The internet of things vs. the “tyranny of the social”

Saturday, March 10th, 2012

I recently “attended” EduCAUSE’s webinar on the 2012 Horizon Report (Higher Education Edition) (archived and still viewable).  Released annually by the New Media Consortium, the Horizon Report details new and upcoming technology trends that could or should have an impact on higher education in the next one to five years.  Here are the technologies featured in the 2012 report:

  • First horizon technologies (mainstream impact in one year or less)
    • Mobile apps
    • Tablet computers
  • Second horizon technologies (mainstream in two to three years)
    • Game-based learning
    • Learning analytics
  • Third horizon technologies (mainstream impact in four to five years)
    • Gesture-based computing
    • the Internet of Things

I was pretty familiar with the majority of these trends except for the Internet of Things.  As I understand it, the Internet of Things (IoT) is the idea that any physical object can be linked to a network (like the internet).  Each thing would have its own individual identification, allowing it to uniquely interact with the network.  Thinking about it in general terms made my brain a little fuzzy so I went in search of more information.  Cisco has a number-filled infographic about the current state and future state of the IoT.

After some more reading and searching, I came across an interesting representation of the possibilities of the IoT – a comic book called “Inspiring the Internet of Things”.  An illustrated exploration of 15 scenarios of over 25 IoT applications that could effect various aspects of our lives (including transportation, shopping, and medical) paired with expert commentary and current uses, the content and format sent my mind reeling with future thoughts.

The idea of an even more interconnected world of people, objects, and information is thrilling and terrifying to me.  The possibility of increased efficiency and (eventual) lowered cost of commodities and services could be the foundation for reinvigorating the economy and the workforce.  In theory.  In practice, would the IoT allow for the obliteration of privacy and autonomy?  Recent revelations of Target’s customer tracking abilities would be small change compared to what could be possible with a fully realized IoT.  Can the world be too interconnected?

Granted, this sort of extreme thinking is more the stuff of great (or truly bad) scifi movies where individuals are barcoded and try to live off the grid (actually, Idiocracy comes to mind as well).  But when we are increasingly facing new and constantly changing privacy issues (online in the form of sites and companies fluctuating policies – mostly recently Google, and offline in the form of attempts to access and control individual info – with schools and employers forcing students and applicants to give access to their online personas), how far away are these “extremes”?

While contemplating an IoT future it is hard to ignore the current social pressure growing almost everywhere on the internet.  With the ability to share, connect, and comment on basically anything anywhere online, from posting your ultrasound photos on Facebook to adding tags for a pair of sandals on Urban Outfitters, the idea that the internet is or should be a social experience is becoming commonplace.  This was not always the case.  In the early days, the internet was imagined and perhaps aggrandized as a place of anonymity and exploration, a place where individuals could browse and dabble without worry of social stigma or even the awareness of society.  Evgeny Morozov’s (highly recommended) article The Death of the Cyberflâneur recounts the early hopes for the internet as a rebirth of flânerie and examines its evolution into its current task-oriented state.  The internet is seen more and more as a place with a purpose – evident in the growth of apps dedicated to one service and individual site attempts to become an all-in-one resource (Facebook adding chat, video, messaging, and most recently attempting to chronicle your whole existence with Timeline, and as of today, desktop chat!).  What results is what Morozov calls the “tyranny of the social”, “this idea that the individual experience is somehow inferior to the collective”.


The “frictionless sharing” inherent in Facebook and other sites/apps/the internet validates your individual experience by giving others immediate access to it.  It seems the internet is constantly evolving from a state of selective sharing to selective censoring.  This transition is why privacy is such an issue – since the services we use are now using us it’s more of a backtracking to regain or retain the information we have already shared, without having been given full knowledge or our full consent to how it is being currently used.

While  I don’t consider myself a digital native, I guess I am a millennial (are you?).  I remember the excitement of the early internet, and I remember learning about viruses, sketchy pedophiles in AOL chat rooms, and the “bad” parts of the WWW.  I also remember the excitement of Facebook’s launch, and I remember the many, many upsets and issues that soon followed, and continue to pop up.  So while I am excited about the practicality and potential of the IoT, it’s a cautious and curious excitement.


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