The Long, Slow Road to an Internet Of Things

Right now there are more than twice as many active smartphones moving around in China than there are humans in America.

The Internet of Things is a funny idea to me. It’s been a funny idea since I first heard of it, something like ten years ago. It was a funny idea, ten years before that, when people first started talking about the components of it. When I was nine years old, I read an article in PC Format, a videogame magazine, about the coming future when your fridge would be on the internet and you could turn on the heater when you were making your way home, using a phone you could carry, in your hand, that could use the internet.

Twice in my lifetime, I’ve seen people talk about things that would stop the Internet of Things in its tracks. The first was IPv4 Exhaustion, which we solved by upgrading to IPv6. The second was Spectrum Crunch, which was solved as a simple pragmatic issue. Slowly, our infrastructure grows.

It’s quite eerie to watch in the lectures, a video that … doesn’t seem to show anything different to what we were talking about twenty years ago. The man has a microwave and a fridge and a vacuum cleaner. I suppose that the cleaner moves on its own is a genuinely different thing.

The video strikes me as strange, though.

It strikes me as strange because the guy drives his car.

The world shown in that video isn’t futuristic. It isn’t even all that remarkable. Everything shown in the video, give or take, already exists. Why don’t we have this stuff already? If we’ve been talking about the Internet of Things for twenty years and using a buzzword for it for fifteen, why is it so far away? Why do we still talk about it in terms of twenty years away?

Part of it is, I think, infrastructural. The Internet of Things is spoken of as if it’s a big shift, as if it’s some kind of revolutionary shift between people and objects, but it’s more of a growth. It’s this inevitable outcropping of the widespread adoption and acceptance of digital devices in the living spaces of a significant percentage of the world’s more privileged half.

I typically grow a bit embittered about these conversations. We’re talking about digital hardware revolutionising the world, which is wonderful and all but there are about a fifth of the world – over a billion people – who don’t even have electricity. This is ultimately tech toys for the top percentage of world consumers in the wealthiest nations. There’s the rub, I think.

When we say will change the world we mean will change our space in the world. Will change our interaction with our immediate world. That we say this changes the world shows us how the distributed network worldview shrinks the world for us.

It lets us cultivate a space around us that we think is larger than it is.

It will, probably change the whole world.

Eventually.

Maybe.

Where the Shadows Fall

It’s easy when you first learn about the dark internet to imagine that it’s this distant thing, thing that doesn’t exist in the same spaces as you. It’s this thing that spreads out in the spaces that Bad People deal with, and if you don’t go looking for those things, you’ll be fine.

I haven’t bought a fake credit card number, they say. I’m fine, right?

This idea is something that we can embrace, and it’s an example of pre-networked thinking. It wasn’t really true of the non-digital realm either, but most people can’t appreciate the line of connection between themselves and the shadow economy that they may not personally consider connected to them. Still, when we deal with the internet, those connections are obvious – they leave lines where they’ve been.

Ever played World of Warcraft? It’s a widespread, well-known game. You’ve probably dealt with it, and if you haven’t, you’ve dealt with someone else who has. At its peak, it had twelve million active subscribers, which is to say it had more people than Belgium.

It also had a working presence of people generating gold for being sold on a shadow market, an illegal practice that the games’ management tried to crack down on. But player misbehaviour wasn’t a big deal, was it? Except that some of the people generating this money and engaging in this inappropriate activity were actual Chinese political prisoners, being coerced into this action, interacting with the normal marketplace economy.

I wish there was a way to really underscore just how amazingly strange and horrible it is that political prisoners were being sentenced to sweatshop labour killing orcs and elves, but there it is.

The shadow economy, this space of dark fiber isn’t some mysterious distant space. It’s part of the same distributed communication network that sits in your pocket with your Angry Birds high score on it.

Playing With Toys

“[The Hacker community sees itself] as brilliant, clever, subversive and inclusive. It usually hits clever. Next.”

Melissa Elliott

The hacker mindset we talked about in the lecture was one of play. While there was always some sense of righteousness about it, some desire to own a moral high ground, there was also a deliberate harmlessness about the language they used. It’s just play. Even the lecture itself stated it’s like tearing down a poster.

There was a constant striving for moral justification in the face of the opposition they faced, which was usually the oppressive rule of being required to pay for things. The hacker space was defined by lofty ideals coupled with a wild, undirected action. People were stealing information and creating techniques, but there wasn’t exactly a greater purpose. The hacker culture was… well, playful.

DDOSes could be used to strike at… well, at anyone. They could even be humanised. They could be crowd-sourced.

Something important in digital networks is remembering how they are values agnostic. A subculture forms around an ideal, or an idea, or, as with hacking, practices, and any greater ideology grows out of that, rather than comes from its core.

It’s been a rough few weeks doing this blog, being connected to online digital culture. There’s always something going on in the real spaces of these industries that aren’t as positive as the manifestos we read say. Sure, #Ferguson was an amazing show of twitter keeping information available while legacy media tried to fumble around it, but it was a period where there was false information and lies flying around in an attempt to hack the narrative.

What about this subject? Well, our class decided to hold a lecture on the hacker subculture literally the same day that a woman in the hacker spaces was driven out of it by harassment and threats in aid of protecting a literal nazi.

I’m not joking around.

I think the thing about digital communication that really drives home here is that in an infinitely interconnected world, where you can build and create communities in live and real time, where information moves around the world at light speed, what passes for values can become ambiguous. Just as hackers were able to use anonymity and distance to protect themselves from punishment, the cultural extrusion of these ideas leads to hackers acting feeling eternally justified against things that aren’t even people.

They’re just targets.