Behind the Lens header image
Behind the Lens
‘I used to think the internet would save us but not anymore,’ says reformed techno-utopian
By Brett Gaylor, director, The Internet of Everything

It may seem old-fashioned, but I used to actually like using the internet. In the mid-2000s, it felt like it was going to usher in a democratic utopia. The war between the record industry and fans over file-sharing ended in a truce with the arrival of iTunes. My friends all had startups, and young people in America swept Obama to power using the internet to get out the vote. My feature-length documentary Rip! A Remix Manifesto celebrated the internet’s culture of sharing and innovation. Google was just a search engine, Twitter was in its infancy and my aunt had no idea what Facebook was.

Today, rather than being excited about the way the internet is changing the world, I’m concerned. Uber seemed like a great idea at first, until taxi drivers began losing their jobs. I used to love Airbnb, but it’s now created a housing crisis in my city and is ruining the character of many others.

The pioneers of the internet have also abandoned their lofty ambitions. The best minds of Silicon Valley are devoting themselves to what’s become known as the “Internet of Things” (or IoT for the cool kids). Instead of saving the world, they’re monetizing everything in your house. You may already have a smart speaker in your kitchen, whether it’s an Amazon Alexa–enabled device or a Google Home. Maybe you’ve got a Ring video doorbell that, in the U.S., has been used by police to catch snoops and thieves. Or maybe you own the We-Vibe couples vibrator, whose makers were sued for secretly transmitting data about how often partners used it back to the Ottawa-based company’s servers.

In the documentary The Internet of Everything, I explore how the new physical Internet of Things is changing our cities, our homes, our bodies and our future. I meet the founder of a startup that’s disrupting the fertility industry by giving users access to their own vaginal data in the cloud. I check out an Alexa-enabled toilet and a WiFi-connected diaper at the Consumer Electronics Show. I travel to Shenzhen, China, to see how it’s all made, and interview world-renowned economist Jeremy Rifkin, who compares the emerging internet-connected supply chain to the transformations of the Second Industrial Revolution.

What I’ve learned has made me think about the Internet of Things differently. What these technologies represent is the potential for humans to share and control physical objects (real things made of atoms) in the same way that we share and copy digital information (bits and bytes). What we do with that power is up to us. We can use it to combat climate change, as I saw when investigating Barcelona’s pledge to use digital technology to produce everything locally. Or we can use it to commodify public assets and live in a world of “surveillance capitalism,” which some worry is the real agenda behind Toronto’s proposed smart city.

I hope we can find a middle path between a future that’s a surveillance nightmare or naive techno-utopia. Even if today’s internet seems to pour gas on humanity’s dumpster fires most of the time, I’m still inspired by the invitation that was inscribed in the World Wide Web’s first logo: “Let’s share what we know.”

Watch The Internet of Everything.