Escaping The Panopticon of Things?

February 11, 2018 at 10:48 PM | categories: iotkit, python, iot, C++, definitions, iotoy, opinion | View Comments

The Panopticon of Things

The Internet of Things. Ask 100 different people what it means to them and you get a 100 different answers. I know, because I have done... When you do, in my experience you some different versions and themes.

For many companies though, futurists, and techies it boils down to some variation of this:

  • People have devices, which can detect things or have small amounts of processing power added
  • These devices monitor their state or activity, or similar
  • This is published on the internet via a central service
  • This information can be aggregated and worked on, and often can be drilled into down to individual items

But is that really an internet of things? Let alone "The internet of things"? No, it's internet connected things that reports information about you, your environment or your activity to a centralised system. Some extend this to the idea of connecting these centralised systems to each other.

So no, they're not really an internet of things. They're a panopticon of things.

If you're doing this, stop and think. Do you really want to build a panopticon?

A Panopticon of Internet Connected Things

The idea of the panopticon is a relatively old idea. A panopticon was a building where all (pan-) the residents could be observed (-opticon). If that sounds a little creepy, consider it was originally meant as a design for a prison...

It's actually been implemented in both the real world and in fiction. In the real world, it's been implemented as prisons in a variety of places around the world... In fiction, the most recent mainstream "up-beat" example is the floating prison in Captain America Civil War. The most and well known realisation of the idea of turning the general world into a panopticon is in the world of "big brother" in 1984.

One key point: the purpose of the panopticon is NOT to benefit those staying in the panopticon. The purpose is to benefit the owner of the panopticon in some fashion.

This means that any panopticon of things is designed to benefit the person running the panopticon, not the person who owns the things (however well intentioned the maker was/is). Indeed, it can mean the panopticon views you and your things as a product to be sold (advertising, data, etc), not as customers to provide value to. This isn't be universally the case, but it's common enough.

I don't buy products to benefit some random company. Do you? I buy or use products either for my benefit or for the benefit of those I buy them for. Don't get me wrong, being able to opt-in can have benefits. Google maps being able to give you a different route based on real time data is useful.

But be clear - it's based on using data from a panopticon, built on internet connected things.

Obsolescence Really Means Junk

Internet connected things isn't really a new idea. That means we've now gone through the full product cycle more than once. Be it a Nabaztag, Mattel IM-ME, AIBO, or similar. I've picked these ones for a variety of reasons:

  • They might have been acclaimed
  • The manufacturer thought it was a "Big" thing, and mass produced them
  • They seemed hackable and interesting
  • They're all kinda fun or interesting from some angle, but aren't really now

They all relied on some form of central service, and as those services disappeared, they became less useful or in some cases instantly useless junk. I also picked them because they all had many active hacker groups work to make them useful for many years - often in ways the original manufacturers didn't consider.

For each of these, there are dozens of other active objects with similar issues. They all relied on some form of central service. They all became obsolete when the service they relied on to work disappeared. They all contained interesting tech.

These devices all became junk. The value was in the service, not in the device. Even though with all of these devices they had value to the owner, and could've retained value without the central service.

A Panopticon of Internet Connected Junk

So this is really what this sort of internet of things really means. Building a network of benefit to the owner of the network using devices that become useless when the owner decides to cease supporting the devices.

That means the creation of electrical junk, that is wasteful, and in the end of limited benefit to the customer.

Reframing the question.

Rather than ask "what is the internet of things", ask yourself - "What is the internet of my things?" "what should the internet of things be -- for me?". Or I could ask you "what is the Internet of Things of Yours" ?)

  • Tracking of my "stuff"
  • Monitoring and controlling my own devices which are networked
  • Taking my networks at home and using them all in a unified manner
  • Allowing my devices to work with each other.
  • Using my data and devices in ways that benefit me, and those I get them for.

These are somewhat different answers. Similar, but different. They don't preclude working with panopticons. But they do take a different angle.

This reframed question is the reason behind:

I'll be describing in a short series of posts:

  • IOT-KIT and its motivation
  • How to use IOT-KIT to make your own IOT devices that have longevity of value to the owner.
  • IOTOY specifications
    • Device layer
    • Web Layer
  • An overview of how this was implemented in the microbit prototype
  • How to implement this in your own systems.

The core underlying ideas were:

  • Suppose you can make an arduino (or similar) based device. You should be able to make it an IOT-KIT based device trivially. (ie low barrier to entry)

  • Suppose you know very limited python, can you use and control the IOT devices that sit on your network. (Note, this allows you to then trigger behaviour between devices)

  • No "centre". Minimal standard interfaces making it normal for individuals, groups, companies and consortia to create their own domain specific standards. (Much like these days we use JSON, rather than centralised XML schemas for many services...)

  • Plan for "obsolescence means ongoing utilty". If your devices can continue to remain useful after the manufacturer disappears, then you build value, not junk.

These goals are effectively all designed for a low barrier to entry, while still inter-operating.

If you're interested, please like, share, comment or similar, and as always feedback welcome.

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