NYC Media Lab Notes:

How Will the Internet of Things Change Our Bodies, Minds, and Culture?


On Tuesday, April 21, the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at NYU Steinhardt hosted a brown bag lunch with Dr. Philip Howard, whose credentials include faculty appointments at Central European University in Budapest and the University of Washington in Seattle, as well as a fellowship at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. He is the recent author of Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up.

Howard led a conversation around the impact of media on our political, economic, and cultural lives, and how the Internet of Things is poised to transform the landscape yet again. With our upcoming demo showcase around the connected home, we were interested to hear what he had to say. Here are some notes from the session.

On defining the Internet of Things

On the surface, it’s simple: a material network of devices. Each device possesses the ability to sense, record, and broadcast data. But as you look more closely, you begin to realize that these devices include not just objects — the smart refrigerators and automated thermostats that often come to mind — but also living things.

Photo: Flickr/caese CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Take the 2,500 cows in Holland, for example, with embedded chips under their skin meant to measure their biological systems. The IoT industry, Howard said, wants to embed chips in everything that’s human-made, including our bodies.

So the Internet of Things is mechanical. It’s biological. And often, Howard said, it’s social. He referenced how Putin has used bots to influence public opinion during elections and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. It’s a phenomenon that has been studied by academics before. And it works.

On “the great transformation”

If your brain isn’t already spinning from the potential of devices to shape our perceptions, then consider this — the number of these devices is expected to soar. Cisco predicts there will be 50 billion connected devices by 2020, while a recent projection raised that number to a staggering 200 billion.

This means that the bandwidth of the Internet will soon be consumed primarily by communications between devices, much more than the cultural content we humans create. And when this happens, the Internet, as we have come to know it, will have changed. Sociologists who wish to study it will need to acquire a basic literacy of these new technological processes, or else bring in the help of computer scientists to serve as translators.

When that turning point arrives — when the world is full of devices with sensors, wireless radios, tiny power packs — it will be very difficult to change what cultural habits emerge. But in the meantime, Howard said, citizens have a “narrow moment” to have some influence over this future Internet. They can shape what the technology looks like. They can turn the Internet of Things into a powerful tool for serving civic interests.

On a better Internet of Things

Howard said he often hears his peers say that the Internet of Things is a loss leader for the richness of the data that will come. To anyone with a phone and an Internet connection, this should serve as no surprise — it’s all about the data.

So can the Internet of Things make data work for you? Howard had four suggestions:

1. Report the ultimate beneficiary. Howard envisioned a system by which citizens could learn who ultimately receives their data. For example, devices could provide a list of manufacturers, industry associates, and third party groups who benefitted from this data.

2. An IoT that tithes. If devices produce value, then citizens should have some say in who receives it, Howard said. A tithing system could be used to that effect — citizens could give 10% of their data, bandwidth, or even processing time to organizations they wish to share it with.

3. Additional opt-ins. What if, Howard said, citizens could add organizations to the list in option 1 above? For example, a caffeine aficionado might want to share their coffee data with their favorite coffee brands or groups.

4. Extended non-profit rule. This idea relates back to the notion of turning the Internet of Things into a tool for civic interests. Nonprofits should be able to receive and use data in cases where we might all benefit from it.

See Howard’s Prezi presentation here.


NYC Media Lab connects technologists in digital media and technology companies with bright minds in New York City’s universities in order to drive innovation and talent development. Learn more at www.nycmedialab.org and follow us on Twitter at @nycmedialab.org.

Join NYC Media Lab on May 21 for “Visions of the Connected Home,” a science fair of IoT demos from media companies, startups, and university labs. To learn more and register, click here.


Photo: Flickr/infomastern CC BY-SA 2.0

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