What Will The Internet of Things Ever Do For Us?

There have been any number of warnings in recent years about the potential negative impacts of what has come to be known as the Internet of Things. Warnings about security:

Their own devices
Hacking the planet

about privacy and the control of global corporations:

Against the Smart City – Adam Greenfield
The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things – Bruce Sterling

and user interfaces amongst others.

These ideas have a long history in fiction, Philip K. Dick’s Ubik’s argument with his front door, the discussions with toasters in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and Red Dwarf, for instance. Now these warnings and stories have particular relevance because we are on the cusp of seeing them turn into reality.

I am conscious of the pitfalls we face, but I also have a positive outlook on the Internet of Things. When I started working with embedded devices and MQTT, it wasn’t called that – we were just getting data and command from and to devices. As time went on, the “Internet of” prefix became a shorthand phrase that we would use to describe connected objects of any sort — see “The Internet of Cows”. The “Internet of Things” phrase has caught on, though, for better or worse.

These are some of the obvious positive potential benefits:

  • medical monitoring – of pacemakers for instance
  • environmental monitoring and prediction – flooding, snowfall,
  • infrastructure monitoring – power, water, fuel

but I also have an image of a world where other things are possible, important or trivial:

  • opening the curtains with wave of my hand
  • nano machines that can cure disease from the inside
  • street furniture that changes colour to match my outfit (Only Forward)
  • painted portraits that respond to me and my questions
  • an active view of the sky on my bedroom ceiling
  • a car which can change colour each day to match my mood or fancy

which have all appeared in fiction before, whether as science or magic. I will probably be explaining the unnecessary if I recall Arthur C. Clarke’s aphorism “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”.

So I have an image of a world where magical acts are possible, where books I have read come to life. Where the intrusive technology we have today can fade into the background if we want it to. Where art, science and society and can find new ways to influence and improve our daily lives.

Of course we do need to be aware of the dangers that can potentially accrue. But whatever activities we are involved in have dangerous implications, from accidents or intentional criminal behaviour. So those dangers in themselves are no reason to dismiss the entire field Technology may also have awkward interfaces that cause more problems than they solve, which stems from a lack of forethought, of design.

Adam Greenfield, in his book Everyware: The dawning age of ubiquitous computing has considered just about all of the possibilities. He set out some principles for development and use of “Everyware”, which I quote directly.

Ubiquitous systems must:

  1. default to harmlessness
  2. be self-disclosing
  3. be conservative of face (not take actions to unduly embarrass users)
  4. be conservative of time (must not introduce undue complications into ordinary operations)
  5. be deniable (users must be able to opt out at any time)

I think it is integral to the above aims that the ethos driving these systems is openness:

so that control of our technological environment is not entirely left to our governments and corporations. The more transparent the whole process is, the better. (I do like to remember from time to time, however, that governments and corporations are people too.) Essential infrastructure needs to be secure from attack, from malevolent intent, but each of us should be able to choose what happens to data we own. I see reason to be optimistic that the advance of technology is empowering the individual as well as the organization.

Today we allow organizations to obtain data about us in exchange for free services we value. Maybe we should consider whether a service which charges but gives us control over our data is a better bargain.

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