The Archipelago of Things

We tend to think of the Internet of Things as a vast network that is knitting itself together as devices and computers connect to each other. But rather than a conspiracy of connected things; we’re more likely to see different networks of different things and most of them will do us more good than harm. 

The Internet of Things is more of an aspirational term rather than a description of anything that we have happening now. When large companies that say they are building the Internet of Things usually mean they’re building their own territory in the Internet of things – or they hope to, anyway. Apple, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, are busy working on their particular islands of interest in the Internet of Things.

By definition all the connected things are connected to the Internet, in some form or other, but they’re pretty stand-offish when it comes to talking to each other. In 2015, we are seeing the first stirrings of standards bodies that will enable better communication between devices. And there are large industries like manufacturing automation, the automobile industry, the defense industry, that will mandate standards because they have to. Likewise, we’ll eventually see government standards bodies wake up, look around, and call for some standards, but by the time that happens most industries will have figured it out for themselves.

The IEEE is hard at work on the challenge and forever true to the adage, standards are wonderful, that’s why we have so many of them, the IEEE page on IoT has a huge list of standards. It makes sense, we are being promised billions of things being connected to the Internet – well they’re not the same things, they’re different things with different jobs to do, they’ll all have their own needs and desires.

In the end, there really never will be one Internet of Things – that would be bad. We don’t want smart bombs getting together for a chat. Nor do companies like the idea of factory robots having accessible brains. If it happened to the Iranians, it can happen to us, right? Governments are waking up to the fact that the equipment they buy from other countries just might be spying on them.

There are things we have that might already be vulnerable. For instance, there was a recent rash of stories about car computers that can be taken over by evil-doers. A recent Consumer Reports story says the danger is real-ish. Our cars probably won’t turn into Christine unless someone has access to the car’s computer system, has the know-how to hack it, and wants to cause harm. On the other hand, hand, do you actually know who your mechanic is? Consumer Reports admits that there might be a problem if automobile makers conform to standards, but there are also security standards being developed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to protect car systems.

After talking around in circles for a while, it seems pretty clear that we’re pretty much in the same situation as we always have been – there’s just more stuff. There never was one Internet. There’s the dark net, government networks, and some countries are at pains to control what their people find on the Internet. Come to think of it, probably all countries would like to manage what their people see on the Internet – the only thing that varies is the degree.

Information wants to be free

We humans are turning into big information generators. It’s bizarre to think of the smart gadgets we attach to ourselves, lug around, or drive parasitically sucking information from us in order to send it to our overlords at IBM, or Apple, or HP where our information is crunched, and processed, whirled, and beaten and turned sold as data like so much soylent green for other machines to eat. That big ol’ Jeopardy-playing Watson doesn’t seem so cute now, does he?

It’s all kind of Matrix-ey isn’t it? We are product and we might as well get used to it.

All the data we’re making can be used to help us – identify what makes us healthy, find what we can sell that others will want to buy, inform us of traffic jams, and find new restaurants; and it can hurt us – find out where most of us will be on Tuesday morning when a bomb will go off, track our vulnerabilities to germs, steal our passwords, make us vote for some moron (oh, wait …we already do that).

We will probably be saved by our own inefficiencies: competitive forces and security measures that keep the islands of connectivity separate. In the meantime, it’s kind of cool to think of all the information we’re throwing off that will make us better, healthier, smarter, even happier (?). I mean, as for the bad stuff – yeah, there’s that, but it is kind of like the car situation. Most mechanics really don’t want to hurt us so they’re going compromise our car. Most of us want what’s good – a greener earth, healthy children, better jobs, longer lives. So the people selling us stuff are mostly going to try and sell us stuff we want. Greed might not be good, but it might not be so bad either.