Illustrations by Gareth Damian Martin
It’s the Sunday morning following a busy week, and my wife and I are attempting a calm moment. She’s flying out in the afternoon for a week-long company retreat, so these last few hours together are significant, our chance to recharge batteries before entering the world of teleconferences and deadlines. Unfortunately, the routine business of maintaining a household—the multitude of obnoxious little tasks that make up most of our days—has gotten away from us over the course of the week, and before we know it our scant hours together evaporate. The very idea of a quiet Sunday morning becomes the stuff of unimaginable luxury.
Which seems weird, because making a sleepy Sunday morning possible for busy people is supposed to be the battlefield on which Silicon Valley lives and dies, what its array of time-saving hallelujahs—apps and micro-transactional relationships with nearby strangers and smart appliances— are designed to preserve, to nurture, to grow more of. This promise isn’t just of sharing a coffee with a loved one; were I not stuck in traffic or encountering delayed flights or wrangling with FedEx’s automated help line, one presumes I could be painting a portrait or learning Italian. I could find the freedom to realize my best self.
This is the world of the “Internet of Things” (often abbreviated “IoT”), a network of devices, appliances, and infrastructure embedded with sensors and connectivity so that they can automatically exchange data to better align products and services. In the world of the IoT, my fridge communicates with the containers therein, senses when they’re getting low, adds milk to a home delivery service order. It talks with a step-counter and heart monitor I am presumably always wearing so that I can be told how many miles I’ll have to walk to burn off what I’m about to eat. A ride-share or, even better, a self-driving car arrives on a schedule that self-adjusts relative to traffic. My bills are paid on time, planes are never delayed, washing machines don’t require me to find quarters in the couch cushions, and FedEx delivers my goddamned contact lenses.
It’s a compelling fantasy. We all have anecdotes of the Kafkaesque experience of filing taxes or attempting to dispute an erroneous cell phone charge. We have too few examples of things simply having worked as intended. Having something feel like it “just works” has taken on the aspect of the ultimate design achievement. Part of what’s elevated Apple to ambassadors from distant continents of next-level business is that the products they design simply do what they’re supposed to do. That things should do what they’re designed to do is so counterintuitive that Apple can unironically claim to “Think Different” for having suggested it.
The word that comes to mind is “harmony.” Which explains, partially, why the IoT is described not so much as an incremental improvement to our selection of luxury computer goods than as transcendence to a higher order of being.
“the world has the potential to become a better place”
Take this fawning white paper by Cisco (who, according to some reports, have invested $1.4 billion in the IoT), which predicts that, “With a trillion sensors embedded in the environment—all connected by computing systems, software and services—it will be possible to hear the heartbeat of the Earth, impacting human interaction with the globe as profoundly as the Internet has revolutionized communications.”
Cisco’s paper describes a world vaguely familiar to us today:
“Initiatives and advances, such as Cisco’s Planetary Skin, HP’s central nervous system for the earth (CeNSE), and smart dust, have the potential to add millions—even billions—of sensors to the Internet. As cows, water pipes, people, and even shoes, trees, and animals become connected to IoT, the world has the potential to become a better place.”
Forgetting for a moment the curious classification of items pending interoperability (and that a cow is also an animal) the kind of world Cisco is trying to create is old-school—and I mean really old, as in Greek-mythology-circa-700 BC old.
Cisco’s is a Gaia-style personification of the Earth, the planet with a skin and a nervous system, the dust in the air comprised of billions of eyes and ears. (Though notice the subtle elision: these sensors will be added “to the Internet,” not “to the infrastructure around you,” which might evoke the image of CCT cameras in every room and on every street corner.)
See also this 2014 Wired article, in which “The world around us will not only be aware of our presence, it will know who we are, and it will react to us, often before we are even aware of it. The day-to-day process of living will change because almost every piece of technology we touch (and many we do not) will begin to tailor their behavior to our specific needs and desires. Our car will talk to our house.”
Just as, in some ecological theories, the earth is considered an organism with self-regulatory functions, so too, according to the IoT, can our data come to represent the collective consciousness of humanity itself, something into which we can tap to get outside ourselves. The IoT’s promise is that it will do no less than erase the distinction between the individual and the collective, transcending the moments that fracture us to some higher order of awareness.
At the center of this rhetoric, of this new world draped hastily over the old, is a crucial gulf between promise and illustration. While it can be reasonably promised that public infrastructure can be better aligned to meet our needs, we instead get that we will “hear the heartbeat of the earth,” and will do so via Internet-enabled cows. The world will “know who we are,” because “our car will talk to our house.”
In Ian Bogost’s essential article on the origins of the IoT, he explains how the early notions of what was then called Ubiquitous Computing, or ‘UbiComp,’ differed fundamentally from the kind of perpetual and heterogenic enmeshing we are today sold in evolutionary terms:
“UbiComp may not always have been great art and culture, but at least it was trying. Weiser and others [who coined the term] were influenced by more than just technology—fields like architecture, anthropology, phenomenology, sociology, were seen as integral to understanding what it would mean to put computers out into the world. A diversity of weird computers among the weird diversity of the rest of the world.”
In the chasm between the potential of UbiComp and today’s doo-dads, we find the whole disappointment of the thing wrapped up. It seems that what companies like Cisco and app developers and startups seem to forget is that people can tell the difference between transformative innovation and shopping. Bogost adds: “It’s time to admit that the Internet of Things is really just the colonization of formerly non-computational devices for no other reason than to bring them into the fold of computation. […] Operational benefit is deemphasized in favor of computational grandstanding, data collection, and centralization.”
The value exchange, so far, seems askew. In exchange for the commodity of our data, we get extravagant promises of future returns in the form of present-day kitsch: dongles and bluetooth-enabled bathroom scales; thermostats that allows us to heat the house in anticipation of our arrival; televisions that stream Netflix; forks with sensors. Many of the problems these computers have supposedly been designed to solve can be solved by other, non-computer, non-interconnected means. That’s because the real problem these computers are designed to solve is that we aren’t continuously generating value for companies whose business model is to collect our data while we go about our day. What’s being marketed to us is an ecosystem of conveniences, but beneath that layer is a shadow economy in which billions are being invested, an economy that exploits data as precious and as public a commodity as oil, water, or air, and an economy that the great majority of us will be left out of.
There’s something else at play, something darker and with broader ramifications: the utopian narratives of transcendence of the self, which the companies of the IoT now gleefully tap into, are interchangeable with dystopian narratives of erasure of the self. The nightmares of 1984’s (1949) Winston Smith, Brave New World’s (1932) John, or The Trial’s (1925) Josef K are ones in which their personal freedoms are mitigated by faceless authorities, class structures, and bureaucracies. The characters find themselves prosecuted, driven to suicide, or otherwise subsumed and erased.
This is how utopian/dystopian narratives were designed to operate: as two sides of the same coin. In each narrative, it’s the promise of utopia that facilitates the exchange of individual freedoms for what turns out to be a distinctly dystopian reality. That the champions of the IoT would so willingly tap into utopian narratives, seemingly without appreciation for their traditional roles as cautionary tales, may well tell us something about the hubristic nature of these powerful actors.
Perhaps more important is that the utopia of the IoT—and especially its inevitable, evolutionary bent—is contradicted by evidence that we have entered a period of prolonged economic stagnation. In a 2012 paper by the National Bureau of Economic Research, it’s suggested that “the rapid progress made over the past 250 years could well turn out to be a unique episode in human history” – that the kind of growth to which we’re accustomed, around which we’ve built our political systems and social expectations, and to which the utopian narrative of the IoT hews, isn’t perpetual.
our reality is the dystopian flip-side to the utopian narrative on which we were raised
The Bureau’s paper describes three Industrial Revolutions between 1750 and 2004, delivering transformational change in the form of steam power and railroads; electricity, the internal combustion engine, indoor plumbing, communications, chemicals, and petroleum; and computers, the Internet, and mobile phones. The second of these revolutions was responsible for 80 years of explosive growth taking place when Western civilizations moved from agrarian to industrial modes of subsistence via urbanization. The Bureau’s theory supposes that we may never produce the conditions for such explosive growth again.
Thomas Pikkety’s Capital in the Twenty-First Century (2013) drew similar conclusions about this period: that, far from a continuously rising tide that lifts all boats, the history of capital is one of increasing concentrations of wealth and inequality. The last 250 years of human history, which saw widespread economic growth and increasingly equitable distributions of wealth, was an outlier and we are now returning to our norm of increasingly concentrated wealth and greater overall inequality.
If that seems dystopian, it’s because it almost literally is: our reality is the dystopian flip-side to the utopian narrative on which we were raised, the same narrative on which the IoT draws. Thought of in this way, when futurists talk about the IoT we can seem almost Reaganesque with nostalgia.
Or, put more forcefully by David Graeber in his article for The Baffler: “Where are the flying cars? Where are the force fields, tractor beams, teleportation pods, antigravity sleds, tricorders, immortality drugs, colonies on Mars, and all the other technological wonders any child growing up in the mid-to-late twentieth century assumed would exist by now?” For now, we are left with a terrifyingly abstract value proposition that demands to know everything about us and promises to shape our laws in unknown ways in exchange for a nebulously defined promise of greater convenience and a kind of spiritual togetherness.
I would suggest that the marketing for the IoT is simply tone deaf, except that it seems as if Silicon Valley knows about our impending economic ice age and is preparing to force the IoT through anyway.
Consider Silicon Valley’s sudden interest in a universal or guaranteed minimum income (GMI). The concept of a GMI was first cooked up by Thomas Paine in response to a paradigm-changing moment: as compensation to workers for “loss of his or her natural inheritance, by the introduction of the system of landed property” (Agrarian Justice, 1795). Government was expected to step in and ease the pain as economic modes of production left certain classes of people behind. It might be tempting to connect Silicon Valley’s interest in a progressive policy back to the utopian tone of their marketing. Or perhaps their interest in GMI telegraphs the potential impact of a coming innovation on a working population.
In other words, Silicon Valley’s interest in a GMI could be the canary in the coalmine for a kind of reverse industrial revolution in which demands for innovation by a concentrated and privileged few outstrips the rights of people to meaningful work. In this case, the gesture of advocating for a GMI is advanced planning for the final gutting of the Western manufacturing class by precisely the mass robotization Silicon Valley hopes to serve up via, you guessed it, the IoT. In this scenario, the IoT is the realization of a dystopia in which many more people struggle to achieve subsistence while the value they produce simply by being alive – the data collected from and about their behavior – is mined and exploited without a correlative redistribution of the wealth it generates, often without their knowledge.
At the heart of this economic displacement is the mass consolidation of wealth and power by companies who collect, organize, and sell our data. Facebook and Google are collectively responsible for 75% of all web referral traffic, becoming an oligopolistic corridor through which most information is accessed. Just five companies generate 61% of digital ad revenue: Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, and AOL. Imagine if only two energy companies were responsible for 75% of the world’s petroleum reserves. Would that concentration of wealth be acceptable to us?
The increasing emphasis on collecting health information is an especially important locus of this discussion. John Wilbanks and Eric Topol, two highly respected voices in the digitized health community, recently wrote that, “If undisclosed algorithmic decision-making starts to incorporate health data, the ability of black-box calculations to accentuate pre-existing biases in society could greatly increase.”
They argue that:
“Many of the largest tech corporations have come to resemble small nations in their own right: they have enormous ‘natural resources’ (data and computing power) and global interests to pursue and protect. Just five US-based tech firms — Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Cisco Systems and Oracle — had combined cash reserves of $504 billion in late 2015, much of which is held offshore to avoid taxation and regulation.”
And it’s not only a matter of getting in on the payday; the payday might only be possible at what already amounts to great personal cost. According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), “There’s simply no way to forecast how these immense powers – disproportionately accumulating in the hands of corporations seeking financial advantage and governments craving ever more control – will be used. Chances are Big Data and the Internet of Things will make it harder for us to control our own lives, as we grow increasingly transparent to powerful corporations and government institutions that are becoming more opaque to us.”
Or, succinctly put in Wired: “You aren’t just going to lose your privacy, you’re going to have to watch the very concept of privacy be rewritten under your nose.” The scope of changes are vast, in accordance with the IoT’s utopian ambitions. But the seeming inevitability of the changes, driven by the power of these corporations, is what tips it towards dystopia.
“the Internet of Things will make it harder for us to control our own lives”
In the rollout of the IoT we see the fulmination of a corporate aspiration to grow beyond borders, the end-stage of our evolution from regional tribes into a Gaia-like whole. As such, many of these companies treat regulatory regimes as obstructionism to their inevitable growth. Take this Guardian story detailing Facebook’s attempts to provide “free” internet to India’s underserved communities by providing a package of websites curated, in part, by Facebook. Regimes of telecom regulation are designed to find balance between public access to shared resources and the scalability of a homegrown telecom and ISP industry. Their ineffectiveness notwithstanding – no one is denying that tens of millions in India are without reliable Internet access – it’s not hard to see why the Indian government would see Facebook’s altruism not as an essential service, but as an encroachment on their sovereignty. As if in response to the resistance they face on the ground, Facebook then launched solar-powered drones to provide internet from beyond the regulatory jurisdictions of the nations in which their constituents live.
Our real life news stories are beginning to describe the divide between the IoT’s utopian designs, in which all of our data is useful all the time, and the dystopian scenario in which an incredibly powerful and unelected group of elites circumvents policies designed to develop and protect local businesses and regulate access to and capitalization of public wealth.
What gets lost in the buzziness of words like “disruptive innovation” is that the kinds of changes that are taking place, with all of their force and speed, are rewriting legal precedent and the employment market on the fly. Telecom regulators and municipal councils might be frustratingly sluggish, but they serve a particular purpose based on publicly enshrined principles: universal access, affordability, safety, national security, and so on. And most importantly, these groups are (theoretically, at least) democratically accountable to us. The world we’re left with after we’ve renegotiated policy frameworks ad hoc may be more convenient in a micro-transactional sense, but worse in very tangible ways that don’t get discussed outside of the dry world of public policy development.
That’s the nightmare of the IoT in one succinct thought: that the changes that are made when we accept a tiny convenience in exchange for our data are rewriting regulatory frameworks that are national in scope and transfer power from public institutions to private ones.
I’ve painted an anxious picture, maybe even a cynical one, but I will admit that there are positive aspects to this discussion. If consumers have roles as stewards of their own data as opposed to passive generators of that data, they’ll be empowered to demand accountability from institutions, such as healthcare organizations and law enforcement, in ways they currently cannot. And the IoT can and should be based on universal standards and protocols, much as the Internet is, enabling any and all startups to take part in it and taking us a bit closer to UbiComp’s “weird diversity of computers.” Knowledgeable advocates are showing that it is possible to be both a believer in the IoT and a believer in maintaining a decentralization of its components through sound public policy.
I’m open to changes, having neither great faith in our public institutions to protect all citizens in a just and fair way nor a better solution to our demographically-fueled economic stagnancy. But that the IoT is being negotiated by a distant and impenetrable elite makes it difficult to buy into a story about utopian transcendence, even if the path to utopia is littered with opportunities to spend less time in traffic and more time with my wife.
What’s conjured instead of utopia is an equally old and equally familiar story, far-reaching and existential. What’s at stake is not only the scope and degree of our individual freedoms, but the very terms with which we negotiate and define that concept.