Rise of the machines: who is the internet of things good for?
The long read: Interconnected technology is now an inescapable reality ordering our shopping, monitoring our cities and sucking up vast amounts of data along the way. The promise is that it will benefit us all but how can it?
In San Francisco, a young engineer hopes to optimise his life through sensors that track his heart rate, respiration and sleep cycle. In Copenhagen, a bus running two minutes behind schedule transmits its location and passenger count to the municipal traffic signal network, which extends the time of the green light at each of the next three intersections long enough for its driver to make up some time. In Davao City in the Philippines, an unsecured webcam overlooks the storeroom of a fast food stand, allowing anyone to peer in on all its comings and goings.
What links these wildly different circumstances is a vision of connected devices now being sold to us as the internet of things. The technologist Mike Kuniavsky, a pioneer of this idea, characterises it as a state of being in which computation and data communication [are] embedded in, and distributed through, our entire environment. I prefer to see it for what it is: the colonisation of everyday life by information processing.
Though it can often feel as if this colonisation proceeds of its own momentum, distinct ambitions are being served wherever and however the internet of things appears. The internet of things isnt a single technology. About all that connects the various devices, services, vendors and efforts involved is the end goal they serve: capturing data that can then be used to measure and control the world around us.
Whenever a project has such imperial designs on our everyday lives, it is vital that we ask just what ideas underpin it and whose interests it serves. Although the internet of things retains a certain sprawling and formless quality, we can get a far more concrete sense of what it involves by looking at how it appears at each of three scales: that of our bodies (where the effort is referred to as the quantified self), our homes (the smart home) and our public spaces (the smart city). Each of these examples illuminates a different aspect of the challenge presented to us by the internet of things, and each has something distinct to teach us.
At the most intimate scale, the internet of things is visible in the form of wearable biometric sensors. The simplest of these are little more than networked digital pedometers, which count steps, measure the distance a person has traversed, and furnish an estimate of the calories burned in the course of this activity. More elaborate models measure heart rate, breathing, skin temperature and even perspiration.
If wearable biometric devices such as Fitbits and Apple Watches are, in theory, aimed at rigorous self-mastery, the colonisation of the domestic environment by similarly networked products and services is intended to deliver a very different experience: convenience. The aim of such smart home efforts is to short-circuit the process of reflection that stands between having a desire and fulfilling that desire by buying something.
Right now, the perfect example of this is a gadget being sold by Amazon, known as the Dash Button. Many internet-of-things devices are little more than some conventional object with networked connectivity tacked on. The Dash Button is the precise opposite, a thing in the world that could not have existed without the internet. I cannot improve on Amazons own description of this curious object and how it works, so Ill repeat it here: Amazon Dash Button is a Wi-Fi-connected device that reorders your favourite item with the press of a button. To use Dash Button, simply download the Amazon app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. Then, sign into your Amazon Prime account, connect Dash Button to Wi-Fi, and select the product you want to reorder. Once connected, a single press on Dash Button automatically places your order.
In other words: single-purpose electronic devices, each dedicated to an individual branded item, that you press when youre running low. Pressing a Dash Button specific to your preferred pet food, washing powder or bottled water automatically composes an order request to Amazon for that one product.