A very real nightmare…

It’s never easy pinning down the inspiration for a book – it’s usually a mishmash of people, places, newspaper articles and imaginary fears, plus a whole lot of stuff that seems to come from nowhere.

The Turn of the Key is no exception. Clearly there’s a debt to Henry James there, as you can probably tell from the title. I hadn’t actually read The Turn of the Screw when I started writing what was then called Hushabye Baby, but as the book developed, I knew enough about his classic novella to realise that I was treading on some of the same ground. But where James’ characters have a shifting, nebulous paranoia to play with their perceptions, mine have something more concrete: a nightmarish smart house, and an all-pervasive home management app called Happy (slogan: Home is where the Happy is!)

Ever since writers could imagine artificial intelligence they’ve played with the possibility that it could go wrong – become dictatorial, develop its own agenda, outsmart the humans it’s supposed to serve. Philip K Dick, Arthur C Clarke, Isaac Asimov and many more sci fi writers have toyed with the tantalising “what if” of technology gone rogue. I’m not a sci fi writer – but then, AI itself has broken out of the boundaries of science fiction and become every day reality, from the Alexa in our kitchen to the Siri on our phone and much more.

A central heating system that learns your habits, a fridge that can keep track of its contents and remind you what to buy, a home speaker system that can listen into your conversations, doorbells that can monitor callers and unlock the door for trusted visitors – none of this is fiction any more. It’s all right here, right now, in our homes and phones and garages. And it’s very handy indeed.

It’s also given rise to its share of nightmares. Some of those are pretty mundane. Speakers that won’t connect to the wifi. Software that won’t update. Functions that are supposed to be hassle-free and end up being more trouble than they’re worth. We’re all familiar with the frustrations of a malfunctioning app, or an over-engineered appliance that’s too busy second guessing its operator to perform its primary function.

But sometimes the nightmare goes well beyond frustration, and into abuse, and in those situations it’s very often not a software glitch, but a human hand exploiting the technology for their own ends, sometimes one very close to home indeed.

Smart home abuse

Smart home abuse is something that the law is only just getting to grips with, but the first prosecution in the UK came to court in May 2018, when a husband was tried for spying on his estranged wife via their home hub. He was convicted. However, as our homes become more and more linked up, the potential for control goes well beyond covert listening, and into every aspect of the home environment, from the temperature of the rooms, right down to whether the inhabitants are locked out, or locked in.

Fortunately, Happy doesn’t exist in real life. And I definitely wouldn’t want to dissuade anyone from using technology to make their homes greener and their lives more convenient. In terms of my “top ten concerns” global warming ranks a lot higher on my list than the possibility that my fridge is listening to me.  But it probably wouldn’t hurt to change my password every once in a while.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to see if Siri can make me a coffee yet.

Pre-order The Turn of the Key now and get your copy signed and personalised !

Signed copies are available from Ruth’s local bookshop, City Reads Hove, and if you pre-order, Ruth will personalise the dedication to a name of your choice. Click here to find out more, and place your order before 8th August.