Our reigning technological revolution can be broadly understood as Information and Communication Technology (ICT). We have allowed it to assume the title of “high technology” and even the word “technology” itself, when, in fact, ICT is merely the current dominant paradigm. It has taken the throne from the mass production cluster and it will, in turn, be usurped by another technology cluster. As this ICT paradigm was emerging it was hard to see it in its totality – various components were being pioneered but the pieces of this technological puzzle weren’t fitting together yet. However, with time’s relentless progression, the emerging reality of IoT (Internet of Things) can be seen as a conceptual framework in which all the recent ICT innovations can be integrated into a cohesive whole.
Before we begin, let us quickly destroy some misconceptions that may be blocking us from seeing the way forward. First of all, technology cannot be misconstrued as some form of otherness – technology is a cultural artifact, something that we intentionally and actively produce. Moreover, technology is merely a fancy way of saying tools and the associated body of techniques that form around each given tool. I want to illustrate this with an analog example – a sword. At some point in time human blacksmithing skills advanced to the level of producing swords: swords are tools. User groups form around these tools (we need only look to Japan to see the various user groups, or schools, that formed around the katana) and these user groups develop techniques as they experientially engage with their tool of choice. The conceptual groupings of tools, user groups, and techniques can be applied to practically every technology in existence from pencils to cars to software. Even language itself can be considered a technology (with the user groups being entire cultures) but let’s leave that for another day. What we want to recognize here is that technology is a fundamental part of human existence and that these clusters of tools are extremely human in that we, ourselves, are their fathers and mothers – technology is our offspring.
There’s one more thing we should quickly touch on that will become quite relevant as we dive into IoT: understanding technology as input-output systems. Put simply, an input enters a technology and exits as an output, where the technology can be seen as a catalyst and a converter of the input. For instance, to interweave with the earlier example, a sword converts and accelerates human energy into a slicing or stabbing action. However, our worldview expands when we realize the output of stabbing and slicing can be achieved with different inputs being accelerated through different technologies. The input of gas into a chainsaw can achieve slicing quite efficiently; the input of electricity into a power drill can achieve the output of stabbing, in its own way. An “acceleration coefficient” could be attributed to technologies based upon the degree of their acceleration capabilities according to input source and output goal. With this in mind, let us ask ourselves: what is the input for IoT and what is this technology cluster optimizing for?
If we were to be reductionist, we could slice up IoT into its constituent parts: (1) software, (2) network, and (3) hardware. However, the nuts and bolts of it don’t matter to us right now; rather, we should explore IoT in terms of interfaces, pathways, and storage. As IoT bridges the cyber and the physical into unified systems, we must strive to understand the two worlds through a single metaphor. When we fully understand the implications of this grand unity, the conclusions are eye opening.
Interfaces are the intersections where two entities meet. Whether that’s a storefront, an app, or a website, interfaces are the openings in this grand system for the input of choice. Humans enter storefronts, where sensors can be implemented to monitor foot traffic; humans interact with websites and apps, revealing preferences and behaviours. Looks like human data is the input in the world of IoT – this only increases as we integrate more technologies into the ever-expanding web. What are virtual reality and augmented reality but additional interfaces? Granted, the UX will be completely different but VR and AR are fundamentally additional interface layers. As we start integrating sensors into traditionally analog items like, let’s say cars, the number of interfaces increase, along with the number of data collection outlets. It is quite evident that the goal is to construct holistic user profiles from various contextual data sets.
This revelation is important for a non-obvious reason – it would be too easy to dive into moral commentary and pass over the core insight here: the output of ICT is inherently informational. For quite some time, ICT companies have been positioned as threats to companies that produce physical goods but nothing can be further from the case. Purist ICT companies deal in the realm of information and such information is useless unless it can be sold to entities that can act on it – normally companies dealing in physical goods. The information economy is a layer that works on top of a solidly operating physical goods economy.
In any case, once we understand interfaces as openings for data inputs, it becomes clear that there needs to be pathways for said inputs to travel along before arriving in storage. Unfortunately, the terminology of cloud computing has mixed these two processes up to such an extent that some people believe their data is somehow floating magically in yonder skies with Zeus. For the most part, the data pathways are themselves intensely physical – think cables – to such an extent that we should categorically compare them to highways and railroads. This comparison is extremely apt as it allows us to explore a parallel that hints at the growing importance of networks in the coming years.
Railroads were originally invented merely to help with the transportation of coal – it was a vassal technology in the first technological revolution. However, during the second revolution, when the steam engine was invented, railroads achieved their true utility in transporting humans and goods. What are we trying to get at here? Well, what if data is the coal in our current context? What other use cases could we apply the pathway of information networks to? It will be intriguing to see how this aspect of IoT develops in the coming decade because, truly, we are merely at the tip of the iceberg in terms of fully implementing the technology. The power of the networks will be seen when more analog devices become digitized with sensors.
Finally, we arrive at storage – we’re not just talking about databases and hard drives. Our notebooks are storage devices; our bookshelves are storage devices; our places of dwelling are storage containers; our cities are living memory devices. What is blockchain but a decentralized storage mechanism? What is cloud computing but our data being stored on someone else’s server? It’s easy to see how the latest trends in technology can still be mapped under the conceptual lens of IoT. However, it’s even more beautiful when we can map analog systems into the digital era. What is a bank but a server for our currency and transactions? What is a library but a database of information? In an era of cyberphysical systems, we must maintain an awareness of the convergences that are occurring. Data is merely a model of reality – the various sources of data that inform our constructed profiles become a model of who we are and will influence the opportunities we have. There is a wealth of policy implications here but that would merit much more effort than we can muster at present.
For now, let us be content in having mapped out how all roads in ICT lead to IoT. We have stumbled upon a conceptual framework that will enable us to navigate the waters of new technologies that will emerge in the coming decade. Whatever is thrown our way, let us strive to understand the input and output structures along with whether the items in question fit under the classification buckets of interfaces, pathways, or storage. Thus, even if we don’t fully understand the nuts and bolts of a given new technology, we will at least have a framework to make sense of the unfolding reality.