Unfortunately, there’s no ‘I’ in IoT..

Acolyte: Oh machine, would you accept my offer of information so you may run my program and perhaps give me a computation?
Priest (on behalf of the machine): We will try. We promise nothing.
Steven Levy, Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, 1984.
IBM704 mainframe operator console (source: www.computer-history.info)

In the 1960s where computers are in the form of mainframes, its caretakers whose jobs are to feed punched cards into its readers, pressing buttons and switches and at times opening up the covers to ensure the system does not overheat, are pejoratively known as priests. The ‘mainframe priesthood’ are appointed gatekeepers whose role is to keep the expensive and temperamental room-filling machines from breaking down as well as to ensure that it does its job. Mere mortals are kept away and even privileged users such as scientists and researchers have no direct access to it. One will have to wait for hours if not days for the ‘hulking’ beast of a machine to finish its computation. And that was the rule of the day.

Invitation for the first Homebrew Computer Club meeting (source: www.computer-history.info)

Soon, a certain resistance movement starts to emerge. Fired up with the ideals of democratization, a new breed of programmers (or ‘hackers’) began their crusading mission: to make access to technology open, to liberate information and knowledge for all and decentralizing the powers that divide the ‘haves’ and have nots’. As a result, garages are teemed with hobbyists, common folks with interests in electronics, each working on projects which eventually led to the birth of the personal desktop computer (PC). In the mid 1970s, the work of Ed Roberts in Altair 8800 inspire Gates & Allen (of Microsoft) to write BASIC and the formation of the Homebrew Computer Club, where Wozniak and Jobs (of Apple) debuted the Apple I prototype.

Steve Jobs & Steve Wozniak with Apple I prototype (source: www.computerhistory.org)

Within a decade, the PC revolution that started out from hobby projects soon become mainstream technology. Price of computers drop, making it affordable for even non-technical consumers to purchase. Soon the transition from text-based operating systems (e.g. MS-DOS) to graphic interface (e.g. Windows) make using computers easier and by the turn of the 20th century, the ‘World Wide Web’ and the idea of inter-connected PCs through a network pushed the sales of computers further skyward. This turn of events made it possible for dorm room to board room legends to become the folklore of technopreneurship today.

Fast forward to present times. While we got rid of the mainframe computers, the ‘mainframe priesthood’ is very much alive, continuously feed and bred by big giant tech corporations — the same ones that decades ago, started off in garages themselves. Let’s take Internet-of-Things (IoT) as an example.

Technology Hype Cycle 2015 (source: Gartner)

Almost all the ‘leading’ IoT companies are either big listed corporations with billion dollars of market capitalizations or with billion dollar revenues. Like the modern day ‘Priesthood’, they have virtually dominant control over the mindshare and access to the technology, resources or equipment. Through their enigmatic practices hidden in highfalutin languages, they create illusions of superior technological grandeur as governments and corporations racing to put forward the utopian concepts of total connectivity. Laypersons, the non-geeks, unfortunately are still very much clueless about this. Many couldn’t tell the difference between IoT and iced milk tea as most have either never heard of the term before (in spite that it is a 16-year old term). Just do a quick straw poll of anyone who have ever used any of the ‘popular’ IoT platforms available right now.

If it is not bad enough that one needs to immerse oneself in manners of geekery, the narratives surrounding the ideas of IoT or ‘Smart x’ is somewhat devoid of positive humane participation. Let’s go through a few examples:

  • ‘Smart home’ involves connectivity between inanimate objects like thermostats, smoke detectors, lightbulbs, appliances, entertainment systems, windows, door locks, and much more.
  • ‘Smart city’ deals with municipal management that ranges managing transportation, water distribution, waster management, urban security and environmental monitoring.
  • ‘Smart grids’ is about improvement in efficiency, reliability and economics of managing electricity.
  • ‘Smart retail’ promotes proximity-based advertising, tracking of in-store shopping behaviour measurement and implementation of intelligent payment solutions.
  • ‘Smart supply chain’ calls for better way of tracking goods while they are on the road, or exchange inventory information.
  • ‘Smart farming’ puts sensors into large number of livestock to monitor and track their behaviour to enhance their productivity.
Magnificence and grandeur without a single human in sight (image source: Singapore PMO)

While this is a simplistic view but to technically uninitiated, this is what they see. After all it is the internet of ‘THINGS’ not humans. The big question is will the IoT able to make people instead of just mere things more connected than ever? Will citizen activity be conveniently reduced as a data points, numbers to be accounted and analysed? Will there be a way for citizens to be ‘smart’ even ‘smarter’ rather than having ‘smart’ everyTHING? Will ‘smart’ objects continue to make people dumb? Do you want the big boys and government big brother gatekeeping access and opportunities for the outsiders? Do we want to ‘sit-back-and-be-told’ or do we want to start making and doing something about it?

What if there is a way to relive the history of the early PC revolutions in the mid-70s all over again. What if there is a way to undo the stranglehold of the mind, the idea that IoT is something too impersonal, too expensive, too complex for anyone besides the ‘Priesthood’ to handle. What if?

Oh and one more thing, what if it is already happening?

To be continued…

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