How Might We Grow Diverse Internets of Things? Learning from Project Xanadu & the WWW

By Usman Haque

The ThingsCon report The State of Responsible IoT is a collection of essays by experts from the inter-disciplinary ThingsCon community of #IoT practitioners. It explores the challenges, opportunities and questions surrounding the creation of a responsible & human-centric Internet of Things (IoT). For your convenience you can read it on Medium or download a PDF.

What follows is a critique of the way that the Internet of Things is being built and conceived, and some thought experiments about how it might be different. I don’t have a solid alternative to offer; and this is not a thorough exploration of all the concepts and ramifications. Think of this instead as a set of notes preparing for a conversation. My starting point is a belief that the focus of too much of the IoT world on individualised, atomised and discrete remote telemetry and control use cases (usually for ‘convenience’, ‘efficiency’ and ‘optimisation’) means that we are missing an opportunity to have a truly radical and legitimately collaborative IoT.

As I extrapolate outwards from the IoT context in which we find ourselves now, and compare it to the trajectory of the Web and its evolution in our lives over the last 25 years (and growing dissatisfaction over security failures, social tensions and the centralisation/business-modelling of our data), I wonder about how the technical decisions that we are making in IoT now will have significant socio-political impacts later.

Early in the days of creating what was to become the World Wide Web a technical decision was made that was to have a profound impact on everything that we now use the web for. That decision was that ‘hyperlinks’ would be unidirectional [Wikipedia]. You would be able to create a ‘link’ in your webpage to a webpage belonging to somebody else, but inbound links would not be reciprocal — the owner of the page you linked to would not necessarily know that you had linked to it. Similarly, you would have no idea who or what was linking to your webpages (except by parsing logs and hoping the browser respected standards). This has had an important and profound effect on how we use the web, because the unidirectionality has, arguably, led to everything from search engines (built on the fact that links are hard to find) to massive social networks (built on the value of sharing links and end-user content) to copyright battles, advertising business models and ‘fake news’. Exploring this further (which I won’t here), you might trace how the unidirectionality of links has led to a ‘sharing’ economy that’s not really about sharing after all.

Ancient map of Xanadu (here called Ciandu) on a map from 1650. Image: Wikipedia

It might have been different. In 1960, Ted Nelson, who coined the terms ‘hypertext’ and ‘hyperlink’, had proposed in his Project Xanadu a notion of text in which every item, potentially every word, could link to others, using links that were bidirectional and reciprocal. One of the most important intentions of this was to embrace the concept that all of our ideas are contextual and mutually dependent; they are reciprocal, social and bolstered by conversation. We can only begin to imagine how different the web might have been if it had embraced such bidirectionality and conversationality rather than “one-way ever-breaking links and no management of version or contents”. Certainly, there have been plenty of attempts to simulate such contextual linking (e.g. trackbacks, etc.) but they’re at best hacks in search of a serious sponsor and none have achieved Nelson’s goal of “links which can be followed in either direction”. Many argue that the model of the web is ‘functionally broken’.

I’m not intending to go deep into the history of the web here — that’s been covered better elsewhere. Instead, I’d like to consider a similar crossroad that I believe we are at in the ‘Internet of Things’ world.

We have experienced, over the last few years, an onslaught of IoT products, services and systems geared towards connecting the physical world to the network, and in some cases, to people. All too many IoT products and services have converged, however, on an old 1950s conceptual model that puts us in a slightly more comfortable armchair, holding a slightly less unwieldy remote control, but with the same lack of interesting things to do, apart from self-gratify (Philips HUE to set the right mood, for example).

IoT, for many, is all about remote control and monitoring. A core idea is to harness data (e.g. from wearables, building management systems, connected vehicles, etc.) in order to gain ‘insight’, and in the consumer world the most innovative thing that we are expected to do as individuals is build ‘recipes’ to connect these together for our own specific uses (e.g. start the coffee pot as we wake up but wake us up early if traffic is bad, flash a light when the bus is approaching, switch off the heating when we leave home, etc.). This relationship between us, our things, our environments and our data leaves us atomised and, in a sense, disconnected from each other: Individuals, interacting with individualised entities, usually unidirectionally. Very few are about us doing things together, acting together, deciding together.

Sensors are aggregated by routers, routers push to platforms, platforms connect to apps, apps are used by people, individually. Occasionally the reverse occurs (I use an app to control a platform that updates a hub that tells a lightbulb to switch on), but still the relationship is atomised — I act alone on an object that I own (just like the 1950s black and white television with a fancy remote). In more sophisticated setups, my family can also interact with a device, but it’s still a closed network.

It often makes sense that different devices use different data platforms with different formats and specifications for different verticals and use cases, but this means there is tremendous friction to ecosystem scale. Google Home and Apple Homekit are working on this — but are they really ‘ecosystems’, or are they just more walled gardens? The fact that sensors have no meaningful concept of a ‘link’ that you find in a webpage (you can’t ‘discover’ a lightbulb, just because you found another one and followed its ‘links’) means that it’s not really an evenly distributed “internet” of things. If you throw in the question of data ownership (which is an even more messy concept than in the web), and concerns about real-world effects (the threat of compromising and accessing data from physical objects like webcams and voice-operated assistants that are permanently ‘listening’) there doesn’t seem to a clear way out of a trajectory that leads us to an evermore locked down, restrictive and constrictive Internet of Things, and by extension, society. The unidirectional, one-to-one relationship we have to our things parallels the unidirectional, one-to-one relationships of web links.

I wonder how it might be different, and how we might make socio-technical decisions about the Internet of Things now that could have more positive effects in the future.

I’m imagining an Internet of Things in which our ‘things’ can communicate, but where we all have explicit control on exactly where our data goes. I imagine being able to make collective decisions about traffic, transport and air quality; rather than individualised decisions to take an Uber car just because it seems easier, more efficient and cheaper (the bigger picture tells us that’s a collective delusion with wide-ranging societal consequences).

I imagine us being able to make complex decisions together, informed by data from many diverse networks of things, decisions where we don’t necessarily all have to agree (liquid democracy gives us clues on how this might work). I imagine our things interacting and conversing with each other, and with other people, with our explicit understanding and consent — not necessarily to make “better” decisions, but at least to make decisions that we are all invested in, and have responsibility for. I imagine an Internet of Things that isn’t all about convenience and control, but instead is about our interconnectedness and mutualism.

But, none of this can happen if we keep building to Silicon Valley VC models of centralised IoT interaction- and business-models, which are premised on selling self-gratification in return for our valuable data.

There are signs of alternatives, including a number of initiatives exploring the use of blockchain techniques in the Internet of Things (one of which I’m part of, through Thingful’s involvement in the DECODE project), where decentralisation, citizen empowerment and data provenance/ownership are key. There are others looking at the ‘content-centric network’ which privileges content/data from devices rather than the connections to individual data sources (providing context that is more useful and meaningful). Many are trying to make the leap from “IoT Platforms” to “IoT services across platforms” (Thingful is one; others include the Big IoT Project and the W3C’s Web of Things initiative). The Things Network proposes an open and decentralized Internet of Things data network. And both the IETF and Hypercat/PAS212 are exploring how to make diverse Internet of Things networks more discoverable.

But I want to consider how we might go further, perhaps even re-assess from first principles the use cases for a distributed and many-to-many IoT. I want to consider how to make all of this a practical reality, design new use cases for interconnectedness, interdependence and interrelationship, bringing together all of the things in the previous paragraph, so that they can be implemented more widely (and democratically), so that the Internet of Things becomes a collective and collaborative resource in which individuals contribute with full consent. And I’d also like to reconsider how Ted Nelson’s ’17 rules’ for Xanadu might apply in the Internet of Things:

  1. Every Xanadu server is uniquely and securely identified.
  2. Every Xanadu server can be operated independently or in a network.
  3. Every user is uniquely and securely identified.
  4. Every user can search, retrieve, create and store documents.
  5. Every document can consist of any number of parts each of which may be of any data type.
  6. Every document can contain links of any type including virtual copies (“transclusions”) to any other document in the system accessible to its owner.
  7. Links are visible and can be followed from all endpoints.
  8. Permission to link to a document is explicitly granted by the act of publication.
  9. Every document can contain a royalty mechanism at any desired degree of granularity to ensure payment on any portion accessed, including virtual copies (“transclusions”) of all or part of the document.
  10. Every document is uniquely and securely identified.
  11. Every document can have secure access controls.
  12. Every document can be rapidly searched, stored and retrieved without user knowledge of where it is physically stored.
  13. Every document is automatically moved to physical storage appropriate to its frequency of access from any given location.
  14. Every document is automatically stored redundantly to maintain availability even in case of a disaster.
  15. Every Xanadu service provider can charge their users at any rate they choose for the storage, retrieval and publishing of documents.
  16. Every transaction is secure and auditable only by the parties to that transaction.
  17. The Xanadu client–server communication protocol is an openly published standard. Third-party software development and integration is encouraged.

How might the Internet of Things (or diverse internets of things) evolve if we choose this route instead?

Usman Haque is founding partner of Umbrellium — and Thingful, a search engine for the Internet of Things. Earlier, he launched the Internet of Things data infrastructure and community platform, which was acquired by LogMeIn in 2011.
 Trained as an architect, he has created responsive environments, interactive installations, digital interface devices and dozens of mass-participation initiatives throughout the world. His skills include the design and engineering of both physical spaces and the software and systems that bring them to life. He has also taught at the Bartlett School of Architecture, including the Interactive Architecture Workshop (until 2005) and RC12 Urban Design cluster, “Participatory systems for networked urban environments”. He received the 2008 Design of the Year Award (interactive) from the Design Museum, UK, a 2009 World Technology Award (art), the Japan Media Arts Festival Excellence prize and the Asia Digital Art Award Grand Prize.

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