Forget The Internet Of Things – We Need An Internet Of People

The internet of things is a vision of ubiquitous connectivity, driven by one basic idea: screens are not the only gateway to the ultimate network of networks.

Visitors look at a screen displaying a smart city system at the 18th China Beijing International High-Tech Expo in Beijing, China, 13 May 2015. Photograph: Wu Hong/EPA

With sensors, code and infrastructure, any object – from a car, to a cat, to a barcode – can become networked. But the question we need to ask is: should they be? And, if so, how?

Public debate over the internet of things is polarised. Commentators tend to voice either excessive optimism or total scepticism, with precious little in between.

From enchanted to cursed

The optimists describe a magical realm of “enchanted objects”, where our possessions gently anticipate our every need. The umbrella’s handle glows blue when it is forecast to rain; the connected fridge reminds us when we’re out of milk. Our households become well-oiled machines, as elegantly efficient as any Victorian manor-house – but with no servants’ wages to pay (or at least, not ones we can see).

The other camp paints a darker picture. They claim that, at best, the internet of things is just another excuse for rampant consumerism, whose only contribution will be to clog basements with yet more unnecessary junk.

But at worst, everyday household objects will be turned into enemy spies, placing us under constant surveillance. We will be nudged and manipulated at every moment. Our lives and possessions will be perpetually exposed to hackers. The internet of things will fill our homes with objects all right, but those objects are far from enchanted – they are cursed.

A cybersecurity expert monitors telecommunications traffic at a network operations center in a Verizon facility in Ashburn, Virginia. Photograph: Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

A third way

It seems that we are on the precipice either of an unrealistic digital Hogwarts or a dystopia of surveillance and exploitation. Neither is appealing. So are we stuck with the internet of either stupid or evil things? Or is there another option?

The way out is counterintuitive. In short, we need to forget about the things. We need to stop obsessing over “smart” objects, and start thinking smart about people.

We can hardly tear our gaze away from our portals to the internet. And these devices are getting in our way. Being chained to our desks is lopping chunks off our lifespans. Staring at our smartphones is damaging our spines. We’re losing sleep. Our eyesight is failing. Our very identities are threatened by the opaque web.

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Something must change.

Wearables are not enough

So far, the most high-profile attempts to reimagine our portals – Google Glass and the Apple Watch – have been disappointing variations on a theme. They’re still screens, whether on your face or on your wrist.

But our default way of interacting with the world isn’t by peering at screens. We respond to the environment, to what it offers us, in an automatic and intuitive way. In most everyday scenarios, we don’t see our things as things at all. We just use them: we see a hammer, and we grasp it. We see a rubber ball, and we squeeze it, or bounce it.

This was Heidegger’s insight, and it also motivates the enchanted objects thesis. The world presents itself, in the first instance, as ready to hand – as being available for use. We manoeuvre things with our bodies unthinkingly, performing immensely complicated calculations without even being aware of it.

The world is full of information that we access instinctively. But so far, this knowledge has been useless in the resolutely two-dimensional digital world. The challenge, and the opportunity, is to harness our knowledge of how real, graspable and bounceable things work, and use it to shape more meaningful, fulfilling, connected experiences. But how?

In search of a ‘digital Bauhaus’

Back in the early 20th century, the Bauhaus movement defined itself with two slogans: first, that form should follow function; and second, that design should be truthful to materials.

Bauhaus designs were honest. No more gold-toned metal, or stone carved into rose petals, or faux Greek columns to make a building look serious. We should know instinctively what an object does just by encountering it.

Screens don’t communicate anything about what they do. They remove us from our surroundings. And not only that, but as we tap and swipe merrily past terms and conditions, our personal information is siphoned off to third parties so invisibly and incomprehensibly that we can easily ignore that it is happening.

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But what if we could design objects that utilised the internet in truly smart, differentiated ways, while also communicating their own function? What if we could understand this function intuitively, effortlessly? And what if these objects showed us – actually showed us, through their design features, their data flows and their legally-binding background conditions – how our information is being used, who can access it, where it is going, and why?

Centre Georges Pompidou, close-up. Photograph: Allan Baxter/Getty Images

What if, like the Pompidou Centre, the pipes of each thing were worn on the outside, arguing the case – rather than merely assuming it – for why we need to network it in the first place?

The digital world is up for grabs

This is the true potential of the internet of things. It could put our vast stores of tacit, embodied knowledge to work online. It could unite the physical and digital worlds. And it could put us in control of our own information and contextual integrity, against a moral and political backdrop that is resolutely committed to human rights, the rule of law and social cohesion. It could become an internet, not of smart things, but of smart, empowered people.

It’s hard to see what this would look like, exactly. But imagining it shouldn’t just be delegated to tech companies and opportunists riding the hype cycle. Artists, designers, philosophers, lawyers, psychologists and social workers must be just as involved as engineers and internet users in shaping our collective digital future.

The internet has become such an ubiquitous part of our lives that we tend to forget that it is in its infancy. It’s still just a crude prototype of what it could be. The internet of the future doesn’t have to be like the internet of today: flat, monopolised and dangerously opaque. Its form, contours and feel are still, quite literally, up for grabs.


This feature is adapted from The Guardian.




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