The popularity of Amazon's Ring doorbell doesn't just expose our collective sense of vulnerability. It shows that "surveillance capitalism" has already been normalisedby David Beer / April 27, 2020 / Leave a comment
The humble doorbell may seem like an unlikely candidate for the surveillance capitalism treatment. Yet here we are.
A recent episode of the BBC documentary series Panorama asked what Amazon knows about us. The answer, predictably, was that they know a lot. For them and for other tech giants, the gathering of data is always the objective. The more they know about their customers, the easier it is for them to anticipate and shape our choices.
If you take that business model into account, Amazon’s new Ring video doorbell system makes a good deal of sense. Of course, this is not simply a doorbell. Ring is a range of home security devices that allow you, as the tagline goes, to “see, hear and speak to visitors from anywhere.” As well as the doorbell, the Ring range includes additional cameras that can be placed around the home and networked together. The Amazon smart speakers provide sonic data on the audio soundscape; Ring now adds the visuals.
The central idea behind Ring is that the user can remotely monitor their property, receiving notifications when someone enters the vicinity. Once notified the resident can watch the visitor through their smartphone and speak to them through the speaker system. The user thus becomes a virtual occupant of their own home, even when they are away. The advertising largely focuses upon crime prevention: “can I help you?” one user says into their phone to deter a lurking would-be criminal. The impression is of a home that can be watched over at all times.
It is no surprise that Amazon’s product launch advert creates the image of a perfectly secure home. The devices in the Ring range, the voiceover tells us, “allow you to build a ring of security around your property in just minutes.” If some of the broader observations about the rise of insecurity and uncertainty are accurate, then the desire for this type of “ring of security” is entirely understandable. By providing a shell in a “shelless time,” to draw upon the terminology Peter Sloterdijk’s has used to describe our contemporary vulnerability, Ring presents an apparent opportunity to use technologies as a kind of antidote. In this sense, Ring might also be connected to longer trends in urban withdrawal.
The human geographer Rowland Atkinson’s work on what he has…