Rob van Kranenburg: The Internet of Things. A critique of ambient technology and the all-seeing network of RFID

On October 28th Rob van Kranenburg’s book The Internet of Things A critique of ambient technology and the all-seeing network of RFID will be launched (5:00 pm, Waag Society, Amsterdam) A pdf download is already available at the Institute for Network Cultures website.

The main point of Kranenburg’s essay is that:

Cities across the world are about to enter the next phase of their development. A near invisible network of radio frequency identification tags (RFID) is being deployed on almost every type of consumer item. These tiny, traceable chips, which can be scanned wirelessly, are being produced in their billions and are capable of being connected to the internet in an instant. This so-called ‘Ambient intelligence’ promises to create a global network of physical objects every bit as pervasive and ubiquitous as the worldwide web itself. Some are already calling this controversial network the ‘internet of things’, describing it as either the ultimate convenience in supply-chain management, or the ultimate tool in our future surveillance. This network has the power to reshape our cities and yet it is being built with little public knowledge of consent.

Kranenburg makes a range of interesting points with regard to the internet of things that he would like to see discussed. I’ll highlight two of those here:

  • Dependency & Agency
    Ubicomp makes citizens ever more dependent on large and complex software networks. Ubicomp or ambient intelligence technologies aim to disappear into the background. Yet that also means that its affordances might become invisible: what else can be done with the technologies, apart from running the scripts and algorithms that it was designed to do?

    The result will be dumb interfaces that hide all keys to the technology that drives it. Consequently it will keep citizens from being able not only to fix it when it is broken but to build on it, to play with it, to remake, remodel, and reuse it for their own ends. I believe this being able to negotiate stuff, stuff that is axiomatic thinking embodied, is called creativity.

    Kranenburg compares these emerging systems with modern cars. Up to a decade or two ago, it wasn’t too hard to fix one’s own car if something had broken down, or to tinker with and and tune it yourself. Nowadays you have bring it to a certified dealer who has the right licences and know-how to tinker with its software. This shift has a larger cultural consequence:

    If as a citizen you can no longer fix your own car – which is a quite recent phenomenon – because it is software driven, you have lost more then your ability to fix your own car, you have lost the very belief in a situation in which there are no professional garages, no just in time logistics, no independent mechanics, no small initiatives.

    So, what we need, according to Kranenburg is not closed and complex systems of proprietary software, but rather we should start off with ‘small-scale open content, software and hardware – made for and used by artisans’ that does not ‘have to remain physically local
    but can travel through friends across the world.’ He refers to a project called Bricolabs as an example of this approach.

  • Fear and Trust
    Kranenburg points out that the emergence of ‘the internet of things’ is often part of a discourse about fear and control. On the one hand, new technologies are used by the state to monitor activities of things and humans. In this scenario, every action of everything and everyone can be tracked and stored in databases. He calls this scenario ‘the city of control’. This also means, he reminds us, that ‘there is no forgetting: no memory loss’:

    Consequently you should not say: “I’m not doing anything wrong, so why should I worry about smart
    cameras with 3D coordinates reading my face, or this RFID/M2M/NFC infrastructure? No, you should worry about whom will deem what wrong in three years from now, as from the moment of going live all movement will irrespective of man, machine or animal) be logged, stored and data mined.

    Instead he argues for a City of Trust, in the introduction of the book described as:

    on the surface [the City of Trust] looks very similar to the City of Control. But here the citizens have been given much more control: Here pervasive systems have been embedded, but offered as an option rather than as a default. You leave your laptop on the train, no problem: with the ‘internet of Things’ can locate it on a search engine, even arrange for it to be delivered back to your door.

    In this scenario it is not the state (or project developer or other central institution) that uses the technologies for central control, but rather citizens themselves have taken up the technologies to organize their own lives. This means that citizens/users/consumers should also be given control about the technologies, not only should they be more transparent and easy to tinker with, they should also provide the option to shift between different modes of privacy:

    [we should be] moving from privacy to privacies, which acknowledge that in a hybrid environment we leave different traces and might want to build temporary personalities around these traces, not exposing our entire personality all the time.

Martijn de Waal
Martijn de Waal (1972) is a writer, researcher and strategist, working in the field of digital media and (urban) culture. He has worked with and for various clients and organizations such as The Netherlands Architecture Institute, Open Society Foundation, The Architectural League of New York, Lift@Home, Kitchen Budapest, The Mondriaan Foundation and Dutch Public Broadcasting. He is part of the New Media, Public Sphere and Urban Culture research group at the Faculty of Philosophy at the University of Groningen, and connected to the department of mediastudies at the University of Amsterdam. In 2009 he was a visiting scholar at MIT's Center for Future Civic Media.