Two visions of the future come to mind when considering the new Pew Research Center study about “The Internet of Things.” One is the 2013 dystopian novel “The Circle,” Dave Eggers’ claustrophobic tome about a social network so insidious it becomes a societal noose.
The other is the recent retrospective of 1964’s seminal World’s Fair in New York, during the age of the space race (and “The Jetsons”), when technological transformations were thought to solve, not create, problems.
The future turned out differently than seers imagined 50 years ago, as it always does. With any luck (and common sense), the dark vision of “The Circle” won’t square with Americans seeking to preserve privacy.
And it’s likely that the future envisioned in the Pew report will defy some expectations, too.
But it’s striking that 83 percent of the 1,606 wise women and men Pew and Elon University’s Imagining the Internet Center canvassed agreed that the Internet of Things — broadly defined as “a continuing proliferation of tech screens, wearable devices, connected appliances and artifacts, ‘smart’ grids, and environments full of sensors and cameras” — will have “widespread and beneficial effects on the everyday lives of the public by 2025.”
The Internet of Things is such an amorphous phrase that it’s hard to get a handle on what it might mean. The most likely applications are “smart systems” for businesses to maximize efficiency; for communities to minimize water and electricity usage and warn about infrastructure deterioration; for scientists to track natural (and man-made) environmental changes, and for home applications like thermostats and alarm systems. For the most part, these technologies already exist. Cisco estimates that the 13 billion Internet-connected devices in 2013 will soar to 50 billion by 2020.
Efficiency and actionable data are desirable, so it’s likely we’ll see the next decade dedicated to implementation. Less certain is the intersection of the Internet of Things with the most complex machines of all — humans.
This complexity is already here with wearable tech like Google Glass, the eyeglass-like computer; activity trackers like Fitbit and smart watches, foreshadowed not at the 1964 World’s Fair, but in Dick Tracy comics.
Wearables will create controversy and even conflict. Already there are reports of Google Glass wearers, suspected of invading others’ privacy, getting the eye, or a fist, in settings of the original social networking — bars.
The devices may become less obvious and obtrusive, but their ubiquity may strain an already-frayed social fabric. Most already assume that anything they post online lives forever. But there’s still generally an assumption that casual contact in public settings is not being recorded and that strangers and stores aren’t scanning you for data. Several experts in Pew’s study, already worried about a new digital divide, seem quite concerned about this aspect of the Internet of Things. Amid the 65-page report’s technical analysis is acknowledgment of digital “creepiness.”
Creepiness could creep into human-computer interactions, too. Take the oft-cited example of smart refrigerators that could sense you are low on milk. Sure, it could text you to tell you to pick up a gallon on the way home. But just as with medical privacy concerns, what if your insurer or doctor also now knows you drink whole milk instead of skim? (And about that 12-pack in front of the fridge …) Might a smart refrigerator further reduce human interactions, even if all that’s lost is a “Honey, we’re out of milk” phone call?
Even with infrastructure, technology doesn’t guarantee rational responses. Optimistic responders spoke of “sensored roadways, buildings, bridges, dams and other parts of infrastructure that give regular readings on their state of wear and tear and provide alerts when repairs or upgrades are needed.” Sounds breakthrough. But as every Minnesotan knows this spring, we already have sophisticated sensors — eyes and spines — that can see and feel the deplorably deep potholes plaguing roads. However effective, digital sensors won’t solve the real issue — lack of political will to invest in infrastructure.
To grasp this near future, look at history, said Lee Rainie, director of Pew’s Internet and American Life Project. “One of the big consistent stories about any tech is it comes into being, and if it’s a big force it bends society toward some of its realities. But people themselves often reshape the tech for their own purposes. It’s a real interesting symbiotic dance.”
Some will swing with the Internet of Things’ jitterbug speed. Others will wish it’s a waltz. But if history about the future repeats itself, it’s coming, if not already here. It’s never smart to bet against tech, especially if it’s smart tech.
But predictions are precarious, especially if they’re about human behavior. So while its likely society will embrace most of the Internet of Things, perhaps a different kind of digital divide will emerge, with more striving to at least briefly disconnect from the Internet of Things in order to connect with actual things, like nature and, most profoundly, each other.
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:20 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.