Current challenges for the Internet of Things

Current challenges
published in the Clusterbook 2010 from the European Commission
Rob van Kranenburg

The Internet of Things promises severe changes, yet in a age of permanent revolution the word ‘revolution’ itself becomes decadent, outmoded. Still it is the best word to describe disruptive innovation. It holds a promise of new and something different, alerts proven practices to the fact they too are historical, and in its most successful forms redefines the dreams and abundance of youth with the longing for stability and status quo.

a global revolution

In Carl Schmitt’s political philosophy he makes a distinction between the real enemy, – wirkliche feind – and the absolute enemy – absolute feind. This latter enemy is, according to him der eigene Frage als Gestalt. That which negates your own position, questions your very existence. The real enemy denotes our possibility to act, we can react to challenges and threats. The absolute enemy appears on thresholds to new realities that are being born out of revolutions, not out of easy transitions. Wir sollen nichts tun sondern warten wrote Heidegger. He foresaw the road that Techné was travelling, yet was articulating the notion of Techné itself. Can we see technology still as helpful in the current strategies for sustainability, energy infrastructures, communication protocols?

In Bandung (Indonesia) artist thinktank Common Room is working with designers hoping to develop a “talking three forest” in within five years. They hope this can develop a new relationship between people and environment. Usman Haque, the founder of Pachube, one of the defining startups in the very young field is “quite excited by a site that Mauj (an artist thinktank in Karachi) is working with, of unofficially reclaimed mangrove area, that has much potential for analysis, speculation and actual on-site workshop action; involving both social and ecological issues, environmental as well as economic.” He “would love if we could consider how some kind of citizen-oriented data collection and sense-making process could inform wider community-oriented activity.”

Throughout Asia, Africa, Eastern Europe and South America, projects are being considered of pushing trials for the inclusion of RFID in banknotes in order to fight corruption and tax evasion that greatly hampers the growth of genuine public space, public institutions and generic infrastructures of energy, transport, it infrastructure and life long education. Maybe it is very simply because things can only get better in a lot of places in the world. It seems the case in our current economic situation we may have to say that in the EU things will probably get worse, not better in the terms in which we have been defining ‘better’. Yet the EU can not lead if it can not engender and muster a wave of positive interest and a genuine longing for more or better connectivity.

a mental revolution

Artists have always exploited the conditions for technological change, applications and services, from the pencil onwards. In the move towards ubiquituous computing – from the internet to the ‘internet of things’ – the poetic process of making meaning and creating experiences is no longer only productive on the level of design, but it lies at the heart of the IT architecture of the system, its standards and protocols. Distributing security – which is the key to digital systems that are focused on control – will in a pervasive computing – IoT- environment halt innovation, emerging uses and services and launch and learn scenarios. Resonance not interaction is the design principle in environments where connectivity is everywhere yet not always accessible to individual users.

IOT is a new actualization of subject-object relationships. Me and my surroundings, objects, clothes, mobility… w h a t e v e r, will have an added component, a digital potentiality that is potentially outside of ‘my’ control. Every generation builds it own add-ons to the notions of reality, to what it believes are the foundations of the real. What makes this move so different?

There is a table. On the table a glass. A glass of tea, jasmine? Jasmine tea. Hmm, good tea. I reach for the glass in a hurry, I gotta run. My hand, it feels like sweeping it off the table yet gently grasp it. I am not in a hurry at ll. I can take it in my hand and admire the engravings. I can see drops of condensed water gently not quite sliding over the edge. I am not in a hurry. I pour you a glass. I offer it to you. Here, a glass of Jasmine tea. There are a great number of ways to reach out for a glass. And now this glass is the one your grandmother gave to you on her dying bed. You put it on the table. Pour out jasmine tea. The affordances of a lifetime, the scope of a generation, as your reach out for the cup, the gesture itself becomes the reality that bridges worlds.

Let me tell you what will happen. A child will grow up and see a table. A glass on that table. She will put her mobile phone/device/cuddle next to the glass. She wants to find out what it is, what it means. She will for evermore and from the beginning of her time do this with and through mediating devices. And lo and behold, a movie starts playing on her cuddle, triggered buy the tag embedded in the glass. The movie is scripted by the jasmine tea providers who tell the stories they want to tell. Finally the real has become scriptable and the scriptable becomes the real.

a political revolution

The primary claim to data gathering, determining what is data in the first place, what the status of information is and how knowledge is to be made operational is no longer wed to universities and academic institutions. Neither is its output, the essay, the report, the document the sole format through which broadly shared notions on what is acceptable and real can be spread. Networks of professional amateurs, informed citizens and selftaught experts as well as science itself are looking for new trusted formats of transmitting data, information and knowledge. The expertise of designers and artists in designing broadly shared events, conferences, local workshops, flashmob seminars in streets and neignbourhoods, foregrounding humor, irony, passion and love, is essential.

Maybe it can be the positive solution, the logical step in the history of outsourcing memory to objects, devices and the environment, for the challenges we all face today of an ever growing individualization that might tempt citizens into breaking with existing solidarities ( among race, gender, ethnicity, age…) that are currently harnassed through the nation state. What if through the Internet of Things we can create a layer of data, open to all, through which individuals can decide for themselves what they are willing to pay for, get direct feedback from their voluntary donations, coordinate community spending that has a direct bearing to their needs through participatory budgetting, negociate with other people in other parts of the world how to use their money?

a bartering revolution

There is a broad growing consencus that current monetary systems are not working for any of the stakeholders in the long run, whether it is citizens, lenders, shareholders, investors. They might all profit maximally at one particular point in the cycle but overall loss and gain seems to even out. IOT seems to favour micropayments and transparency in transaction. We can envisage a definition of IoT identity as an ever changing mix of relations between a physical body of a person, his or her objects and a ‘smart’ environment. Monitoring mechanisms will be build into devices themselves. It is unproductive to attempt to isolate old constants in such an environment. The privacy of objects is just as relevant or irrelevant as the privacy of persons in this fluid ecology that is called ‘identity’.

an educational revolution

What is the role of a museum in a world of cloudcomputing? What is the function of making quality decisions on what to keep and what to throw away if the facebook generation does not delete anything anymore? Not on their mobiles, not on their laptops. Serious debating all over the world is taking place on the function of our current educational systems. In a world where hardware is becoming cheap one can imagine a learning situation that consists of rapid prototyping skills on the one hand and making scenarios through storytelling on the other.

a technological revolution

The first requirement for building an IOT – ambient – society is a debate with all stakeholders; citizens, small and medium enterprises, multinationals, semi government and government institutions on the granularity of experience that counts as input for the hard wired sensors that are the first line of picking up signals that count as data for the datamining, data, and not noise.

Therefore research into and quick and dirty applications of soft biometrics and innovative ways of gaining biofeedback in intuitive and non invasive ways is of paramount importance. Taking into account as much of the granularity of experience as input into our systems, may lead to not only an acceptance of ambient intelligence, but an embracing of it by people who realize that this could actually help them gain more agency – individual and collective – through getting realtime feedback on real actions and real needs.

a spiritual revolution

In Separating and containing people and things in Mongolia, Rebecca Empson writes: “… the doing involved in making things visible or invisible makes relations. In this sense ‘vision’ becomes the tool by which relations are created.”

The komuso, a wandering priest, plays a central part in the history of Japanese Shakuhachi music. From behind their wicker visors these basket-hatted men have “viewed the flow of Japanese life from the seventeenth century to the present”, as Charles P. Malm writes. The ranks of the komuso were filled with ronin: masterless samurai. In Kyoto a group of komuso called themselves the Fukeshu. Malm writes : “The Buddhist shogun government, which had smashed all Christian inspired opposition after the battle of Shimabara, was very suspicious of any form of organisation that contained these samurai whose allegiance was doubtful.” The Fukeshu secretly purchased a building that belonged to one of the larger Buddhist temples. By faking a number of papers claiming their historical origins as coming from China via a priest named Chosan, the Fukeshu tried to secure their position. They also produced a copy of a license from the first Edo Shogun, Ieyasu, giving them the exclusive right to solicit alms by means of shakuhachi playing. When a samurai became ronin he could no longer wear his double sword. So these wandering priests redesigned the shakuhachi. The flute became a formidable club as well as a musical instrument. The Fukeshu asked for official recognition of their temple. The government demanded the official document. The Fukeshu claimed it was lost. The shogun granted their request on the condition that they act as spies for the government. The Fukeshu accepted. The Fukeshu played soft melodies and overheard intimate conversations. If we read these steps backwards there always seems to be one more mask, eine maske mehr.

The final layer is nonexistent, the essence never material, the object ever empty. It is very hard to debate this. At one particular point some body decides to give meaning to some data, any data. This is an act of will. Any society entering an ontologically different frontier needs strong stories to actualize its promises through and with the people.

poor or rich; a choice

We can safely assume that the above trends will take place or grow to be effective in the coming years. Our current agency lies on a continuum with at one end a ‘poor’ and at the other a ‘rich’ potential actualization. The decision is up to us now and could not come at a worse time. For the trend is towards not taking risks but having safety and security and nothing-happening- that- is- not- in- my- to- do- list as a default for decision making. Although it is always hard to predict the future, it is a safe bet that if this happens the EU will not be able to create an overtone for itself, nor a leading role. It will be swept away by the swift and agile small networks of people who believe that a better world is possible for them and their children. Fortunately we have thinkers like Gérald Santucci who is able to inspire not only his team but a wide network of diverse experts to keep believing that it is vital to keep the old real democratic ideals alive and working in this age of new connectivities.