Why The Economist is wrong about ‘the internet of hype’


Some weeks ago The Economist published an article about ‘the internet of things’, with the provocative title ‘The internet of hype‘. The journalist, (nick)named [?] Schumpeter, was invited to attend the corporate event Fundación de la Innovación in Madrid. He raises a number of critical points against the idea that the internet of things is really making objects smarter and our life better, especially in the fields of energy and health care. Some of these criticisms indeed seem justified: there still is poor network coverage in many areas, privacy issues, increasing dependency on technology and the risk of failure, and the strengthening of corporate dominance over urban services. Usually I am in favor of critical thoughts about developing technologies for their own sake. But the crux of Schumpeter’s objection raises seems to miss the point entirely:

Is it worth it? Many of the problems that the internet of things is supposed to solve actually have simple, non-technological solutions. Google likes to boast that your smartphone can tell you the ratio of men and women in any given bar. But there is actually a much simpler solution: you can look through the window! Many of the wonders of the internet of things fall into this category. Sensors can tell you when a baby’s nappy is full. There is a perfectly reasonable old-fashioned solution to this problem. Sensors can turn the stem of an umbrella to glow blue when it is about to rain. You can always listen to the weather forecast. […] In health care, above all else, technology is a poor substitute for the human touch.

These silly examples may be meant as tongue-in-cheek satire on the tendency to uncritically laude the ‘technological fix’ for all sorts of non-existing problems. Still, as this is The Economist, not The Onion, I’ll bite.

First of all, the writer has no eye for existing projects that actually contribute something new, like making visible what otherwise would remain invisible. Let’s look at some counter-examples from the domains Schumpeter mentions as most promising: environment and health care. Cases that come to mind are environmental projects that measure air quality and pollution in urban settings (In the Air by Medialab Prado, the work of Eric Paulos and team), noise levels around airports (Geluidsnet), the experience of stress in busy urban environments (Christian Nold’s Biomapping), and so on.

Further, in the quote above Schumpeter wrongly seems to assume that the internet of things acts as a substitute for human perception and interaction. This neglects the emergence of promising new developments in healthcare, where sensing and visualizing personal data is combinated with social networking. Studies indicate that harnessing the power of social networks, mobile communication, and using mobile phones as sensors in order to ‘nudge’ people into healthy behavior (a kind of benevolent paternalism) yields positive results.

This is why in fact the term ‘the internet of things’ may be misleading. The word ‘things’ suggests a world of abstract and autonomous networked objects that constantly emit data without the need for human intervention or interpretation. More likely however, the ‘internet of things’ is going to develop in profoundly social ways, whereby informational objects are going to solicit new kinds of human interactions and behavior. Think the Pachube model versus the Daytum model. The word ‘internet’ suggests the intentional search for information and the exchange of communication online, while the healthcare examples above point to the intuition that such interactions and behaviors are not solely or primarily internet-based, or involve rational and intentional deliberation. This is also an argument in favor of neologisms like ‘spimes‘ and ‘blogjects‘ as a way to detach ourselves from sedimented understandings of certain technologies. On a more theoretical level there have been pleas for revaluing the agency we attribute to ‘things’ (e.g. actor-network theory, and Bruno Latour’s plea for a Dingpolitik).

Few of the examples mentioned above are corporate projects. This brings us to another issue. Schumpeter disregards how technological innovations work. Innovations are not solely driven by corporate interests but frequently as much, if not more, by hackers, media activists and artists who through their design interventions seek to criticize, modify or disrupt such developments. Schumpeter attended a business event and the silly examples he mentions may attest to the often stated observation that corporations are often slow to react to innovations and sometimes even pretty clueless.

A final issue I have concerns Schumpeter’s rhetoric of ridicule. It is a well-known theme in media and technology studies that early commentators frequently dismiss new technologies as useless and trivial. In the case of the landline telephone, Claude Fisher recounts that as soon as rural women in the USA started socializing via the fixed telephone to overcome their social isolation, men began to ridicule the frivolity of their telephone chatter [¹]. And Sidney Aronson describes how early critics were quick to diagnose the dreaded malady of ‘telephonics’ in ‘telephone fiends’ [²]. Such perceived ‘trivial’ uses do not rule out the possibility that interesting and valuable new uses may unexpectedly emerge. Let’s see if the hype is justified.

notes

¹ Fischer, C. S. (1992). America calling: a social history of the telephone to 1940. Berkeley: University of California Press. (pp. 82, 231)

² Aronson, S. H. (1971). The Sociology of the Telephone. International Journal of Comparative Sociology, 12(3), 153-167. (p. 157)

6 total comments on this postSubmit yours
  1. A thoughtful corrective to the journalism of ridicule, thanks (you said what I felt when reading the piece but couldn’t articulate anywhere so eloquently). Still, as we say here in Scotland, I ‘hae ma doots’ (have my doubts)…

    Isn’t the real problem here simply that the whole thing is utterly unpredictable? The story of the telephone is a compelling one sure, but there are a whole bunch of stories missing from your argument. For every telephone there were scores of inventions that didn’t make it. For every ‘cool new nettech hype’ that makes it there will be Ks that don’t make it. Artists and hackers et al are as likely (or not) as techheads and number-crunchers in mega-corps to stumble on and champion the next big thing…

    I rather think our rationalist, postivist, post-Enlightenment ways of thinking in the Western world have duped us into believing that life (and whether project x takes off or not) are far more in our control than they really are. That’s what I think art is best placed to remind us of…

  2. Hi Cat, thanks for your comment. You’re absolutely right to point out the contingencies in technological developments. Indeed, for every success story of great innovations a multitude of largely untold stories exist about failed technologies, obsolete technologies, technologies lying dormant, technologies so taken for granted or common no one ever thinks about them, etc. For instance, check out the great http://www.lowtechmagazine.com.

    While I agree with your point that we are not total masters over life and technologies, we do have some influence. I should have said it clearer here, but I believe hypes are not mere fantasy; as self-fulfilling prophecies they can have real consequences, by inspiring people and setting out roadmaps for future developments (however unpredictable the outcomes).

  3. “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” – Roy Amara

    Classic case when maybe us IoT fans have been cheering (too) loud while media don’t get it and say it’s over hyped. We’ll see about that ;-)

    Good answer also!

  4. Hi Leif, great quote.. Your observation about wishful thinking among IoT advocates versus cynical journalism is spot on, I think. Cheers!

  5. Read an interview with the creator of http://open.sen.se/ a new ‘Internet of Everything’ platform. http://popupcity.net/2011/03/internet-of-things-is-crap-we-care-about-people-not-things/.
    Quote: “I think nobody cares about the ‘Internet of Things’, nobody cares about the things (unless you are in logistics). What we care about is about ourselves.”

  6. Schumpeter, forgets, that the gurúes (he speaks as a guru) predicted the end of the distance and the death of geography, but today we are very spatial and very geographical.

    Good post!!!!

1 pingback on this post
Michiel de Lange
Michiel de Lange (1976) is a part-time Lecturer in New Media Studies at Utrecht University, and a researcher and adviser of new media and urbanism. He is trained as a cultural anthropologist, and holds a PhD in philosophy (2010) with a dissertation about mobile media technologies and urban identities. He collaborated in a locative media art & science project (www.nomadicmilk.net). He worked for Knowledgeland, a Dutch think-tank that aims to strengthen the knowledge-based society. Here he worked on several projects at the intersection of ICTs and the city, e.g. co-organizing the Creative Capital conference. He also volunteered and worked for Cybersoek, a computer neighborhood center in Amsterdam. He is advisor e-culture at Mediafonds. Michiel is on Twitter and LinkedIn.