In the next few years we will be immersed in a world of connected devices. This book is about the political impact of having everyone and everything connected through digital networks. The “internet of things” consists of human-made objects with small power supplies, embedded sensors, and addresses on the internet. Most of these networked devices are everyday items that are sending and receiving data about their conditions and our behavior. Unlike mobile phones and computers, devices on these networks are not designed for deliberate social interaction, content creation, or cultural consumption. The bulk of these networked devices simply communicate with other devices: coffee makers, car parts, clothes, and a plethora of other products. This will not be an internet you experience through a browser. Indeed, as the technology develops, many of us will be barely aware that so many objects around us have power, are sensing, and are sending and receiving data. One industry analyst estimates that the internet of things will have an installed base of twenty-six billion devices by 2020, only a billion of which will be personal computers, tablets, and smartphones. An industry consulting fi rm estimates thirty billion connected devices. One of the main manufacturers of networking equipment estimates fifty billion devices and objects.
In the next five years more than a thousand networked “nanosats”—relatively small satellites that operate in formation and have low transition power—will be launched into space. Drone production, whether for the military or hobbyists, is difficult to track. But government security services have them, and activists and humanitarian organizations have them, too. A report from the OECD on the internet of things estimates that a family of four will go from having an average of ten devices connected to the internet now to twenty-five in 2017 and fifty by 2022. Every one of those will have sensors and a radio that can broadcast information about the time, the device’s location, its status, and how it has been used.
Industry estimates like this are often bullish. But it is safe to say that by 2020 there will be around eight billion people on the planet, and three or four times as many connected devices. Engineers expect so many of these connected devices that they have reconfigured the addressing system to allow for 2 to the 128th power addresses–enough for each atom on the face of the earth to have 100 internet addresses.
The internet of things is developing now because we’ve figured out how to give everything we produce an address, we have enough bandwidth to allow device-to-device communications, and we have the capacity to store all the data those exchanges create. But why write a book, now, about the politics of the next internet? Many of us are not happy with the internet we have now and are eager to find more ways of protecting individual privacy, sharing data, and bringing access to everyone. The internet of things, with embedded sensors and extensive device networks, will solve some problems but exacerbate others. Many of the design choices for this next internet are being made now, and our experience over the past twenty-five years is that it is almost impossible to use public policy to guide technology development after the technology has rolled out to consumers. And there are clues—there is evidence—about how the political internet has developed that can help us anticipate the problems and think proactively about how to steer the massive engineering project that is the internet of things.
For example, the latest smartphones, watches, and wearable technologies reveal how immersive and pervasive the internet of things will be. Cell phones have the ability to take one location point per second, but don’t do so because their power supply is limited. If you give an application on your phone permission to use location information, it will send information to a server at the rate the developer chooses. If you use a crowd-sourcing application for traffic data, your phone is sending data about your commute. If you use an application to keep track of your jogging, your phone is generating geotagged data about your movements relative to other people. Every time you take a picture, check in with your favorite social networking application, or track your health, data is sent from your phone to a cell phone tower or router and over a vast network of digital switches.
More important for political life, the data flows through many different kinds of organizations: the companies that maintain your digital networks, the startups that build the apps, the third-party advertising agencies that have licensed access from your service providers and the startups. The platform developers and major social media organizations, such as Google, Facebook, and Microsoft, also have data access—at several points in the flow of information. The National Security Agency and perhaps other governments or other uninvited organizations can tap in.
The current objective for geolocation engineers is to design chips that require so little power that they can be left on all day. This would mean being able to generate one location point per second, all day long. As the price of making small, relatively simple chips declines, more chips can be put into devices other than your cell phone.
The internet of things will be the next, immense, physical layer of networked devices. We experience the internet through a few kinds of devices and the browsers they support. But the internet of things will be defined by communication between devices more than between people. It will be a different kind of internet: larger, more pervasive, and ubiquitous. What will be the political impact of such connectivity? What can we learn from the past twenty-five years about politics and technology that might help us anticipate the challenges and opportunities ahead?
For now, there’s little research, experience, or public conversation on how the internet of things should be developed and organized. Scenarios are easy to imagine, especially since we know how media ownership issues have played out. For example, Google bought Nest, a home-automation company, for $3.8 billion in 2014.3 Nest makes household thermometers that connect over the internet. Having one of these sensors in your home might help manage your heating needs. But it might also allow Google to know when you are home, which room you are in, and when you leave your home. Rather than imagine troubling scenarios, I want to develop the basic premises of how digital media have affected our political lives so far. Then I want to use those premises to understand the likely consequences of rolling out the new infrastructure of an internet of things. If we don’t have a public conversation about the politics of the internet of things, we risk being trapped by decisions made for us.
I wrote this book because I believe that while the internet has been used in many places to creatively open up some societies, it has been used to close down too many societies with censorship and surveillance. My goal is to focus not on the internet you are familiar with but on the one engineers, computer scientists, and technology designers are working toward. The underlying assumption of this book is that while the rapid diffusion of new information technologies may disrupt political life in the short term, there should eventually emerge some noticeable patterns of behavior among political actors, some consistent trends in political life, and some conservatively safe premises about how global power is going to work in the years ahead.
In other words, new technologies like mobile phones and the internet may seem disruptive. But our political scientists, policy makers, and pundits have developed routines and habits for dealing with the technology-induced chaos of current events. The usual trope is to say that the world is falling apart, politics will never be the same, and disruption will be the norm in the years ahead. But perpetual disruption probably isn’t a rule, and the sooner we can see beyond these apparent moments of chaos, the better.
I have been investigating the political impact of new technologies for two decades, and my fieldwork has taken me around the world. I’ve interviewed tech-savvy activists, privacy gurus, and government censors. My first investigations took me to Chiapas to meet with the Zapatistas and learn about their internet strategies in 1994. More recently, I traveled to Russia to meet with Putin’s nationalist youth organizers to learn about their internet strategy. I was one of the few researchers calling attention to the crisis of popular discontent over digital media in Tunisia and Egypt in 2010. After the Arab Spring, I served as an election observer in Tunisia. I have done interviews with technology entrepreneurs, government regulators, and privacy advocates in Azerbaijan, China, Hungary, Singapore, Tajikistan, Tanzania, the United States, and Venezuela.
Although I have specialized in social science and am interested in science and technology studies, I hope the audience for this book will be broad. Because of my training, I have taken care with citations. Also, I’ve made much more use of public Creative Commons material than many academics do. Wikipedia and Project Gutenberg have been particularly useful for this, and I won’t apologize for using them. With the growing quality of open-source manuscripts and crowd-sourced definitions, I’m comfortable recommending these kinds of references to readers who want to check my facts. Using such online material means readers will have access to updated sources even after this book has been published. Where needed, I provide more traditional sources. Some trends may change, with implications for my argument.
But I don’t think they will change much. As the internet of personal computers, tablets, and mobile phones meets the internet of things—everyday objects made “smart” via sensors and silicon—what will it all mean for governments and citizens? For some, the internet is making the world a more uncertain and dangerous place. The diffusion of the internet, mobile phones, and a host of new networked devices has left many of us feeling cynical and unfulfilled politically. I challenge this and make the opposite argument: the world is coming together; politics will never be what it once was, but a new order will emerge, and there is more to be said than simply that the path ahead is scary.
My goal in this book is not prediction but prescience. We’ll know in a few years whether some of the trends I identify play out as the latest evidence suggests they will.
The internet of things could be the most effective mass surveillance infrastructure we’ve ever built. It is also a final chance to purposefully integrate new devices into institutional arrangements we might all like. Active civic engagement with the rollout of the internet of things is the last best chance for an open society.