Bruce Sterling's "The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things"

It's a new long-form essay in the tradition of Sterling's must-read, groundbreaking 2005 book Shaping Things, a critical perspective on what it means to have a house full of "smart" stuff that answers to giant corporations and the states that exert leverage over them.

The first thing to understand about the “Internet of Things” is that it’s not about Things on the Internet. It’s a code term that powerful stakeholders have settled on for their own purposes.

They like the slogan “Internet of Things” because it sounds peaceable and progressive. It disguises the epic struggle over power, money and influence that is about to ensue. There is genuine internet technology involved in the “Internet of Things”. However, the legacy internet of yesterday is a shrinking part of what is at stake now.

Digital commerce and governance is moving, as fast and hard as it possibly can, into a full-spectrum dominance over whatever used to be analogue. In practice, the Internet of Things means an epic transformation: all-purpose electronic automation through digital surveillance by wireless broadband. In this essay I’ll describe how this is likely to work, and what the major players think they are doing to get there.

To begin, though, I must first free the reader from any folk ideas about the Internet of Things.

So, let’s imagine that the reader has a smartphone in one hand, as most people in the Twenty-Teens most definitely tend to. In the other hand, the reader has some “Thing”. Let’s say it’s the handle of his old-fashioned domestic vacuum cleaner, which is a relic of yesterday’s standard consumer economy.

As he cheerfully vacuums his home carpet while also checking his Facebook prompts, because the chore of vacuuming is really boring, the reader naturally thinks: “Why are these two objects in my two hands living in such separate worlds? In my left hand I have my wonderfully advanced phone with Facebook – that’s the “internet”. But in my right hand I have this noisy, old-fashioned, ineffective, analogue “thing”! For my own convenience as a customer and consumer, why can’t the “internet” and this “thing” be combined?

This concept sounds pretty visionary, and it’s certainly enough to impress most people born during the Baby Boom, so this paradigm has been doing well in the popular press. If the reader thinks it over, he can easily refine the basic idea. “This vacuum should be equipped with wireless connectivity and sensors! Also, as its owner, I should have a mobile app or dashboard that can tell me many useful and healthy things about my vacuum – such as how much energy it is using, or how many toxins it found in my carpet. Also, the vacuum should run around in robot fashion, all by itself!”

That’s the standard Internet of Things scenario. It’s framed in the traditional language of consumer electronics. People often mock it, because they don’t like so much unnecessary technical complication in their daily lives. It seems baroque, maybe even fraudulent.

That’s not what’s going to happen.

The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things