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.)