Sunday, November 19, 2017

Pax Technica - The Book

In preparation for a @CRASSHlive conference in Cambridge this coming week (Pax Technica: The Implications of the Internet of Things), I've been reading Philip Howard's book, subtitled How The Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up.

I'm going to start my review by quoting Howard's definition of his subject.
The "internet of things" consists of human-made objects with small power supplies, embedded sensors, and addresses on the internet. Most of these networked devices are everyday items that are sending and receiving data about their conditions and our behavior. Unlike mobile phones and computers, devices on these networks are not designed for deliberate social interaction, content creation, or cultural consumption. The bulk of these networked devices simply communicate with other devices: coffeemakers, car parts, clothes, and a plethora of other products. This will not be an internet you experience through a browser. Indeed, as the technology develops, many of us will be barely aware that so many objects around us have power, are sensing, and are sending and receiving data. Howard p xi
IoT experts may quibble with some of the details of this definition, but it broadly makes sense.

My first problem with Howard's book is that he doesn't stick to this definition. He talks a lot about devices in general, but most of the time he is talking about other kinds of devices, such as mobile phones and chatbots. The book contains a wealth of reporting on the disruption caused by digital networks. But much of this is not about the internet of things as he defines it, but about social media, big data, fake news and other internet phenemena. These are important topics to be sure, which have been excellently addressed by other sociologists such as Zeynep Tufekci, as well as in the previous CRASSH conference Power Switch. But the book claims to be about something different.

My second problem with Howard's book is that he doesn't really question the notion of "device". There is a considerable literature on the philosophy of technology going back to Heidegger via Herbert Dreyfus and Albert Borgmann. In his introduction to Heidegger's Question Concerning Technology, William Lovitt summarizes Heidegger's position as follows.
In our time, things are not even regarded as objects, because their only important quality has become their readiness for use. Today all things are being swept together into a vast network in which their only meaning lies in their being available to serve some end that will itself also be directed towards getting everything under control. QT p xxix

Albert Borgmann introduced the notion of the Device Paradigm to analyse the way technological devices are perceived and consumed in modern society. In many situations, there is a fetish of the device, obscuring the network infrastructure that is required to deliver the affordance or commodity of the device.

One of the consequences of this is that discussion of the internet of things tends to focus on the things rather than the internet of. At a healthcare event I attended a couple of years ago, various technology companies were exhibiting a range of wearable or implantable devices - some monitoring, some actively intervening. A patient with multiple conditions might be wearing several such devices. But these devices don't and currently cannot communicate with one other (as suggested by Howard's definition quoted above). Instead, as Howard acknowledges is the case for most devices, they are designed to report data back to designers, manufacturers, and third party analysts (p 211) - either directly or via an app on the user's smartphone. So that's basically a hub and spoke network.

To thrive in the Pax Technica, Howard advises, you can be a more sophisticated user ... you can be a functionally prominent political actor by thoughtfully managing your internet of things (p 254-5). But what would that entail? Holly Robbins talks about a language to unmask the complexity of IoT. In 1986, before I had read any Heidegger or Borgmann, I called this Visibility. Heidegger calls it Unconcealment (Unverborgenheit).

Borgmann's own approach is based on what he calls focal things and practices. As Wendt argues, the Internet of Things must create meaningful interactions in order to succeed.

... something found in all of us: the need to take an active role in the world, to shape and design things, and to form rituals around activities. This is not to say we can’t do these things with smart objects, but it does underscore the importance of conscious, embodied interaction with things. The Internet of Things will only be successful if products are designed with purpose. Wendt

So I'm hoping that these aspects of the Internet of Things will be discussed on Friday ...

Related Posts

Understanding the Value Chain of the Internet of Things (June 2015)
Some marketing experts are seeing the Internet of Things as a way of reasserting control over the consumer. 

Defeating the Device Paradigm (Oct 2015)
The Internet of Things is not a random collection of devices. It is a safety-critical system of systems, and must be understood (and regulated) as such. But it often suits certain commercial interests to focus our attention on the devices and away from the rest of the system. This is related to what Borgmann calls the Device Paradigm. 

Towards the Internet of Underthings (Nov 2015)
We are now encouraged to account for everything we do: footsteps, heartbeats, posture. Until recently this kind of micro-attention to oneself was regarded as slightly obsessional, nowadays it seems to be perfectly normal. And of course these data are collected, and sent to the cloud, and turned into someone else's big data. (Good luck with those privacy settings, by the way.)
Pax Technica - The Conference (November 2017)
Pax Technica - On Risk and Security (November 2017)

Ethics of Transparency and Concealment (October 2019)


Albert Borgmann, Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (Chicago, 1984)

Oliver Christ, Martin Heidegger‘s Notions of World and Technology in the Internet of Things age (Asian Journal of Computer and Information Systems, Volume 03– Issue 02, April 2015)

Martin Heidegger, The Question Concerning Technology (Harper, 1977), with introduction by William Lovitt

Philip Howard, Pax Technica: How The Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up (Yale 2015)

Holly Robbins, The Path for Transparency for IoT Technologies (ThingsCon, June 2017)

Zeynep Tufekci, Engineering the public: Big data, surveillance and computational politics (First Monday, Volume 19, Number 7, 7 July 2014)

Richard Veryard, The Role of Visibility in Systems (Human Systems Management 6, 1986)

Thomas Wendt, Internet of Things and the Work of the Hands (UX Magazine, 12 March 2014)

Wikipedia: Device Paradigm

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