companies).

A fundamental definition of freedom is the capacity to choose whether to do something or no and to act appropriately. By interfering with our ability to act and, more importantly, our capacity to make our own decisions, bright buildings pose a challenge to this freedom. Is it even possible for people to have freedom of action in a building where algorithms that are not balanced are used to produce interactions between people and their built environment?

Examining Freedom of Action in the Era of Smart Buildings Technology

The well-known analogy of the locked room by English philosopher John Locke from the 17th century provides insight into this issue. Let’s say a person who is sleeping is brought into the room where, upon awakening, he is doing things that give him great pleasure, like conversing with an old friend.

He is unaware that the room’s door is locked. He is therefore unable to leave the room even though he wants to. He is so not free, despite the fact that he chooses to stay in the space and finds great satisfaction in his work.

Locke’s analysis takes into account the predicament of intelligent building occupants. They gain from personalizing their experiences, which gives them a great deal of satisfaction. Technology, yet, controls their interactions once they enter a space without their knowledge. They are not free, even though they might want to remain inside the structure to take advantage of personal experiences. High-tech versions of Locke’s locked room are bright buildings.

Nothing novel has been added to the issue. The Russian Fyodor Dostoyevsky describes the difficulties that computing logic presents to free will in Notes from the Underground, which was written as early as the 19th century.

You’ll yell at me, saying that no one is interfering with my free will and that all they care about is for my will to naturally align with the laws of nature and mathematics as well as my personal normal interests. What kind of free will is left, gentlemen, when it comes to math and tabulation?

Revisiting the Role of Technology Control in Smart Buildings: A Philosophical Perspective

What can be said about our free will when technology makes our decisions for us, in fact?

As opposed to things that happen to us passively, an action is something we take constantly. Additionally, the silent desire for an action to be performed differs from the lively will to carry it out.

While algorithms focus on the predictability of human behavior, people who live in intelligent buildings experience things quietly. While the technology’s invisibility maintains their illusion that they have complete control over their actions, their role is limited to receiving stimuli.

Our desire to act is eroded by these interactions in the human-built environment, and it is replaced by desires that have been shaped and calibrated by models that we have no control over. Smart buildings challenge the right to action, which the European philosopher Hannah Arendt defines as one of the most basic human rights and the one that sets us apart from animals, by denying the free will of their occupants.

But, should we outlaw or at the very least control the technology used in bright buildings?

The answer to this query returns us to American democracy’s quite beginnings. The Greek Socrates, who passed away in 399 BC, was interested in the characteristics of an ideal city long before the Big Tech companies (GAFAM). In Plato’s The Republic, Socrates explains that the difference between a city with all the luxuries and one without them—which he refers to as” the city fit for pigs” —is the ability of the former to choose their way of life, as opposed to the latter, where this option is simply not possible.

Smart cities are the electronic version of the luxury cities of antiquity. Yet, they provide satisfaction at the expense of their rights by denying their citizens the freedom to make informed technological decisions.

Smart building occupants should maintain the constitutionally protected right to choose for themselves the function of technology in their living spaces in order to avoid creating an entire environment in accordance with the philosophy of pigs. Their freedom can only be respected after that.

Leo Portal

Leo is an expert in the field of smart city research and an overall tech-enthusiast with an emphasis on smart energy, IOT, smart homes and governance. After a master degree in international administration at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden, and a master in public management at Fudan University in China, he pursued research studies in the field of smart cities at the European University Institute. This led him to publish multiple articles on smart cities. Among them “Using Smart People to Build Smarter: How Smart Cities Attract and Retain Highly Skilled Workers to Drive Innovation (Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, Poland)” published in the Smart Cities and Regional Development Journal (SCRD) and “Establishing Participative Smart Cities: Theory and Practice”, also published in the SCRD Journal. He regularly audits and advises municipalities and regional governments on their smart city strategies. He is currently writing a chapter for Springer on smart mobility in French smart cities.

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