October 28, 2022•1,633 words
Today my apartment complex locked me into my apartment.
Upon that realization, I had a panic attack.
It ruined my day to the point where I'm still on edge almost twelve hours later. Part of addressing the lingering symptoms of my panic attack is writing this blog post, where I'm sharing my experience to relieve stress. As such, it will likely be a bit more rambling and jumpy compared to my other posts. Panic attacks jumble your thinking, so please forgive the drop in quality here.
As a bonus, I'm going to use this experience to point out the very real consequences of smart tech, faceless corporations, and the exploitation of labor.
First off, before anyone worries too much, I'm doing fine. I contacted my apartment's front-office and the maintenance team got my door functioning again pretty quickly. I probably could've gotten myself out with the screwdriver I have in my closet without too much effort.
But there's no use reasoning with my body, which was still feeling the effects of being trapped in a concrete box against my will. No amount of rational thinking can stop the chemicals released during a panic attack.
Before I jump into pontificating about the dangers of smart tech and the corporatization of everything, here's what happened:
My apartment complex is installing "smart locks" that have a keypad and mobile app for managing the locking system. The company behind the smart locks sent their install team and attempted to install the lock at my apartment today, but the hub that is supposed to control the lock had issues so they said they'd be back at a later date once they got working hardware. Unfortunately, they had already installed the smart lock and had to re-install the old lock system on my door. Then the install team left, saying they'd contact me for another appointment in the future. No biggie, I thought.
Thirty minutes later I went to take my dog on his lunchtime walk, but when I turned the handle to exit, the deadbolt slid into place. The smart lock's install team put my lock back on backwards, so that the normally handy "unlock if you turn the handle" feature kept me locked inside. On top of that, the handle fell off into my hand!
I have never been locked away anywhere (at least that I remember, who knows what trauma lies in my childhood due to my garbage memory lol), so this was the first time I truly felt trapped and confined. My first instinct was to pound on the door and scream, in hopes that the installers were still around thirty minutes later (as I said, critical thinking skills aren't really available when you're in the grip of a panic attack).
I'd never felt such a visceral need to escape before, which triggered my panic attack.
It's been a while since my last panic attack, but I'm no stranger to them. During a turbulent period of my life when I was going through a divorce, finally got my anxiety and depression diagnosed, and COVID hit all within the course of about two years, I spent many hours crying in the shower or cowering in bed trying to overcome the unrelenting grip of a panic attack.
Thankfully I've developed ways to reduce their impact, but they're still no fun when they pop up. Even though I reigned in my thoughts quickly, the effects of a panic attack stick around for hours as my body flushes the chemicals pumped through my system during the initial attack.
And now that I'm feeling (mostly) better, I figured I would turn this experience into an opportunity to cover a few things about this crazy world we all live in that concern me:
Smart tech and the rise of surveillance capitalism
The uncaring, relentless pursuit of profit over human happiness from large corporations
The exploitation of labor
Now how do these all connect?
The smart tech aspect is obvious.
This new locking system is run by some big company that has access to all the times I open and shut my door. Privacy laws are all but non-existent in the United States, and as a programmer I am acutely aware of just how much data you can glean from someone's smart devices. In addition, while researching what locks were going to be occupying my apartment I discovered that these particular locks emit a unique tone for each press on the pin, allowing someone nearby to literally hear your access code.
Holy fuck is that a major security risk!
The lock is literally designed to make it easier for apartment complexes to manage keys, not for apartment dwellers to live convenient lives. There's nothing preventing the company making all the data available to the apartment complex either, giving them more insight into my comings and goings than I'd prefer.
Look, I'm not opposed to technology being used to improve our lives, but I don't trust the companies running these systems. My own smart home setup is all managed from a local server that I run, where my data isn't being harvested by some company to sell to ad brokers. It's possible to use this technology in a privacy respecting, human centered manner, but that's not what the vast majority of smart home companies do because harvesting and selling data is a lucrative business.
As for large corporations doing anything to make a buck?
I went and talked to my apartment complex about the incident to let them know that their actions to change the locking system resulted in me literally being locked in my apartment. I never asked for this lock upgrade. I wasn't given a choice to opt out, only the "opportunity" to come ask questions to have my concerns "addressed". My dumb locks have worked perfectly fine for years and I have no need for a smart lock. And then, the incompetency of the company installing the lock ended up imprisoning me in my own apartment.
I asked for some small credit towards my rent or other way to make amends for literally locking me up against my will, but the receptionist said she had no ability to do anything of the sort and that management wouldn't consider the request even if I talked to them. The utter lack of humanity driven by the profit needs to a giant company that owns the building made me feel sub-human as my panic attack was completely dismissed.
If I were a landlord and my actions accidentally caused a tenant mental distress I wouldn't hesitate to do something to make up for it, especially knocking a few bucks off next month's rent. The fact that the only person present from the company managing where I live had no agency to make that decision shows a lack of trust in workers and a clear prioritization of making money over listening to the people whose very homes you control.
And the exploitation of labor?
The installers from the smart lock company were clearly not adequately trained and likely paid under a living wage. They couldn't install their own company's smart lock and then re-installed the old lock incorrectly, locking me in.
Simple steps that could be taught with a little bit of training (like not tearing off the old lock until you confirmed that your locks are fully synced and working) would've prevented the extra work and noise (which interrupted a work meeting I was in, by the way). And then, the laborers not fully testing the old lock after reinstalling it shows that they weren't trained regarding what to do when an install goes sideways.
I'm not a professional smart lock installer, but how do you not notice that the way you re-installed the old lock will literally trap a resident inside their own house? There's maybe three different states the locking mechanism can be in, and they didn't bother to test them all? I don't necessarily blame the individuals performing the work because of the system of labor we all deal with in the United States. Our lackluster labor protections lead to low wages, which leads to uncaring workers doing the minimum to get by. If you were paid a minimum wage, wouldn't you do the minimum as well? We should pay people living wages, treat laborers in all jobs with dignity, and provide adequate training. A more capable, caring craftsperson would have found their mistake before leaving a resident locked inside their own house.
And I'll leave it at that.
The effects of my panic attack linger, but it feels good to get words on a page. Each of the three areas deserve much more attention and analysis, but I hope my overview can at least express why I'm concerned about the direction our country and economy have been moving for the last few decades.
These decisions to prioritize profit over everything else causes very real harm. I'm lucky that my most traumatic experience bumping up against these systems was having a panic attack due to a botched lock install. Others aren't so lucky.
We could build a society where all are able to live and work with dignity. But we don't, simply so a few billionaires can score more points in the game of chasing the almighty dollar.
So what do we do about it?
Support politicians that want to improve labor laws, do some trust-busting, raise tax rates on the ultra-wealthy and use that revenue to build public services we all benefit from, and get some human-centered data privacy legislation in place.
Until we build such a world, we'll continue to be forced into a system where our every move is monitored and monetized, where faceless corporations ignore human suffering, and laborers are treated as disposable.