Engineering Propaganda about the Internet of Things

Curator's Note

Hip dataviz, Propaganda videos, and interactive presentations have become the most important sources of information about tech trends for a lot of policy makers, journalists and the interest public. This is true, again, for the Internet of Things (IoT). By 2020 the world will be filled with some 30 billion devices equipped with sensors, batteries, and an internet address.

Intel asks, “What does the internet of things actually mean?”  The most common answer involves better public health, smarter energy systems and more efficient industrial production. But the “big picture” we need to see is not about how smart traffic lights will help relieve congestion. It is about how traffic lights that collection info on demographics and car movements can help police departments do “predictive policing” that uses big data to evaluate probable cause.

In Pax Technica, I argue that we won’t notice or control most of the device networks that collect and share data on our behavior. They will be smart devices, but not smart in ways we choose. And the engineering propaganda around the IoT always emphasizes that the data is about consumer and citizen services. But the big impact of end to end data are always going to be cultural and political. 

When new info infrastructure rolls out it always gest used for behavioral data and political intelligence. Lobbyists, political parties, and media elites will use IoT data to make inferences about how we think about politics. The first internet cost us our privacy. The next one may take our political voice because most of our participation in politics and public policy will be through behavior data—not our preferences, attitudes and aspirations—that gets reported by the IoT.

I share the privacy concerns but not the fatalism that some people have. There are many domains in which IoT innovation will be exciting, as this simple timeline of IoT development illustrates. Instead of treating the IoT as an exciting engineering project, we really should treat it as a social one. Device networks, and network data will have more value if the networks are big, open, interoperable, and secure. That means for the IoT to really have an impact, we have to think of it as public infrastructure, not as magical new consumer electronics.


This post unpacks some of the concerns surrounding the IoT nicely, Phil. Well done! I agree that the IoT is marketed as "smart" in this way and that, but as you say, perhaps not always in the ways that we expect. I think you've also made a good point about how the uneven distribution of power in the media/tech/political landscape may be further exacerbated with the IoT. Like you, I also share the hope that it will be framed more towards social ends rather than consumer ones.

Add new comment

Log in or register to add a comment.