Does the Internet of Things herald an era of digital feudalism?

In what form will human beings inhabit the new reality—as free, flourishing ‘prosumers’, or as digital livestock?


The Internet of Things, which last year displaced Big Data as the most hyped tech trend of 2014, is a popular term to denote the phenomenon whereby the (offline) world of things will gradually, and eventually, be fully connected to the Internet. Photo: Reuters
The Internet of Things, which last year displaced Big Data as the most hyped tech trend of 2014, is a popular term to denote the phenomenon whereby the (offline) world of things will gradually, and eventually, be fully connected to the Internet. Photo: Reuters

Why did Google buy a thermostat company—that too at a stiff $3.2 billion? Well, not to diversify into smoke detectors—that’s for sure. The answer, if you ask futurologist and science fiction author Bruce Sterling, is that Google’s acquisition of Nest is a major strategic strike in the ongoing technological power struggle over who is going to control the Internet of Things.

For those who logged in late, the Internet of Things, which last year displaced Big Data as the most hyped tech trend of 2014, is a popular term to denote the phenomenon whereby the (offline) world of things will gradually, and eventually, be fully connected to the Internet, such that there would no longer be any human or social activity that is beyond digital capture, as it were.

Sterling, who was one of the founders of the cyberpunk movement, presses the reset button on the popular discourse over the Internet of Things. In his latest book, a short monograph entitled The Epic Struggle Of The Internet of Things, which came out late last year, Sterling makes the case that the Internet of Things, far from being a benign utopia of user-friendly, intelligent, consumer gadgets geared towards greater efficiency and productivity, is actually a signifier of the digital colonization of analog reality as we know it. His definition of the Internet of Things is as precise as it is chilling: “all-purpose electronic automation through digital surveillance by wireless broadband.”

Google, which today can amass a humongous amount of information about our online behaviour, knows very little about our offline lives. For instance, it still doesn’t know what’s in your refrigerator. It doesn’t know the state of your mattress, and whether that can aggravate your back problem, which can have implications for your insurance company. It doesn’t know the state of your kitchen either—not enough, at any rate, to sell the information as data to food marketers or medical researchers.

According to Sterling, capturing all this additional data (which is currently beyond the Internet) and monetizing it—is what both the Internet of Things, and the epic struggle over it, is all about. Written in a semi-epigrammatic style, The Epic Struggle... strings together a series of powerful metaphors to drive home the point that the Internet of Things is not just an interconnected constellation of smart devices, apps, and user-friendly consumer goods but “a materialized network society” that marks the end of consumer society as we know it. “It’s like a Google or Facebook writ large on the landscape.”

The context of Sterling’s book, and what he is writing against, is basically the techno-utopian consensus which holds that new technological forces such as the Internet of Things will revolutionize human society for the better. According to this view, if everything is connected to the Internet, it means that everything can be monitored, tracked, and measured. If everything can be measured, then data, rather than human motivations—which tend to be conflicting and messy—can be used to determine decisions. Such decisions are likely to be more precise and accurate than ones made by humans acting at cross-purposes.

Economists such as Jeremy Rifkin, whose bestseller The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism proffers this sanguine view, have even argued that the Internet of Things can lead to a “democratization of everything” by disrupting traditional monopolies and markets. It is this smugly progressive vision of the Internet of Things that Sterling attacks in his book.

Sterling agrees with Rifkin so far as the disruptive nature of the Internet of Things is concerned. Both affirm the epic nature of the transformation in the offing. While Rifkin compares the Internet of Things with the industrial revolution, Sterling likens the digital takeover of the analog to such totalizing infrastructural phenomena as electrification and automation. Where Sterling differs from Rifkin is on the political and social dimensions of the Internet of Things.

Sterling’s vision of the Internet of Things, while by no means dystopian, is not exactly cheery either. Far from empowering users or readers with its “sharing economy”, as asserted by Rifkin (among others), Sterling argues that the pervasive digitization of social reality via billions of sensors, embedded tracking systems, and data collection and monitoring systems spells a radical shrinkage of human autonomy. “Politically speaking,” he writes, “the relationship of the reader to the Internet of Things is not democratic. It’s not even capitalistic. It’s a new thing. It’s digital feudalism. People in the Internet of Things are like the woolly livestock of a feudal demesne, grazing under the watchful eye of barons in their hilltop Cloud castles. The peasants never vote for the lords of the Cloud Castles. But they do find them attractive and glamorous… They feel a genuine fealty to them. They can’t get along in life without them.”

And who are these barons sitting in their Cloud Castles? Sterling names the five tech giants: Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft. Branding them the “feudal lords of mass computation”, he writes, “The Big Five are the genuine heroes of the Internet of Things. The epic drama of the Internet of Things is really their story” and not some folksy upsurge of tech-driven democratization.

The Internet of Things, in Sterling’s analysis, is simply the outcome of the acknowledgement by everyone else that the Big Five have won, and they have no option but to follow in their footsteps. That is why the cannier of the traditional giants, such as GE, for instance, has acted preemptively to counter the Big Five. GE’s “Industrial Internet”, Sterling points out, is basically a strategic alliance with (and among) the lesser powers who don’t want to be eaten up by the disruptive shenanigans of the Big Five—AT&T, IBM, Intel and Cisco.

Start-ups like Uber and Airbnb figure in Sterling’s narrative as examples of how the Internet of Things is set to reconfigure customers as data resources under perpetual surveillance. And it is in this evacuation of politics by Big Data, analytics, and algorithmic control that Sterling locates the truth about human subjectivity in the regime of the Internet of Things.

According to technology research agency Gartner, the number of ‘things’ connected to the Internet will reach 25 billion by the year 2020. A recent report by the Pew Research Center says that the Internet of Things will be a thriving reality by 2025. In what form will human beings inhabit this new reality—as free, flourishing “prosumers” of the kind envisioned by Rifkin, or as Sterling’s digital livestock? Well, by the time we have the answer, it may no longer matter.

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