Internet Of Things: 3rd Tech Revolution & The Singularity Of Choice

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The Internet of Things is poised to become the next big tech revolution this decade. Will it change everything – again - or will developers have to begin to pay heed to consumer concerns?

With the usual zeal bordering on the obsessive in anticipation of the next big thing, much global tech industry talk in recent years has coalesced around the future of the “Internet of Things” (IoT), with the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in San Francisco opening today, January 6, slated to devote considerable attention to it (and its shortcomings) and, recently, the first edition of the IoT Shifts conference in Barcelona last October promoting how IoT will change the face of European business.

Revolution Calling?

Entrepreneur Andrew Keen, author of (highly recommended) critical works such as “The Internet Is Not The Answer”, suggests (2015; 155) that IoT is the third powder-keg social revolution Silicon Valley is waiting to set off, following a pattern of “revolutions” roughly every decade, preceded by the Web 1.0 revolution of free websites in the mid-nineties, and the Web 2.0 revolution of user-generated content in the mid-naughties. This third revolution of the “Internet of Things” is, then, simply the next promotion to social norm of a network of physical objects embedded with electronics, software, sensors and network connectivity, which enables these objects to collect and exchange data by themselves, creating “opportunities for more direct integration between the physical world and computer-based systems…resulting in improved efficiency, accuracy and economic benefit.”

In essence, IoT is about connecting devices on the Internet and having them communicate with individuals, applications and each other. The idea with this “data singularity,” which is being developed by Google, Amazon, General Electric and others, alongside Silicon Valley luminaries like Software’s Adam Bosworth, (who helped develop interactive software for both Microsoft and Google) is to implant miniscule “sensors” into as many objects as possible, from cars to refrigerators to light bulbs to doors to heating systems to nuclear plants to… anything imaginable. These sensors are then also wirelessly connected to sprawling data centres, where computer servers compile endless reams of information, mediate them and send commands back to the source to continually enhance its functioning. Products incorporating this technology expected to be promoted at CES ‘16 range from wearable computing, Google’s driverless cars, intelligent drones, as well as the possibilities of 3D printing and manufacturing.

The Mission

However, there are faint signs IoT may be approached with more caution than previous SV revolutions that, alongside overhauling social experience entirely, also caused significant negative upheavals across industrial and creative sectors, with an onus – finally! – on privacy and security. There is a business rationale for this: As the Washington Post notes, “the adoption of such technologies may slow down if most consumers don’t see the point of these gadgets – or feel safe using them.” And as Elizabeth Weise of USA Today underlines:

‘Security experts fret that all these devices busy collecting, storing and sending information are not properly protected. That’s what happened with the Web, which was originally designed to make information sharing easy but with no security or privacy baked into that design.

“We have to start architecting security into the Internet of Things now, so it’s not the Web all over again,” says Gary Kovacs, CEO of AVG Technologies, who will speak at a CES forum on CyberSecurity. [D]esigners need to start thinking about privacy and security ahead of time “as opposed to throwing it out there and seeing what happens,” added [Senior Policy Counsel at Symantec] Jeff Greene, who will be speaking on a CES panel about the IoT.’

Building Empires

As always, technical innovation holds out both promise and peril, so it is perhaps encouraging that designers have begun learning from previous upheavals to try to forestall negative social effects, if only for business reasons and under some pressure to do so. From a positive perspective, IoT may provide solutions to social problems: For example, governments may see the potential for optimizing, say, environmental policy through IoT, e.g. in the British government’s encouragement of energy companies to provide individuals with ‘smart meters’ (meters including aforementioned sensors) because “all that data and automated use is more efficient, meaning we use less energy.” On the other hand, as Keen suggests, in this instance regarding the driverless cars being pioneered by Google, however,

“[a]fter all, if Google links the data collected from its driverless cars with data amassed from the rest of its ubiquitous products and platforms – such as the smartphone it is developing that uses 3-D sensors to automatically map our physical surroundings so that Google always knows where we are – then you have a surveillance architecture that exceeds anything [the STASI in communist East Germany] ever dreamed up.” (2015; 173)

Harsh, but necessary, words, as the development marks a new transition from e.g. Google “merely” knowing everything one thinks, to it actually knowing whatever one is doing. Getting to the point where Google CEO Eric Schmidt could, famously, glibly state “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.” was predicated on people’s ignorance of the ramifications of using its services in the first place. Is this also the logic of the IoT? Where absolutely “every dot is connected,” with information imparted to far-off and unaccountable data centers about the most miniscule personal movements, the question therefore remains, with intensifying urgency, one of sacrificing even more self-determination and privacy for convenience, and the sociopolitical ramifications thereof.

With experts estimating that the IoT will consist of almost 50 billion objects by 2020 and with five and a half zettabytes of data produced last year alone, this is no moot question. The more developers address these concerns, the more, it is hoped, the IoT can be integrated by individuals who can self-determine what their needs of convenience are, as opposed to the IoT integrating individuals beyond their own capacity to distinguish what these are for its own convenience.

More than data singularity, then, the option offered by IoT that would legitimize its benefits should be one of a genuine consumer choice as to the degree to which their data is colonized, and enlightenment as to the security ramifications thereof – as opposed to reducing all individual actions to data singularity and assuming it to be for the public good. It remains to be seen, as the next “revolution” takes hold, whether such choice is still at all possible.

 

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