July 16, 2015
Philip N. Howard is a University of Washington professor of communication who also has appointments in the Information School and the Jackson School of International Studies. He is the author of “Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set us Free or Lock Us Up,” published this spring by Yale University Press.
His book discusses a next-generation Internet where electronic devices, from light bulbs and water meters to smart phones and Netflix, are all networked. These devices give us information to us, but also record information about us. Howard believes the Internet of Things could be a tool for consumer good or government/corporate manipulation, depending on the rules we put in place now to control surveillance, data access and communication. Howard answered a few questions about the book and his work.
What’s the concept behind this book, and why did you write it?
P.H. The concept is that all the excitement about how technology “disrupts” politics is misplaced. The disruption argument goes like this: New technologies upset old institutions, force people to do things in new ways and perpetually make us develop new rules for political life. I argue the opposite — that technology provides a surprising amount of structure for our lives. And the next Internet, the Internet of Things, is going to be the most powerful tool of political communication we’ve ever created.
You write that if we build the Internet of Things without seeking control over the data streams in early device networks, “we will have limited control over those streams as we add more ideas.” How close is this to already being the case, in your view? What are the dangers of failing to exert that control?
P.H. There are already some strong, coherent ecologies for the Internet of Things. Many of the companies that Apple, Google, and Microsoft acquire aren’t specifically building computers or mobile phones, they are building everyday objects with chips in them. These companies seek to ensure that as new devices come online, they use iTunes, Android or Windows are used as control platforms.
It sounds great to have an Internet of Things that is full of interoperable devices rather than a collection of closed-off networks and proprietary systems. It would be good for us as citizens and consumers to be able to migrate between platforms as we chose, and to have control — when we want it — over the data that we have generated through the devices we have bought.
Not everyone will care enough to keep track of the data that is collected about them. But some will, and most people will find that some of their data, some of the time, is used without their consent and against their interests.
“The state, the political party, the civic group, the citizen: These are all old categories from a pre-digital world,” you write. What in your view will take the place of these social constructs? And how then will our own actions be affected?
P.H. In place of these social constructs will be a new kind of political unit, what I call the “digital clan.” By definition, clans are larger than families but still have tight bonds of trust and reciprocity. The Internet already allows us to manage our own extended networks in unprecedented ways. But the Internet of Things will force us to make some distinct choices about who we trust and who we share our encrypted data with. So digital clans will be the small communities we trust with our digital information.
You write, “The fiercest political competition in the years ahead will be over the standards-setting process for device networks” and say it has become the one policy domain that, over the long term, will affect all others. In a world brimming with political competition over scores of issues, why will this be the most serious?
P.H. Increasingly, winning and losing on a political issue has been about marshalling and controlling information. I think this is true for domestic and international politics. And policy outcomes are usually better when stakeholders have access to the same high quality information.
Technology policy decisions affect what scientists can learn about the environment, what the World Health Organization can learn about disease vectors, what the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations can learn about caloric intake, and what security officials can learn about suspicious financial transfers.
So if the Internet of Things is generating almost perfect behavioral data about us, and detailed observations about the natural world, having access to that data becomes a source of real political power. And cutting out other political actors from the flow of data, unfortunately, becomes a powerful political strategy.
“The next Internet will certainly be used to express and challenge political power. Now is the time to encode the next Internet with democratic virtues,” you write. How do you suggest this be accomplished?
P.H. To code in democratic values, a basic step would be to require that any connected device be able to divulge a list of the “ultimate beneficiaries” who benefit from its sensor data. Terms of service always get modified, ownership structures change over time and the number of third parties paying for access to our data usually gets longer, not shorter, over time. But if the smart lightbulb you buy is able to relay some data up the network to other organizations, it should be able to pull down a list of the corporate, government and civic entities using your data.
After that, we need to make sure the Internet of Things has some branches designed for civic engagement, not simply government policymaking and industry marketing. These days, it’s normal for civil-society groups to have an Internet strategy or a social media strategy. It’s not too soon for them to consider their Internet of Things strategy.
Finally, you note that there are ways for us to survive in “this new empire of devices.” Would you offer some brief suggestions?
P.H. There are several things we can do now to build political participation into the Internet of Things, some I mentioned above. As individuals, we need to keep track of where our data ends up. Even now it would be tough to make a list of all the third-party vendors, market analysts and government agencies that have data we have generated.
Down the road, we may have little choice on where our data ends up. Standards to determine access to data are now being set behind closed doors, defined by industry engineers arguing for secrecy and proprietary systems.
If these arguments succeed, the next Internet will be even more personally intrusive, publicly unaccountable and susceptible to surveillance than the current one. Consumers are going to be excited by the new devices that can be connected to the Internet. But they should be smart shoppers, and buy the electronics gear that gives them control over the flow of data about their lives.
For more information on “Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up,” contact Howard at 206-612-9911 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Chapter excerpts are available at www.paxtechnica.org.