The Internet of Things - An Exercise in Imagination
Published in: The Internet of Things, Theories of Future Visions, Gogbot Festival 2015


image: Rosa Menkman, 2015

The Internet of Things is a fictive scenario that allows us to imagine a future where the Physical and the Digital will have become corresponding signifiers, where reality will have immersed into the online world – reality meaning humans and the man-made environment around them. Let's imagine objects monitoring human activity, in their connectedness creating a thorough web of data that no human will be able to decipher without additional processing power. Environments and all of their constituents will have become 'smart', awakened to measure, monitor and surveil.

The scenario is often painted colourfully. Awakened objects will serve and support, the world will become increasingly comfortable and efficient. Your fridge will magically refill with your favourite foods and you'll forget about all the worries of the past. Technology is a comforting bliss and it will be at your disposal wherever you go.

The Internet of Things is an imaginative construct and is most often portrayed as an utopian idealist scenario that developers, entrepreneurs and other potential stakeholders use to advertise for 'smart' devices. Critics of the Internet of Things construct rather gloomy sceneries of all-encompassing surveillance, technical vulnerabilities and increasing social inequality.

Control inevitably involves dominance and inequality. All-encompassing connectedness, as imagined by the thinkers of the Internet of Things would only apply to an exclusive social group. Highly advanced technology as scenarios of fully connected humans and their environments would require, is necessarily bound to an abundance of economic resources. The Internet of Things is nothing for the Poor of Western societies. It couldn't be as all-encompassing as most scenarios portray. In Ambient Intelligence and its Promises, Rob van Kranenburg speaks about doors opening for some and closing for others.

Today, we can experience this kind of technically-induced social inequality only to a low degree. Not having a Facebook account feels like a socially inhibiting factor but one can manage anyway, there are other means of communication. Humans interact with the Internet mostly to communicate with each other. Imagine the Internet becoming increasingly relevant to other areas. What if connectedness became a necessity to urban Western life? Exemplarily, think of contactless payment fully replacing card or cash payments and the corresponding device being linked to your financial status and, therefore, to your social status. Visa with Apple Pay is already here.

A new social class will define. Not to speak of the widening of social gaps between developed and developing world. The 'Nonconnected' will lack tools for managing urban life and will instead have to work harder to get access to the basics of advanced society. “If machines are able to take charge of some basic life logistics for the connected, then those offline will face new deficits just because they’ll have to work harder to get through their days”, writes Damon Brown. Instead, those deeply immersed in the Internet of Things will experience new conveniences and efficiencies. New cyborgs will rise. Life will become easier, for some, superficially.

The Internet of Things is a story about power. 'Smart' devices will monitor and report. Collected data will be analysed. Complexities of patterns portraying reality will form and those in positions of power will benefit from the 'clarity' of information they will receive. The quantified self will lose privacy in front of monitoring authorities. Frank Pasquale calls this a “one-way mirror”. We are visible in front of it, we think that our reflection is the only layer of information there is, we think we are in control – but we have no way of knowing what might be behind the glass, tracking our behaviours. How could we possibly assume that we'll be able to understand the data our smart devices will be collecting? Only a fraction of the data they encounter will be made available to us. We won't be in control of our data. Facebook as a prime example – ambient surveillance.

While neither utopia nor dystopia portray truth, privacy means autonomy. To rephrase the words of Rob van Kranenburg, it's irrelevant if “you've not done anything wrong”. Although you might not be doing anything wrong at a particular moment, the very same action can be classified as 'illegal' in the future and this classification will, most probably, be out of your control. The issue is not necessarily the fact that all your movements and behaviours will be tracked and archived, it's the fact that this data will be analysed and interpreted. Interpretation is subjective. Imagine the political views you express today to be banned under future laws.

Take the case of Mohammed Hussain who, in 2008, was investigated by the US Metropolitan police's specialist counter-terrorism command after being accused by co-workers of being an Islamic extremist. When the voicing of criticism of military policies becomes clue enough to suspect a person to being a terrorist, speaking and acting freely becomes a socially inhibiting factor. Journalists, artists, activists, film makers, authors, musicians and, actually, anyone actively using social media and thereby making opinions and views public will empathise with this thought.

The Internet of Things is a fictive scenario within which objects collect data, which is then analysed and translated into algorithms. Those algorithms describe life and try to approximate its highly complex nature. This process can be compared to geographic map-making. While a map approximates the geography of a place, it is always limited. It cannot document dynamic forces. Michel de Certeau speaks of “a universe that is constantly exploding”. As Hakim Bey proclaims in The Temporary Autonomous Zone, “the "map" is a political abstract grid. (...) Because the map is an abstraction it cannot cover Earth with 1:1 accuracy. Within the fractal complexities of actual geography the map can see only dimensional grids. Hidden enfolded immensities escape the measuring rod. The map is not accurate; the map cannot be accurate.”

Looking at the Internet of Things, this means that the 'maps', the algorithms produced by it cannot possibly be accurate as there is not such things as a fully accurate map. Therefore, the interpretations of the data maps produced by the Internet of Things can only be subjective. The Internet as we know it today bears similar challenges. Privacy has become a rare good. Efforts to implement measures such as encryption are a notable start, making data unreadable and therefore unsuitable for analysis and interpretation. Still, the Internet evolves organically. Being an 'open' network it does still bear opportunities for the creation of autonomous zones. The Internet of Things should, therefore, be considered in a similar manner. Social inequality might be a potential negative effect of the scenario of connectedness that thinkers of the Internet of Things propose, but considering this as an advantage might open up potential zones of autonomy which cannot be measured and quantified.

Bey proposes an alternative to traditional cartography. He speaks of 'temporary autonomous zones' as dynamic spaces of radical potential which are not limited to physical location and do, in their dynamic character, carry the potential to escape mechanisms of authoritative control. By escaping the grid of control 'inhabitants' or users of the TAZ create their freedom to move, act and be. Bey continues,

“the map is closed, but the autonomous zone is open. Metaphorically it unfolds within the fractal dimensions invisible to the cartography of Control. And here we should introduce the concept of psychotopology (and -topography) as an alternative "science" to that of the State's surveying and mapmaking and "psychic imperialism." Only psychotopography can draw 1:1 maps of reality because only the human mind provides sufficient complexity to model the real. (...) We are looking for "spaces" (geographic, social, cultural, imaginal) with potential to flower as autonomous zones--and we are looking for times in which these spaces are relatively open, either through neglect on the part of the State or because they have somehow escaped notice by the mapmakers, or for whatever reason. Psychotopology is the art of dowsing for potential TAZs.”

The concept of Temporary Autonomous Zones can be an inspiration to those willing to question mechanisms of control and authority embedded in the scenario of the Internet of Things. The Internet of Things would rely to a large extend on private investments, individuals acquiring technological, 'smart' devices. Just as this can be regarded as a disadvantage, it can also be judged as advantageous. There are possibilities to hack devices in order to limit their monitoring capacities, using encryption in order to make data unreadable and to escape from the seemingly all-seeing eye of the Internet. With the manifestation of the fiction of the Internet of Things psychotopology and the following creation of temporary autonomous zones within the Internet of Things (and outside of it) would exponentially become relevant to ensure freedom to act, speak and think freely.