If smart tech isn’t going anywhere, its ethical tensions aren’t either. Aisyah Shah Idil asks if our pleasantly tactile gadgets are taking more than they give.

When we call a device ‘smart’, we mean that it can learn, adapt to human behaviour, make decisions independently, and communicate wirelessly with other devices.

In practice, this can look like a smart lock that lets you know when your front door is left ajar. Or the Roomba, a robot vacuum that you can ask to clean your house before you leave work. The Ring makes it possible for you to pay your restaurant bill with the flick of a finger, while the SmartSleep headband whispers sweet white noise as you drift off to sleep.

Smart tech, with all its bells and whistles, hints at seamless integration into our lives. But the highest peaks have the dizziest falls. If its main good is convenience, what is the currency we offer for it?

The capacity for work to create meaning is well known. Compare a trip to the supermarket to buy bread to the labour of making it in your own kitchen. Let’s say they are materially identical in taste, texture, smell, and nutrient value. Most would agree that baking it at home – measuring every ingredient, kneading dough, waiting for it to rise, finally smelling it bake in your oven – is more meaningful and rewarding. In other words, it includes more opportunities for resonance within the labourer.

Whether the resonance takes the form of nostalgia, pride, meditation, community, physical dexterity, or willpower is minor. The point is, it’s sacrificed for convenience.

This isn’t ‘wrong’. Smart technologies have created new ways of living that are exciting, clumsy, and sometimes troubling in their execution. But when you recognise that these sacrifices exist, you can decide where the line is drawn.

Consider the Apple Watch’s Activity App. It tracks and visualises all the ways people move throughout the day. It shows three circles that progressively change colour the more the wearer moves. The goal is to close the rings each day, and you do it by being active. It’s like a game and the app motivates and rewards you.

Advocates highlight its capacity to ‘nudge’ users towards healthier behaviours. And if that aligns with your goals, you might be very happy for it to do so. But would you be concerned if it affected the premiums your health insurance charged you?

As a tool, smart tech’s utility value ends when it threatens human agency. Its greatest service to humanity should include the capacity to switch off its independence. To ‘dumb’ itself down. In this way, it can reduce itself to its simplest components – a way to tell the time, a switch to turn on a light, a button to turn on the television.

Because the smartest technologies are ones that preserve our agency – not undermine it.