The Internet of Things – How Useful? How Dangerous?

By now you will have heard of some ‘next big things’ such as ‘augmented reality,’ ‘self-driving cars’ and the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT). Yet chances are that you won’t have heard about them from neighbours, friends, relatives or workmates since claims for their alleged benefits don’t usually come from them. Rather, they are one of many similar campaigns that reach us from elsewhere – that is, from a handful of the world’s most powerful organisations and their excitable associates. So we find ourselves being regularly ‘softened up’ and prepared for new unasked-for miracle services. As Morozov and others have pointed out ‘the Internet’ is a domain where numerous ‘solutions’ are offered for problems that currently do not exist – a phenomenon he calls ‘solutionism.’ So here, as in many other cases, there’s not much credible evidence of any real ‘demand’ for an IoT. But it’s coming anyway, and promoters seem to think that we should be grateful. Or should we?

It’s vital to acknowledge up-front that well-designed devices installed in a network with appropriate technical and safety standards would indeed have a variety of uses. There’d be a host of specialised applications in education, surgery, disaster management and so on. The elderly, disabled and sick could gain greater autonomy and enhanced capability to run their own lives. Such potentially positive uses may well be unlimited. But that’s not where we seem to be headed. The dangers and costs of the IoT as currently envisaged may well outweigh the possible benefits. To appreciate why we need to set aside the heavy-handed merchandising, dig a little deeper and start asking questions such as: who is promoting the IoT? Who stands to gain and who will lose? Can we be sure that it will protect privacy and enhance human wellbeing or will it further erode both? Answering the ‘who’ question is straightforward. The main drivers and beneficiaries of this particular ‘radically transformative innovation’ are the corporate tech giants from Silicon Valley and their like-minded associates. They share a peculiar worldview that’s arguably cost humanity dearly and yet continues virtually unchallenged. Central to it is an assumption that equates ‘progress’ with single-minded technical innovation and development. This view received powerful support during the Neo-Con ascendancy but it’s also grounded in long-standing cultural preoccupations. These, in turn, rest on category errors and inadequate views of culture, human identity and human autonomy.[1]

Inventing the future backwards

The high-tech sector simply cannot resist. Given that existing product categories are close to being saturated, these companies are driven to continually invent new ones. But the rest of us should take pause because what’s good for Internet oligarchs and high-tech giants falls a very long way short of what’s good for everyone else. Long before the IT revolution began informed observers such as C.S. Lewis, Ivan Illich, E.F. Schumacher and many others understood that the conquest of nature readily ends up on our own backs by diminishing our humanity as well. The entire high-tech sector has expanded rapidly over recent decades and, as a result, many of the organisations involved have become very rich indeed. Rich, that is in money terms; not rich in humanity, not rich in perceptiveness and not rich in the ability to sustain people or cultures. The consequences are showing up everywhere. Apart from continuing to make truly obscene amounts of money, the high-tech sector exhibits a dangerous and thus-far unquenchable obsession with ‘inventing the future backwards.’ That’s to say, it pours millions into speculative technical diversions of all kinds without a thought as to whether the outputs are more broadly necessary or helpful. There’s an abiding preoccupation with beating the immediate competition (other high-tech behemoths) regardless of other considerations. Many of their favourite innovations are often termed ‘disruptive.’ Which is true for pre-existing workers, social formations and professions, yet it also understates the case. Some innovations are contributing a vicious new twist to our current civilisational trajectory toward decline and collapse. To see why this is so we need to take a step back.

Remember the ‘information superhighway?’ I certainly do. It evoked images of openness, safety, productivity and social benefits spread far and wide. But what actually happened? Few will question that we acquired some new tools. These days information is available almost instantly.[2] Yet, at the same time, we’ve also acquired the Dark Net, Internet scams, widespread identity theft and of course, the looming threat of utterly unwinnable cyber wars. Let me be clear. None of this can be sheeted back to Internet pioneers and the good-hearted people who built these systems in the first place. They pretty much all believed that what they were doing was useful and constructive. The problem was, and remains that once these powerful new tools are released into wide use the aims, ambitions, values and so on of the pioneers count for little. Once the genie is out of the proverbial bottle it becomes anyone’s to command. That’s not just you and me. Pick your own list of global nasties and you can be sure that they’re working overtime at projects that, in your heart of hearts, you don’t really care to know about. At this very point the world shifts, and shifts again on its axis. You can feel it happening. New world-shaping forces are in play. Questionable motives have emerged and linked with inadequate values. The whole ensemble is nurtured within limited worldviews that privilege ‘having’ over ‘being’ and ‘me’ or ‘my organisation’ against any wider collective descriptor. That’s when mobile phones – iconic products of high-tech individual freedom – started becoming instruments of terrible carnage and wanton destruction.

Disjointed incrementalism

So, fundamentally, while the technologies may be complex, the central issues are straightforward. It’s naïve to imagine that new waves of high-tech innovation won’t result in similarly polarised consequences. It doesn’t really matter what the high-tech gurus and the Internet oligarchs like to claim at any particular time. It doesn’t matter how glossy the marketing, how many times their TED talks are viewed on YouTube or how enticing their promises appear. The very last people to trust about anything at all are precisely those who are using their ever-expanding toolkit for selling. The results are the same. Some stuff you pay for, some you seem – at first sight – to get for free. Either way, when your metadata and social media traces are sold off wholesale you remain the product. William Blake understood this skewed view of reality when he wrote that ‘reason alone leads to despair.’ How hard is it to come to a society-wide realisation that high-tech promises based on inadequate values cannot create heaven on Earth? This is one of many reasons why Dystopian imagery and themes in virtually all media won’t be going away any time soon.

Proponents of the IoT are trying to convince us that it’s useful right now to everyone. You can to set up your home to respond to your every need, whim and requirement. You don’t even need to be physically present since you can communicate remotely with your dedicated IT matrix. What could possibly go wrong? Well the honest answer is: just about everything. The greatest weakness and enduring flaw in the IoT is this: connecting devices together is one thing, but securing them is quite another. As one well-qualified observer put it ‘IoT devices are coming in with security flaws which were out-of-date ten years ago.’[3] Another acknowledges that ‘there’s a lot to be said for a properly networked world.’ He adds ‘what we’ve got at the moment, however, is something very different – the disjointed incrementalism of an entrepreneurial marketplace.’ He adds that:

There are thousands of insecure IoT products already out there. If our networked future is built on such dodgy foundations, current levels of chronic online insecurity will come to look like a golden age. The looming Dystopia can be avoided, but only by concerted action by governments, major companies and technical standards bodies.[4]

So, is your e-mail secure? Hardly. One slip, one accidental click on a nasty link and you’re toast. What makes you think that your wired-up electronic cocoon will be any different? Consider this:

Two years after it was revealed that a creepy Russian website was allowing users to watch more than 73,000 live streams from unsecure baby monitors, the UK’s data watchdog has warned that manufacturers still aren’t doing enough to keep their devices safe from hackers. Incidents involving parents stumbling upon pictures of their kids online … continue to occur, with images clearly being snaffled from Internet-enabled cameras that have been set up in people’s homes.[5]

In the absence of careful and effective system-wide redesign what remains of your privacy will disappear. You’ll be enmeshed in the classic unwinnable dialectic of an offensive / defensive arms race that will cost far more than the fee you thought you paid to enter the game in the first place. As things are, few will understand this with sufficient clarity. Hence many, many people will sign up for this compelling new, interconnected fantasy world with no idea of the precautions required.

Signals of change

For those paying attention, high-tech nightmares can be seen as useful reminders not to proceed too far too fast with powerful, seductively networked technologies. H.G. Wells attempted an early expression of this concern in his 1895 novel The Time Machine in the contrasts he drew between the effete and vulnerable Eloi and the savage Morlocks.[6] In 1909 E.M. Forster made an even more deliberate attempt to identify the likely effects of becoming over-dependent on technology in his novella The Machine Stops.[7] More than a century later it still carries a forceful message that is both credible and explicit. Then, in the early 1970s, J.G. Ballard began his decades-long explorations of ennui and decay in the ruins of high-tech environments – the abandoned high-rise, the empty swimming pool. One of the most evocative is a short story in his 1973 collection Vermillion Sands.[8] ‘The thousand dreams of stellavista’ portrays a house constructed to exquisitely mirror the needs of its inhabitants in real time. Unfortunately it turns out that a previous occupant was insane. Over time the house begins to exhibit similar symptoms – which places later owners in peril of their lives. This is obviously not merely a metaphor. Finally Dave Eggars’ prescient 2014 novel The Circle, brings the story up to date in a highly relevant and insightful critique of the digital utopianism that arguably characterises so much current thinking and practice. It’s a salutary tale in which human ideals become subordinated to the ever more powerful technical infrastructure. Such references are, of course, familiar to readers of SF. For others this is ‘only fiction’ and, as such, easily dismissed.

Futurists and foresight practitioners earn their living in part by paying careful attention to many things, including ‘signals of change.’ The art and science of ‘environmental scanning’ is, however, far more advanced in theory than it is in broad, commonly accepted, practice. In terms of social governance, this is a serious oversight. The absence of high quality foresight places entire societies at significantly greater risk than they need be. So, to conclude, here are a couple of recent ‘scanning hits’ on surveillance and the IoT.

Surveillance is central to the construction of consumers and markets. … Many contemporary markets … rely on the collection, analysis and application of consumer data to place advertising, define market segments and nudge consumer behaviours. Consumer surveillance is also an enactment of corporate power, attempting to align individual preferences with corporate goals.[9]

And again,

The Internet of Things is the household system, already well advanced, that will integrate all your domestic electrical goods into a single app-controlled matrix. Your fridge will order your groceries online, your fuse box will call a sparky, your coffee machine will buy more Vittoria. To do any of these things, your devices will have to tell those on the other end who you are, where you live and how you’re going to pay. It will be a two-way street. Internet of Things transactions linked to the same identifier are traceable, and ultimately make people also traceable, hence their privacy is threatened.[10]

The article from which these two quotes originated deals primarily with the increasingly widespread practice of customer surveillance in stores (and other points of sale) when people unwittingly accept offers such as ‘free Wi-Fi.’ In so doing they agree to ‘terms of use’ that they neither read, nor understand. This is clearly analogous to where entire societies now stand in relation to the IoT – the true ‘terms of use’ remain out of sight and unavailable to all but the most technically adept.

Conclusion: where from here?

During these dangerous and uncertain times much is at stake – not least of which is how to manage a world severely out of balance. We badly need more competent, imaginative and far-sighted leadership. We also need to develop society-wide resistance to the values and, indeed many of the products, of the tech giants. We need a thorough re-appraisal of multiple pathways to viable futures. Those of us who are living in still-affluent areas are being asked to go along for the ride, to distract ourselves, to still our growing fears for the future with this new generation of technological toys. But it’s time to push back and seek answers to questions such as the following:

  • Are we prepared to accept the current, deeply flawed, version of the IoT that promises so much but ticks so few essential boxes, especially in relation to privacy and security?
  • Are we really prepared to passively submit to a technical and economic order that can be so easily subverted that it grows more dangerous and Dystopian with each passing year?
  • To what extent can we re-focus time, resources and attention on solutions? For example developing the personal and cultural resources that, over time, nourish legitimate and collective aspirations for a more human and humanised world?[11]

As the system begins to misbehave, to be hacked, to be militarised, to break down and stop working just when it needed to work perfectly; at that point domestic users will start backing out and returning to old-style analogue solutions. Although far simpler and less flexible, they will gain new appeal since they lack the ability to turn peoples’ lives into a living nightmare. Some will opt wholesale for a simpler life. Early adopters of the IoT are, however, not restricted to householders. They also include businesses, government agencies and public utilities. Given the overall lack of effective social foresight, as well as the parlous state of government oversight in general, IoT implementation will proceed unabated. Security breaches on an unprecedented scale will take place, disruptions to essential services will occur and privacy for many will all-but vanish.[12] The costs will be so great as to constitute a series of ‘social learning experiences’ par excellence. At that point serious efforts to raise standards and secure the IoT will become unavoidable.


I want to thank my son, Rohan Slaughter for some of the sources used here and also for his valuable comments on an earlier draft of this piece. Also my wife Laurie for proof reading. Mistakes and omissions are, however, entirely my own.


[1] Best expressed, perhaps, by Lewis Mumford in The Pentagon of Power, Secker & Warburg, London, 1971. In a brief Foreword he declares that ‘I have taken life itself to be the primary phenomenon, and creativity, rather than the ‘conquest of nature,’ as the ultimate criterion of man’s biological and cultural success.’ He would, of course, be unemployable in Silicon Valley.

[2] Knowledge can obviously be developed from it but we are surely lagging in wisdom – the scarcest resource of all.

[3] Palmer, D. The first big Internet of Things security breach is just around the corner, ZDNet, 1st July 2016. Retrieved 4th July 2016.

[4] Naughton, J. The internet needs better-made things, Observer 10th July, 2016.

[5] Mendelsohn, T. Baby monitor hackers still rocking cradles across the UK, data watchdog warns. Retrieved 19th July 2016

[6] Wells, H.G. The Time Machine, Heinemann, London, 1895.

[7] Forster, E.M. The Machine Stops, Oxford and Cambridge Review, 1909.

[8] Ballard, J.G. The thousand dreams of stellavista, in Vermillion Sands, Cape, London, 1973.

[9] Ball, K. St Andrews University School of Management. Quoted in Masterson, A. Feel like you’re being watched? Sun-Herald, 26th June, 2016, p. 23 & 26.

[10] Attributed to a ‘Deakin University, Melbourne and Raboud University team, 2016. Quoted in Masterson, A. op cit, note 9, above.

[11] I’ve attempted to set out part of the answer in a number of publications. One of most recent is ‘Integral futures and the search for clarity,’ World Future Review, Vol. 7, 2-3, 2015, pp. 239-252. Also see Solnit, R. Hope is a gift you don’t have to surrender. Retrieved 17th July 2016

[12] Palmer, D. op cit.