The Internet of Things: Changing the nature of human connection

The Internet of Things: Changing the nature of human connection

The benefits and dangers of everything being “smart”

A revolution without limits 

Imagine a world where your sound system cues music according to your mood, and your thermostat adjusts to the timing of your lunch break. Picture a landscape of things that tailor to your every need, juggling the intricacies of your social life so you don’t have to.

Since the ’90s, the rapid rise of the internet has brought both risk and reward. The internet continues to expand horizons for public information, media sharing, security, and energy efficiency.

The technological age has already changed the way people perform daily tasks. Our smart phones allow us to carry the internet with us wherever we go, and bloggers, academics, and professionals have been gripped by the fact that people will soon find themselves facing the unfathomable vastness of the web in the monitors of their coffee-makers.

Unlike past revolutions, the internet transformation possesses an innate quality unlike any we’ve seen before — the absence of perceivable limitation.

The positives of flow

The Internet of Things (IoT) refers to the wiring of all possible devices, aligning our information systems with one another, connecting people to people, people to things, and things to other things. As Rozita Dara, a professor in the school of computer science at U of G puts it, “we already have sensors embedded in our smartphones, Fitbits, smartwatches, smart grids, and cars, to name a few — [multinational technology conglomerate] CISCO predicts that, by 2030, there will be 500 billion connected devices.”

The purpose is to increase efficiency and save energy by linking all devices to a common network. People won’t have to transfer data — their devices will already be doing so.

This proposal is accompanied by a rich collection of potential benefits, including the minimization of safety risks in hospitals and schools.

Dara lists democratization of information, liberalization of technology, and faster communication among the benefits of IoT technologies. The IoT has the potential to support equitable education in even the most remote locations of the world and to revolutionize healthcare and security systems, eliminating response time and error. Professor Dara notes, “low-cost wireless technology in Africa has made a significant contribution in how they manage banking and healthcare.”

Benson Hougland, vice president of hardware and software manufacturer Opto 22, spoke to the IoT’s lifesaving potential at a 2014 TED conference. In a medical emergency, he says, your Fitbit can assess your body for cardiac arrest, and call an ambulance while transferring your medical information to the nearest hospital, cutting out crucial moments of response time that could mean saving a life.

Animating the inanimate

The technology includes sensitizing objects modelled after human senses: hearing, sight, touch. Futurists, scholars who study the possibilities of the future, are asking “What does this mean for humanity?” Critical thought on the potential social effects have produced a theory that the IoT is a sort of “computerized cognition.” In his media studies cult classic TechGnosis: Myth, Magic, and Mysticism in the Age of Information, scholar Erik Davis writes, “[when] everything becomes linked with everything else, […] matter becomes mind.”

Things will soon “think” like people, predicting and reacting with the continuous flow of internal and external stimuli.

Objects that predict users’ needs will significantly reduce the daily task list of the average person, essentially cutting out the middle-man — the middle-man being humankind. Devices throughout your home will sense your presence and adjust settings according to your perceived preferences, adjusting the temperature, pulling the blinds, suggesting your favourite snack, and dispensing alerts. What will come of our agency, our autonomy, when the tics of our personalities are manifested by machines?

With the IoT, we will transition from projecting ourselves onto the external world to transferring parts of ourselves into the fabric of our environment, animating the inanimate. An age that blurs the distinction between our minds and the world is an age of unfathomable potential.

Humanity displaced 

It can also be a frightening thing, especially when considering the IoT’s potential to displace human practices. Are we looking at a dark future like the one in Pixar’s 2008 film WALL-E? When our refrigerators track the moment our milk begins to spoil, sending alerts to our wrists and pockets, will the ability to pay attention remain in our repertoire?

IoT will reduce and potentially eliminate the necessity for certain thought processes. Being made increasingly aware by our devices, humans will become increasingly inactive in our own lives. Our world will be one of reflective surfaces, a tunnel of mirrors. To put it radically, our awareness will be programmed and our autonomy obsolete, while machines perform so much of our lives for us.

We are tapping into a new realm of connectivity that may contribute to an inhuman evolution. For better or worse, increased machine-to-machine communication will continue to shape how humans interact with technology, with one another, and with themselves. The technology already exists, minutely in our Fitbits, and monumentally in our global communications.

The Internet of Things redefines what it means to be human.

Graphics by Frances Esenwa/The Ontarion

Feature image by Alora Griffiths/The Ontarion