Musings on “The Internet of Things”


We Neo Renaissance folk are contemplative by nature. The Intellectual Pillar of a Neo Ren life is perhaps the most important of the Four Pillars because if we stop thinking, we stop learning, stop understanding, stop progressing,.

So I was especially provoked to thought by a link my wife sent to me regarding a TED Talk by a certain Dr. John Barrett, apparently a pioneer in his field of technology that deals with imagining the future of civilization as it may become, based on our current knowledge.  (Scroll down to TED Talk video)

What struck me was the immense amount of data that we have compiled and recorded. As we all know, information, knowledge, facts,  and commonly held beliefs are for the most part “virtue neutral”–neither good nor bad. How we use information can be for good or evil purposes, but the facts themselves are just facts.

As Barrett outlined all the possible good that may come from knowing and monitoring nearly every bit of data that can be produced by 7 or 8 billion humans, all their possessions, and even every square inch of Earth, my thoughts went to the concept that for every good there exists its opposite, the evil. All data, in the wrong hands, can do harm as well.

About five minutes into his talk, he began listing several ways we can deal with this information we’ve acquired and will be able to acquire in the future–this Internet of Things. A world where everyone and everything is connected electronically and can be monitored, communicated with, controlled, etc. As he was talking about “things” the thought came to me, “What if we substitute the word “People” for the word “Things”? How might we differently use this connectivity? Might people be tempted to use it for evil as well as good?

Here’s what comes to mind:

Connect with Things becomes Connect with People. Mostly good. We’ll be able to maintain contact with those we want to as easily as if they were standing next to us. But the negative might be people you don’t want to connect with can force their way into your life somehow, if only by bombarding you with notes, email, voicemail, or follow you around 24/7 because tracking you via the computer chip imbedded into your skin is as easy as hacking into your private cloud account (or whatever form access to computerized data may take in the future).

Monitor Things becomes Monitor People. Getting a bit dicey now. What if you don’t want someone to know what you are doing or where you are every minute of the day? How can you escape the electronic grid? Will any of  us have a secret sanctuary where we can go to be alone and think without an electronic someone eavesdropping? Will our every spoken word be recorded no matter where we are? Will our actions and thoughts be continuously monitored some day? What happens if we have a “bad” thought in the heat of the moment? Will the thought police arrest us and imprison us for merely wishing our bratty 10-year-old sister were dead?

Search for Things becomes Search for People. Related to the previous point.  A nice capability to have if your child goes missing and you click onto the cellphone’s GPS tracking program and discover that she wandered off to the other end of the mall. Not so good if someone wishes to do you harm because of a perceived wrong you did to them, and you’re running for your life, and they’re one step behind you at all times waiting for a chance to strike you down.

Manage Things becomes Manage People. A good way to make sure machines are more efficient, energy isn’t wasted, supply lines flow smoothly, all those good things. But what if your boss is a tyrannical SOB who wants you to work like a robot and will can your sorry ass if you slack off for even one minute? Not so fun when he/she can click on the company’s workflow management software and find out that you’re producing one less document/product/widget or whatever per hour than your co-workers?

Suppose you had three sleepless nights in a row because your child was sick and you were comforting them until 4 a.m. each night. You’re tired and have a hard time staying awake let alone producing at maximum efficiency. Is it fair to be fired for underperformance in a scenario like that? Of course not, but  if information can be used for good and evil, who’s to stop that from happening when it’s unwarranted?

Control Things becomes Control People. This is the one that got my brain firing on all cylinders. Controlling things is fine. Controlling people? Goes both ways. We all want a law-abiding, peaceful, orderly citizenry. Who doesn’t like a society where everyone is calm, rational, peaceful, cooperative and obeys duly enacted laws? But if evil gains that control, then we have societies like Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 40s, the USSR in most of the 20th century, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the 1970s and all the tyrannical, despotic, regimes before and since then who control their subjects with random violence and brutal rules of conformity. I want no part of that “cloud.”

Play with Things becomes Play with People. The word play sounds so innocent, right? Everyone likes to play. Online gaming is hugely popular because anyone in the world can virtually participate in an activity. But what if I want to play rough and you don’t? What if my idea of play is to see how many ways I can electronically disrupt your life without you knowing it? Think of hackers who steal your financial data and accounts.

Think of the two rich, elderly brothers in the 1980s movie “Trading Places” starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. They conducted a “social experiment” mainly for laughs at the expense of two unwitting souls who were “played” by the brothers into essentially trading places in life. The wealthy young heir became the homeless vagabond criminal, and the homeless street person became wealthy and privileged beyond his imagination. The brothers were found out and properly punished in the end, but the idea that puppet masters can play with anyone to suit their warped senses of humor or destructive intentions should give us all pause to reflect on what the Internet of Things may bring to the world.

The computer age is unbelievably fascinating to me and I eagerly await the next electronic advancement. I’m not an early adopter of technology, I just think its amazing what the human mind can conceive and produce. But as a Neo Renaissance man, I also wonder if some or all of this advancement may ultimately prove to be destructive rather than constructive.

What do you think? Is technology racing ahead out of control? Or can man construct the future of technology in such a way as to be overwhelmingly a positive for society?


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