A Reflection on Phil Howard's 'Will the “Internet of Things” Set Us Free or Lock Us Up?' Departmental Seminar

In the time it took Phil Howard to deliver his talk, the connected devices in the room had given out over 30,000 geo-location points. This is was just a small illustration of the pervasive, invisible and networked power of the “internet of things”. The question Howard wants us to ask is whether or not we should fear or welcome this.

But what is the “Internet of Things”? On the face of it, it is the enlarging network of everyday objects, such as thermostats, cars and TVs, fitted with sensors and IP addresses. Smart phones, for example, are a very familiar ‘IoT’ object.

Beyond this, Howard offers a more detailed definition. Alongside consumer electronics, the IoT has a pervasive biological and environmental character. We now have ‘IoT’ cows, for example- just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ‘smart’ agriculture. Moreover, Howard states that the ‘IoT’ is a phenomenon that feeds existing institutions, especially because of the power that data offers. As Howard shows, the IoT creates near-perfect behaviour data. Yet, the key component here is that currently this data is about us, but not ours. In short, you could say that the IoT is a black box, or, rather: innumerable black boxes.

These are all important points, because what Howard essentially derives here is how our political order is increasingly constituted by the relationship between devices as much as the relationship between people. The seminar did not directly elaborate on how to explore this dynamic conceptually, but Howard did allude in the Q&A to Actor-Network Theory as an option here, and this is precisely how I think we should be approaching this. On this note, it was encouraging to hear Howard discuss non-human agency as a way in which to understand the political order of the IoT.

In answer to the titular question, the consequences of the Pax Technica that Howard hypothesizes, such as an overall state of cyberdeterrence between governments and connective action being able solve collective problems, can all be seen as forms of repressive or democratic stability. This is the overarching argument that Howard makes. However, I am sceptical of this dualist notion that we are witnessing a technological moment that will create either a repressive or democratic stability, despite the very insightful claims that Howard makes about the political qualities of the IoT found within this frame.

I strongly think that we should collapse the question into understanding a consistent tension among the political actors involved in the development and use of the IoT. I strongly agree with Howard that we are currently within a window of opportunity to create a more open and democratic internet of things, in lieu of an option to opt-out of the vast and intractable infrastructure, but we shouldn’t constantly frame this against a black-box apocalypse of constant surveillance, control and manipulation, nor should we think it will be our only chance.

In my view, we simply can’t know enough about the IoT to cast it in a telos. Many voices said the first internet was going to be a cyber-utopia, a cyber-nightmare, or even a fad. None of them were completely right, or wrong. The point is that technology is inherently unpredictable and flexible. And so any stable unison of politics and technology cannot last, and if it is to persist for long, it requires an ever greater amount of upkeep to maintain its power. A politically stable IoT will not be cast in steel, but made of many fine threads.

We should expect a wave of political science research on the IoT in next twelve months. Many calls for papers are beginning to invite responses to this coming change. Howard has therefore set the tone for a proactive research agenda; one that seeks to ask questions of, and intervene with, the direction of the IoT’s emergence. In this regard, Howard’s observation that political communication research should seek further collaboration with Science and Technology Studies, where researchers are overtly interventionist on these issues, is exciting and important for the future of research in this area. But I also think, and I am sure Howard would agree, that this should also extend to our colleagues in the computer science, information security and engineering departments within our universities. Howard therefore deserves a great deal of credit for taking the lead and articulating a point of reference that lets us make some sense of the internet of things, and cast our gaze forward.