A number of years ago, I remember reading an article in an old-timey magazine (the kind with pages that you flip, which I no longer like very much) about how some car manufacturers were building proximity sensors into their new high-end models. These sensors would monitor the area in front of the car for objects -like, say, the rear bumper of another vehicle up ahead- and if they detected that you were approaching too quickly, the car’s computer system would automatically apply the brakes in time to avert a collision.
Back when I read that article, I remember that sounding like an impossibly advanced feature for a car. I also found it a little disturbing. Sure, it made sense from a safety standpoint, but it seemed to me a breach of the contract between operator and equipment- an inversion of the power dynamic between who was the carriage-driver and who was the horse. It’s the first time I remember reading about a car that could override a driver’s command. That concerned me, even though it was all in the name of making travel by automobile safer.
Of course, the automotive industry has since popularized that feature, and built in a bevy of other automatic features ranging from the benign to the ominous. Most new American cars will beep incessantly at a driver who hasn’t buckled his safety belt; it’s a bit like taking your overprotective mother with you everywhere you drive, but it’s not really frightening. Not as much as the law-enforcement-assistance “feature” aimed at combatting high-speed chases, anyway- a system that would see auto manufacturers build special equipment into their cars which would allow police helicopters to disable them remotely.
My objective here isn’t to make a point about government overstepping, or to moan about the “nanny state” mentality of car manufacturers; this isn’t a political blog or an automotive periodical. My point is that, as technology advances, we’re seeing the power dynamic between user and the equipment shift in a very significant way. More and more, technology is being allowed to make decisions for us.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, that’s starting to happen a lot in one of the world’s most advanced industries: mobile devices. Sometimes it’s for the best, as with smartphones’ automatic cellular network selection (when it works properly) or automatic display brightness adjustments (ditto). Sometimes it’s only mildly inconvenient, like a tablet cranking down its CPU clock cycles to preserve battery power without telling you. And sometimes, it’s downright annoying … like WiFi Auto-On.
If you haven’t become acquainted with this “feature,” consider yourself lucky. It’s very simple, really: when opening certain apps on an Android smartphone -typically a Verizon one, as that’s where the trend started- you’re interrupted by a dialog box telling you there’s a WiFi network close by, and you should use it to conserve your mobile data allotment. That’s not too bad, actually; in the right light, it even makes a lot of sense. Carriers want to conserve bandwidth on their networks, and you want to save money on your bill. Everyone wins!
The problem comes when the notification becomes an automatic action.
That’s a screenshot from the Motorola Droid RAZR M, a device we recently reviewed and liked quite a lot, with the exception of this business.
The pop-up suggestions mentioned earlier are only slightly annoying, couched as they are in the language of the helpful “hey, why not do this to help yourself out?” tone. They’re almost like a tutorial. But digging a little deeper, they take on a slightly more ominous quality when you realize that they pop up even when you’ve turned WiFi off. So the phone is taking it upon itself to wake up a radio you told it, in no uncertain terms, to keep powered-down, because it thinks it knows better than you.
Keeping in that mindset, the notification above seems downright sinister. Translated, it reads something like this:
I noticed you didn’t have WiFi on, even though you totally should, ’cause this app will run way better on it.
So even though you told me to turn it off, I’m turning it on.
Keep Disobeying Your Wishes (Recommended)
Do What You Tell Me
Okay, so maybe it’s not that bad. Maybe people find this kind of thing useful. In fact, judging from the sheer quantity of available apps when searching for “WiFi Auto-On” in the Google Play Store, this is a feature some people have wanted for a long time.
But even if it’s valuable, its implementation is exceedingly heavy-handed. While some of these strong-willed devices will obey an order to quit this nonsense (Droid Life recommends heading into Settings>Wireless & networks>Wi-Fi settings, and unchecking the box next to “Notify Me”) that doesn’t always solve the problem. My Verizon-edition Galaxy S III continues to alert me periodically that I should hop onto a nearby WiFi hotspot, even though unchecking that box was the first thing I did after unboxing it.
In the end, this is something that won’t bother a lot of people. In itself, it’s really less a critical problem than a minor nuisance. But it highlights a similar trend to the one in the automotive industry, with users being increasingly shut out of the loop, ignored, or downright disobeyed because the system accepting commands “knows better.” A few years ago, when hacking dumbphones was all the rage, it was network-defined slot-cycle commands overriding user selections that sent enthusiasts into a tizzy. Today, it’s auto-WiFi-on telling us we don’t know what we’re doing when it comes to our data usage. What’s in store for tomorrow?
I’ve received your request to send your ex-husband a text message. But it’s been a while since you talked on the phone, so don’t you think you should call him? I think so.
Heaven help us all.
Scary car-stopping technology source: Eureka Aerospace
WiFi Auto-On background information source: Droid Life