The Internet of Things and The Internet of People

If I may be allowed a huge generalisation, internet users currently divide into two overlapping categories: those who primarily use the internet as a way of finding or disseminating information, and those who use it mainly as a way of building and maintaining relationships. I wonder whether the Internet of Things is going to change both.

We talk cheerfully about the Internet of Things, meaning objects, people and animals with unique identifiers that enable them to transmit data over an internet network without human-to-human or human-to-computer interaction. But the language we use has important consequences. Until recently, the Internet of Things has been mostly an internet of machine-to-machine communication, especially in manufacturing industries. However, we have reached the point where biochip responders are blurring the traditional categories, so that a person with a heart monitor is, in internet terms, a ‘thing’ transmitting data. While part of me is thrilled at the possibilities that are opening up (think car safety, for example), part of me also questions whether the ability to cut out the human and the fallible will actually bring about an even larger change, and one that may have unintended consequences. Impersonal or depersonalised language expresses values, and they may not be the ones we want.

The flood of pornography freely available on the internet has led, I think, to an increase in confusion among young people as to what is expected of them in human and sexual relationships. In the same way, is it not possible that our embrace of the Internet of Things and its distinctive language will depersonalise our understanding of the world? When we think of people as things, almost anything is possible. Perhaps we need to think about the construction of an Internet of People, where the value of an individual is not determined by anything other than the fact of being human; where communication is more than data transmission; and where the consequences of action are acknowledged in moral as well as technical terms. This is not to oppose the Internet of Things but merely to put forward its corresponding human angle.

There is much more that could be said on this subject. I would love to hear your views (though it would be great if you could keep them no longer than the original post as I’m working with very slow mobile broadband here.)


6 thoughts on “The Internet of Things and The Internet of People”

  1. You are far more knowledgeable about these things than I am. I had not heard of the ‘Internet of things’ but your piece makes clear what it is. I do agree with what you say. I have only found you fairly recently, but I find that I usually agree with what you say! I am afraid I have no useful or interesting comment to make, but I thought you might like to know that what you write is appreciated.

    God bless you.


  2. I can readily see your point. The internet seems to grow every more intensive and complicated day to day. I hadn’t even thought about the concepts that you highlight here, because to me, the internet has been two things:

    Firstly and communication and relationship building medium, which has connected me to people I might have never had known without the internet’s utility. Real relationships have been built across geographic and national boundaries that I value highly. And most of those relationships are with people I have yet to meet offline, although I aspire to do so sometime soon.

    The other use was as a tool for when I was working and research was the main effort there, it also was used via email etc to disseminate information widely, working from a virtual paperless office space, albeit that paper use seemed to expand as endless printing ensued. Now, I scan everything and store it electronically with backups just in case.

    I was aware of the internet of things, vaguely, but hadn’t considered the depersonalisation involved, particularly in terms of language. It seems to me that we may need to redraw that landscape and as you describe it, personalise it – making it meaningful rather than a way or system of doing things.

    Here’s to personal relationships instead of machine driven ones.

  3. I remember when microwave ovens appeared and people’s ideas fell into two categories: a). a dangerous idea, and b). put everything in it.
    Eventually it found its place.
    As children we were let loose in the summer holidays to run wild and free on Wimbledon common, until the sunset.
    “Don’t linger near door number such and such, don’t take sweets or lifts from strangers” etc etc.
    I have no recollection of danger or interference of any sort.
    I am sure the internet will find its own level and we know that good and evil often exist side by side.
    We have the choice.

  4. Yes there’s a real danger that we’ll think of people as things and either throw them away when they are of no further use, or recycle the bits we need without considering the people involved. Have we already reached this stage – abortion, euthanasia …?

  5. As Chris Moore noted, western society has been moving in the depersonallization direction several decades before the Internet itself, probably since the dawn of the industrial revolution. But current technologies have certainly sped up the process and expanded its reach. The problem is not just with the Internet, it also exists in our broadcast media and cell phone use (think nude selfies). But beyond all of the media and technology, doesn’t the root lie in the heart and soul of the individual? How are we raising our children? Are we instilling compassion and humanistic values or are we instilling selfish, self centered ones?

    I find among my peers that in their quest to “be friends” with their children or at least not be “hated” by them, the guidelines needed to develop character are blurred and then those parents “have no idea what happened” when the children lack strong moral centers. As an example, many of my peers with teenaged children do not require them to attend church services. Because they just don’t like to go. Would you not require them to attend school? Why would you think that they could figure out faith and morals on their own? This is a small example but one that affects the depersonalization reflected in technology use.

  6. I guess that it can be both.

    I use the internet primarily as a way of finding or disseminating information; but in doing so I’ve established relationships with a few people whom I now regard as friends – some of whom I’ve subsequently met face-to-face and some of whom I still have not. (All being well, I’m meeting one of the latter group for the first time for lunch next Thursday: she lives in the States and we’ve been exchanging occasional e-mails for a couple of years.) I once managed to co-write a book chapter with two people, one of whom I knew prior to us doing it and the other whom I didn’t meet until after the book in question was published.

    It’s certainly good for “stuff” but it’s pretty useful for people as well. And as Alexander says, it’ll find its own level.

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