Monday, January 20, 2014

The Internet of Things and the Great Recalibration

I've been playing catch-up since my tenure application and my class preps for the Spring semester, but I've finally been able to re-engage with my usual sites, and all of the fantastic content in my Google+ communities.

One thing that's been coming up in various iterations is the concept of the "internet of things." In a nutshell, the term loosely (and, I think perhaps a little misleadingly) refers to a technological interconnectivity of everyday objects: clothes, appliances, industrial equipment, jewelry, cars, etc, now made possible by advancements in creating smaller microprocessors. This idea has been around for quite some time, and has been developing steadily even though the general public might have been unaware of it. RFID chips in credit cards, black boxes in cars, even traffic sensors and cameras: they have all been pinging under our general perception for years -- almost like a collective unconscious.  But now, various patterns and developments have aligned to bring the concept itself into public awareness. While WiFi or even internet access is far from ubiquitous, we are becoming "connected enough" for these technologies to gain traction and -- as Intel, Google, and a host of other tech companies hope -- become something we expect. And I believe it is this expectation of connectedness which will once and for all mark the end of an antiquated notion of privacy and anonymity. 

Yes, I know. Snowden. The NSA. Massive black and grey operations poring through every text we send, every dirty little Snap we take, every phone call we make, and email we send. But I believe the bluster and histrionics people are going through are actually the death-throes of an almost Luddite conception of what "privacy" and "information" actually are. 

This thought came to me long ago, but I wasn't able to really articulate it until this past semester, when I was covering Kant in my intro to philosophy course. In the landscape of western philosophy, Kant created a seismic shift with a very subtle, even elegant, yet really sneaky rearticulation of one specific philosophical concept: a priori knowledge. Instead of characterizing a priori knowledge as an innate concept like infinity or freedom, he presented it as an innate capacity or ability. That is to say, the concept of "freedom," isn't in itself a priori, but our capacity to reason about it is. Of course, it's more complicated than that, but generally speaking, my students come to realize that Kant essentially recalibrated the spectrum of a priori/a posteriori knowledge. And Western philosophy was never the same again. The potential relativism of empiricism was contained, while the solipsisms of rationalism were dissipated.  

I believe that we are witnessing a similar seismic shift in our conception of what information is, and by extension, what we consider to be "private." Only history will be able to determine if this shift was a leap or an evolutionary creep forward. Regardless, I'm hoping that as more material objects become woven into the fabric of the data cloud, that it acts as a way to recalibrate people's thoughts on what exactly information is, more specifically, how that information doesn't "belong" to us. 

Our information is as susceptible to "loss" or "destruction" as our bodies are. Our information can degrade just as our bodies can. We can "protect" "our" information only as so far as we can protect our bodies from various dangers.  Granted, the dangers can be very different, however, we have as much chance of keeping our information private as we have of keeping our "selves" private.  Of course, biologically, in the phenomenal world, we can live "off the grid" and be as far away from others as possible. But the cost is paranoia and a general distrust of humanity in general: essentially, a life of fear.  Similarly, there is no way to completely protect our information without also withdrawing it completely from a technified world.  But again, at what cost?  I think it's one that is similar to all of those who sit in their compounds, armed to the teeth, waiting for a collapse of civilization that will never come.  

The internet of things, as it evolves, will slowly grow our expectations of connectivity.  We will opt in to smart cars, clothes, houses ... and I'm sure one day, trees, forests, animals ... that seem to intuitively adapt to our needs. From the dawn of time, we have always altered the physical world to our needs.  What we see happening today is no different, except that we now have a discourse to self-reflexively question our own motives. I always wondered if there was some kind of "cusp generation" of early humanity who distrusted cultivation and agriculture, as a ceding of humanity's power to nature itself?  An old hunter looking at his grandchildren planting things, thinking that they were putting too much faith, reliance, and attention in dirt. And, probably, that eventually the things that they grew would somehow eventually kill them (and I'm sure there was a sense of pure satisfaction from the paleo-Luddite when someone choked to death on a vegetable, or got food poisoning). 

Our expectations of connectivity will overcome our attachment to "private" information. The benefits will outweigh the risks; just as the benefits of going outside outweigh the benefits of being a hermit. 

I'm not saying that we should start waving around our social security numbers or giving our bank account numbers to foreign princes who solicit us over spam. We don't walk into a gang zone waving around cash, or dangle our children in front of pedophiles.  We must protect our "information" as much as we can, realizing that reasonable safeguards do not -- by any stretch of the imagination -- equal anonymity. If we wish to be woven into an internet of things, then we must more actively recalbrate what our notion of "privacy" and even "anonymity" is. And given the historical development of civilization itself, we will cede aspects of privacy or invisibility in order to gain a greater sense of efficacy. An internet of things that more efficiently weaves us into the world of objects will heighten that sense of efficacy. It already has. When our cars customize themselves for us when we open the door, or when our houses adjust all manner of ambient conditions to our liking, or even when Google autocompletes our searches based on our geographical location or past searches, our sense of efficacy is heightened; as is our sense of expectation.

As for what this recalibration brings, I believe it will -- like other technological developments -- be part of a larger field of advancements which will allow for us to become more ontologically ready for even bigger leaps forward. Perhaps after a few decades of a more widespread, almost ubiquitous internet of things, the emergence of an AI will actually seem more natural to us. I think in the more immediate future, it will ease fears of various transhuman values; augmentation of our biology will not be as threatening for some as might be today.

In any movement, there is an avant garde -- literally the "advance guard" or "fore-guard;" the innovators and dreamers who experiment and push ahead. And often, like Kant, they allow cultures to recalibrate their expectations and values, and rethink old notions and standards. Each time we use a credit card, click "I agree" on a terms of service box, or sign in to a various web account, we're pushing that advance ever forward ... and that's not a bad thing. 

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