The thing about the internet of things

While I am not very familiar with the whole ‘internet of things’ discourse, I recognize plenty of recurring themes to be troubled about. We encounter, once again (but with new buzz words), the argument that new technologies can rehabilitate our relationship to the real and to the social. This time, however, instead of investing our sense of self entirely in the virtual (soooo 1990’s), we can invest it in ‘things’ (human-object assemblages) which populate reality, but which are still interconnected and organized in the virtual. The return of the object or ‘thing’ would seem to suggest that we are moving away from the idea of the virtual as an alternate realm of reality and towards a more complex understanding of reality as encompassing both the virtual and the actual (thank you, Monsieur Deleuze). However, I fear that our technophilia is obscuring the politics of these virtual-actual assemblages, obstructing the need to critically assess how agency is distributed amongst things connected through the internet.

One possible direction this critique can take is to analyze new (and old) modes of production and consumption in the internet of things. The corporate call to action (there are non-commercial alternatives, thankfully) is that we must break free of the shackles of passive consumption to enter a new era of active consumption organized around networked objects scattered in the ‘real’ world. To be called an audience is an insult in this age when "the demand side supplies itself," when —given the sanctioned source materials— we can all be producers or re-mixers of the objects we shall consume (what I call ‘ultimate consumerism’). The difference is that now we need not be stationed in front of our computers to do so; our regained mobility and wirelessness signals a return to the real. Hurray! The freedom to move around while being invisibly tethered to the market, digitizing things or information about things outside the market and putting them in circulation within it. Needless to say, I share Anne’s concerns about the fetishizing of ‘things’ and about the ‘return to the object’ as the privileging of objectivity.

What I find most troubling is that the discourse of the ‘internet of things’ suggests a certain inevitability: the true potential of the internet of things can only be achieved to the extent that it encompasses everything (it is not accidental that the internet of things is an extension of the discourse of ubiquitous or pervasive computing). Shouldn’t we question this inevitability? After all, the act of ‘outsourcing’ (to use Trebor’s term) our memory and social functions to internet things is not without political and social consequences: The mobility of us cyber nomads —our ability to detach and re-attach ourselves to reality at will— is usually acquired thanks to the drudgery and exploitation endured by someone else (the call center worker in India, the Cassiterite miner in Congo, the factory worker in Mexico or Taiwan, etc.).

At the same time, our response should not be a blind rejection or phobia of things. There are no more ‘things’ today than before, nor do we rely more on ‘things’ now than in the past. I was reading an old essay by Ivan Illich ("Silence is a Commons") in which he basically laments the pollution of silence by new electronic things. While I share some of his concerns, I wonder if an average day is less filled with things for someone living on the fringes of consumerism than for someone living within it. Of course, the differences should be accounted for (from natural things, to things produced by us, to things produced by somebody else), but assemblages of humans and things are not abnormal or evil, a priori. The questions is: If we have always delegated (or in the worst case, surrendered) social agency to things in order to control, manipulate, facilitate, condition, interpret, etc., what functions are the ‘things’ in the internet of things fulfilling?

I don’t think Illich was arguing against new things per se, but against the loss of opportunities to reflect on what is being substituted by or forgotten with the new things, to be critical of new things, and to reject things we find unsustainable.

Creative Commons photo: joi

2 thoughts on “The thing about the internet of things

  1. klaus

    On an otherwise still day, I hear the mock-electric buzz of cicadas. I used to think it was a sound made by telephone wires vibrating because of the heat, but it turned out that no wires were involved – insects aped machines, apes insected machines or machines aped insects, whichever came first. The modem’s squeal is an approximation of the cicada’s sporadic omnipresence, but an uninterrupted broadband connection is quiet as a crypt.

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