The Internet of Things: Having, being, or being had?

Curator's Note

I must admit that when I first piqued onto the Internet of Things (IoT) after watching that Mashable clip on YouTube, my fancies were tickled by fantasies of a perfectly measured glass of red wine waiting for me at home after a stressful day at work and perfectly crafted emails automatically sent to my superiors asking for sick leave when the surf is good.

Since then, as I’ve encountered the idea more, I’ve become less enamoured by it. This isn’t so much because of the potential loss of privacy or hackers invading my comfort zones, legitimate as these concerns are. My reservations arise from what I perceive to be the underlying assumption in the way the IoT is popularly sold: that having things and being had by things will make for a better life. I will elaborate on my reticence briefly via the work of German-American psychoanalyst Erich Fromm

According to Fromm, human life can be lived in two modes: “having” and “being”. The having mode is predicated on private property, specifically the acquisition of things and the right to possess them as exclusively mine. So, for example, in saying “I have a cool new smartphone that links up with my fridge”, I express a definition of myself through my having of things. If the IoT exaggerates this tendency to define myself vis-à-vis more things – albeit “smart” ones – then what happens to my self when I don’t have them?

This brings up the notion of “being had” by things. Fromm posits that while having things may make me feel potent, there is also a reverse relationship at play: the things have me because my sense of identity is tied up in them. With the IoT, my possessions are touted as framing everyday life on the basis of my habits. Will “I” - that is, my sense of self - then be increasingly defined strictly by those things?

Against this Fromm contrasts the “being” mode of existence. While having tends toward identification of oneself in relation to definite properties, being refers to the irreducibility of human experience and the capacity for spontaneity and change. Here Fromm echoes the existential philosophers for whom being human is more a verb-like happening than a noun-like thing. So in this vein, I wonder: Can the IoT be developed in ways that open us up to the diverse, unpredictable trajectories of human being beyond having?


Great analysis Remy. The "being" mode of existence is especially potent for consideration as our lives not only become potentially more bound up in things, but that part of that binding is the operability of things relative to internet connectivity. Or, for that matter, the precision of operability proffered through Big Data. How, for example, does a conception of being factor into the extent to which I can remotely optimize my thermostat? If the internet is "down," does this reconfigure the meaning ascribed to my domestic space if I can't adjust the thermostat? If life is increasingly dependent on the advantages of Big Data to optimize our experience with things, how is my sense of being likewise imbricated with those who capture and use the data generated from my interactions? You hit on some points that, for me, open up a lot of questions that haven't necessarily been through through elsewhere.

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