THE INTERNET OF THINGS: BIG PROGRESS OR BIG BROTHER?

By Rebecca Benest
Staff Writer

In a world where we are becoming increasingly dependent on our devices, new technological developments now called the Internet of Things, or IoT, could completely change the way we see technology and our world. On a daily basis, most of us use technology to continuously check email, send messages, instantaneously communicate across the world, count our calorie intake, and check the news, among other things. A wife at work who wants an errand run can easily call, text, email, or Face Time her spouse with a favor. But what if this became unnecessary? What if the same spouse, who wanted the lawn watered, did not need to ask anyone at all? What if her house was measuring the water in the soil, and in accordance with the predicted rain in the upcoming days, communicated with the watering system to keep the soil perfectly watered without wife, spouse, or child lifting a finger? This is the idea of the Internet of Things. Creating a “smart” house or a “smart” city opens us up to an endless amount of possibilities. As the mass gathering of personal data becomes a reality, however, there are dangers and concerns just as real.

The Internet of Things, instead of harnessing communication between machines, harnesses sensors. The sensors essentially gather and evaluate data; they can then communicate with a myriad of machines, throughout a house or a city, and can control the machines based on the data gathered. This is related to Cloud-based applications, which are constantly collecting similar information. The difference here is that our possibilities widen when the sensors are connected to our phones, cars, all the appliances in our homes, or the stoplights on every street. All these devices become one harmonious system, one massive machine coordinated perfectly and instantaneously.

Yet this moves beyond our alarm clock telling the coffee pot to turn on five minutes before the alarm goes off. Take a large bridge, for example. Bridges can be built with smart cement, which measures stress and cracks. This means the bridge can alert the city if there is any danger to its structure. In the winter, the smart cement can also measure the amount of ice on the road, warning all approaching vehicles to slow down and informing them of which areas are most slippery. Should a driver not heed the warning, the car can take over and slow itself down, according to safety protocol. In the same way, the car can tell the phone when it is in drive, and the phone can disable the texting mechanism to prevent texting while driving. The Internet of Things becomes a part of everything we do throughout the day, from our morning routines to the types of food we buy to the way our governments are structured; it maximizes efficiency and safety.

The Internet of Things Council, a think tank of (mostly European) professionals, explains the reach of IoT further than just our devices. They approach IoT as a complete paradigm shift, a change in the way we view our government, our society, and ourselves. They view it, most interestingly, as a method that would lessen evil in global society. The Internet of Things could potentially help create a more equal distribution of wealth; could limit resource gathering and minimize climate change; could optimize democracy, eradicate corruption, and allocate resources to best deal with all living diversity of the planet. Succinctly, “[we] believe such a system would systematically lessen the very potentiality of evil occurring.” Looking beyond a smart house, IoT could dramatically alter the way countries are governed, assuming governments can gather every minuscule datum on every citizen’s life.

While this does create the ability to “lessen evil,” there is an abundance of concerns. While IoT can work to enforce the law, easily catching crimes such as tax fraud, there’s worry that it’s less about what IoT can do, and more about who’s in control. If the billionaire tech moguls and government leaders are controlling the system and gathering the data, they can easily gather the data in the most profitable way possible. Furthermore, if the government is gathering data on our every motion to “prevent terrorism,” there are no lines or boundaries. We can use the same program that prevents terrorism to track the economic and social behaviors of a population, and that program can then communicate with every inanimate object in our lives to manipulate those behaviors to whatever extent deemed necessary. Because there is no way for any individual or group to gather and analyze data to that extent, there is no way to fact check anything we are being told; we have no choice but to blindly trust both government and tech company. In this light, the Internet of Things starts to become an eerie reminder of George Orwell’s 1984.

As such a new method of technology, still constantly expanding and testing limits, the Internet of Things is not yet something to be seen as immediately available. While we might not see the traffic lights telling our cars the quickest route from home to work any time soon, the reality of the technology is still rapidly increasing. As with almost all other modern progress, it is easy to see the myriad advantages and disadvantages, neither of which can or should be ignored. Yet regardless of your position on the matter, the Internet of Things is most likely a part of the looming future that needs to be continuously and critically discussed, both before and after implementation.

Photo by Flickr User dmje

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