Manufacturing guy-at-large.

privacy and serendipity in a connected world

Added on by Spencer Wright.

i've been thinking recently - i was prompted by a trusted editor and interlocutor - about two potential impacts of the development of the Internet of Things. the first concerns, essentially, the right to privacy; the second concerns serendipity and randomness in an increasingly automated world. i'll attempt to address them both here.

the Internet of Things and privacy

the concern here goes roughly like this:

if everything becomes a connected device, will kids no longer be able to steal from the cookie jar?

this is a valid concern. in general, i believe that it's good for people to make their own mistakes. i've spent plenty of time making my own, and i continue to employ off-label uses for many of devices in my life. similarly: i jaywalk, and i would hate for the NYPD to be tracking my phone and prosecuting me accordingly.

ultimately, we as individuals need to come to an understanding with each other about the extent to which we want to police our actions. as a dog owner, i would have no qualms setting up an alert to notify me if Libo manages to get into the trashcan. but as a parent, i would hope that i might cede some control over the liquor cabinet as my children grow into adults. it's worth noting, also, that the degree of nuance that connected devices could provide is much greater than the all-or-nothing nature of recent technology, e.g. lock and key. i can set up notifications and then decline to act on them; i can allow some degree of leniency; i can turn device protections off remotely, or simply turn my phone off.

as a society, the stakes are higher. our new information age has shown that we desperately need to rethink the way we police the distribution of ideas. it is my feeling that the same realignment is needed in the physical world. this problem is not unique to the Internet of Things, and i tend to think that it's the fault of our criminal justice system, not of the technology that it chooses to implement for code enforcement. our system allows for minor laws (speeding, jaywalking, using your parents' HBO Go account) to be routinely broken, but then prosecutes them stringently when a charge is needed. the risk of this kind of action will increase as the world becomes more connected and individuals become more trackable. to avoid societal paralysis, it is the responsibility of citizens to push for, and of legislators to enact, more sensible regulations.

it is worthwhile to note that the massive availability of sense data that the Internet of Things could bring has positive implications as well. as MGI notes in their recent report: "It will soon be possible to place inexpensive sensors on light poles, sidewalks, and other objects on public property to capture sound and images that can be analyzed in real time — for example, to determine the source of a gunshot by analyzing the sound from multiple sensors." in short, there are upsides and downsides of knowing more about the physical world - but we as a society must decide for ourselves where we fall on their overall value.

the Internet of Things and serendipity

the worry here is a more tender one, and i hope that i don't do it an injustice by breaking it down into a formal argument:

random personal interactions produce net positive effects.

the Internet of Things will reduce random personal interactions.

∴ the Internet of Things will produce net negative effects.

this argument reminds me of similar ones aimed at older, more general purpose technologies. for a related example, see Stephen Berlin Johnson's discussion of serendipity and the internet from his book, Where Good Ideas Come From:"

If you visit the "serendipity" entry in Wikipedia, you are one click away from entries on LSD, Teflon, Parkinson's Disease, Sri Lanka, Isaac Newton, Viagra, and about two hundred topics of comparable diversity. That eclecticism is particularly acute at Wikipedia, of course, but it derives from the fundamentally "tangled" nature of Tim Berners-Lee's original hypertext architecture. No medium in history has ever offered such unlikely trails of connection and chance in such an intuitive and accessible form. Yet in recent years, a puzzling meme has emerged on op-ed pages with a strange insistence: the rise of the web, its proponents argue, has led to a decline in serendipitous discovery...When critics complain about the decline of serendipity, they habitually point to two "old media" mechanisms that allegedly have no direct equivalent on the Web. McKeen mentions the first one: browsing the stacks in a library (or a bookstore), "pulling down a book because the title interests you, or the binding." Old-style browsing does indeed lead to unplanned discoveries. But thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere's exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, it is far easier to sit down in front of your browser and stumble across something completely brilliant but surprising than it is to walk through a library, looking at the spines of books. Does everyone use the Web this way? Of course not. but it is much more of a mainstream pursuit than randomly exploring the library stacks, pulling down books because you like the binding, ever was.

i feel much as Johnson does: the internet has increased the level of serendipity in my life. it allows me to interact with individuals all over the world, of course, and it also allows me (via services like foursquare) to coordinate chance encounters as well. i believe that the same will hold true for the Internet of Things: i will be able to interact with my peers - and with connected devices - in much more interesting and engaging ways than my ancestors ever could have.

consider a few examples - cherry picked, sure, but that's what you get :)

  • i set up my Roomba to turn on only when my cell phone is out of range of my home router. now not only do i not need to take time to vacuum myself, but Roomba never interrupts when i have company over.
  • the TBTA sets up real-time congestion tracking, via sensors embedded in road surfaces, on the Throgs Neck and Whitestone bridges. i'm driving to Connecticut on a friday afternoon, and plan to take the Whitestone, which is a shorter distance from my house, but am redirected to the Throgs Neck to avoid traffic, past the Queens Botanical Garden and Kissena park. my total route saves me fifteen minutes, and takes me through a new part of the city that i wouldn't have otherwise known to visit.
  • ditto the above, but with Google Maps/Waze on my smartphone.
  • i install an accelerometer, with a small battery and cellular transmitter, in a discreet part of my bike. now i'm able to be less careful locking up in front of a coffee shop, as i'll get a real-time push notification if someone tries to cut my lock. i can travel light to and from my destination, and be less anxious when i get there.
  • i set up Twine to monitor (as they're so fond of advertising) moisture content in my basement. now i no longer need to go to my basement and check for moisture, so i can spend more time outside introducing myself to strangers.

again, i must additionally note the huge benefits in resource efficiency that would counterbalance any decrease in serendipity - if such a decrease would occur. MGI notes that "The cities of Doha, São Paulo, and Beijing all use sensors on pipes, pumps, and other water infrastructure to monitor conditions and manage water loss, identifying and repairing leaks or changing pressure as necessary. On average, these cities have reduced leaks by 40 to 50 percent." this kind of improvement is worth, i believe, a significant sacrifice on the part of individual desires.

most importantly: it is, again, the responsibility of the individual to determine how these technologies impact their day-to-day lives. we all have the responsibility - to ourselves - to maintain our own connections to the people and experiences we care for. the Internet of Things will not make our lives better; only one's personal outlook and desire to be happy can do that. but the Internet of Things will free us up to work on more important problems, and it has the potential to make our use of the physical world far more efficient.

  1. cf. parts one and two of This American Life's recent stories on patent trolling; Edward Tufte's defense of Aaron Swartz; anything written about the recent NSA/PRISM scandal, e.g. this piece in wired; the recent Supreme Court decision re: the patentability of human genes.

  2. see's recent post on Harvey Silverglate's book, "You Commit Three Felonies a Day."

  3. viz. this week's brilliant xkcd.

  4. to the tune of $2.7-6.2B annually by 2025, if you believe McKinsey.