The future of the Internet of Things is vast, but also terrible. For every internet-accessible security camera, there’s a smart air freshener; for every virtual assistant, a gamified urinal. None of that should be a surprise, though, after Disney’s 1991 animated film Beauty and the Beast, which took Disney’s love of anthropomorphism to new heights. In the fairy-tale reimagining, the Beast’s household staff has been enchanted into household objects: valet Lumière is now a candelabra, butler Cogsworth has been turned into a clock, and cook Mrs. Potts is a teapot. (On the nose? Maybe a little.) And now, with a new live-action version of Beauty and the Beast making a staggering $170 million at the box office in its opening weekend, the pitfalls of the smart home are again on display.
That’s not to say that things are all bad. Honestly, these are some great smart devices. They anticipate the needs of human/Beastly occupants perfectly. Mrs. Potts offers tea; Lumière dims the lights just at the right moments, while somehow escaping the incessant firmware upgrades that plague our real-world smart lights. They offer sound advice: When the Beast asks Cogsworth how he would know if he’s in love with Belle, Cogsworth responds by saying “You’ll feel slightly nauseous.” Would an Amazon Echo give it to you straight like that? Doubtful. Speaking of which: while Alexa can carry a tune, it can’t match the vocal prowess of Beauty‘s virtual household assistants (“No one’s gloomy or complaining while the flatware’s entertaining!”). And perhaps most importantly, the smart devices exhibit actual forethought, tweaking Belle’s environment to make her comfortable despite the Beast’s humbuggery—which ultimately creates the conditions for romance.
Twenty-six years ago, all this animated meddling was adorable. (When a teapot sounds like Angela Lansbury, it does what it wants.) With the advent of CGI, though, the Beast’s castle seems to have relocated to be closer to the Uncanny Valley. Mrs. Potts looks like something you could pick up at an antique shop; Lumiere’s candles seem really to ignite. And in a time when connected devices can bicker and develop relationships, the repartee among the staff starts to feel less like a workplace sitcom and more like a dystopian sci-fi novel.
Besides, the real takeaway from Beauty and the Beast isn’t whether next year’s CES will be the Year of the Stanley Tucci-voiced harpsichord (it will, obviously), but how these instruments of convenience can cause real harm. Say you’re a member of a murderous horde that’s bent on destroying an enchanted prince just because he looks different from you. Obviously, you’d lay siege to his castle, right? And when you do, does it seem fair that you’d be burned by scalding tea, lit on fire, or pierced with sharp objects? How dare the smart home withstand your xenophobia! (And don’t forget the time Belle’s father found himself trapped in a rogue horseless carriage despite his protestations. That scene didn’t even make it into the live-action version, thanks to what was doubtless some frantic behind-the-scenes work by Waymo and Uber lobbyists.)
But those minor mishaps are nothing compared to the most problematic device in the castle by far: the Beast’s magic mirror, a voice-activated screen that allows the user to view anyone, anywhere. (What does it think it is, a microwave?) Some might argue that the magic mirror’s invasions of privacy can be used for good, as when Belle discovers that her townspeople have apprehended her elderly father. The information allows her to save her father, or at least end up stuck in a locked—but not autonomous!—carriage with him.
Just because surveillance can be used to fight crime, though, doesn’t make it a one-solution-fits-all technology. The first time the Beast uses the magic mirror, after all, it’s to spy on Belle in her room. He’s checking her out, and while the moment isn’t the slightest bit tawdry, it could have been. And when the magic mirror falls into the wrong hands, the device’s true sinister potential becomes clear: As Belle attempts to convince maleficent townspeople that her father isn’t crazy, she conjures the Beast in the magic mirror—at which point the aforementioned murderous horde is off and running.
However, while it’s tempting to blame the IoT (Internet of Teapots) for the bloodthirsty townspeople, or for the Beast’s fate soon thereafter, the true culprit isn’t the smart home. It’s user error. Only when the Beast falls in love with Belle does he breach his own best security practices, giving her the mirror that ultimately proves his downfall. A reminder to all who share their passcodes and devices: Love can make us hasty with our information. And that information—or misinformation—can do IRL harm.
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