The Problem With a Hundred Internets In Your Junk DrawerS

Are we drawing closer to a day when everything that's a "thing"—from spoons to shirts to skateboards—comes with an electronic sensor that hooks it into a global network of trillions of objects? Maybe. Is that a good thing?

A few days ago, the business journal McKinsey Quarterly published a report explaining that "the physical world itself is becoming a type of information system"—meaning the technology that processes and communicates data, which we're used to thinking of as existing primarily in computers, is actually growing more and more common. McKinsey cites a number of examples:

Pill-shaped microcameras already traverse the human digestive tract and send back thousands of images to pinpoint sources of illness. Precision farming equipment with wireless links to data collected from remote satellites and ground sensors can take into account crop conditions and adjust the way each individual part of a field is farmed...

The logical endpoint of all this, according to the report's authors, is a world where countless everyday items will be made "smart" through the application of networked technology. Clothes, furniture, tools, vehicles—it'll all be linked into the same big system. Every object that's on the network will be able to broadcast data about where it is and how it's being used. The McKinsey report uses a term that's been around for a while—"Internet of Things"—to describe this scenario. It will change the way we do business, the report promises; it will change the way we live.

It's an exciting prospect. A number of tech writers have responded excitedly. The original report in McKinsey focuses on how an Internet of Things would affect business practices at the macro level, but a lot of the press coverage has instead speculated about what an Internet of Things will look like for regular people on a day-to-day basis.

It's worth dwelling on the McKinsey report a moment longer, though, if only because its presumed audience—people in management positions, people with access to financial and technological resources that most of us don't have—are the same people with a real interest in seeing an Internet of Things come to pass. It seems as though the Internet of Things wouldn't be very useful, or necessarily friendly, to ordinary people.

The report mentions that when objects are linked into the global digital environment, they'll "churn out huge volumes of data" that will "flow to computers for analysis." This seems exactly right: A person couldn't monitor and synthesize the sheer amount of information feeding back from all of their possessions. You'd need a centralized processor taking care of it all, or else a team of employees poring over the data and picking out what seems relevant. Even then, a comprehension bottleneck, taking place right around the point where humans take over from computers, seems inevitable.

The examples of the pill-shaped cameras and the smart farming equipment describe scenarios where someone places a sensor into a controlled environment and then listens to it, or gives it specific instructions. This is different from putting Wi-Fi receivers and RFID tags into everything that can hold them. You'd generate an ocean of signal, and the only people to whom that would be useful would be the people with the means to sort through it.

Not far into the McKinsey report, the authors mention a few of the business applications of an Internet of Things:

When a customer's buying preferences are sensed in real time at a specific location, dynamic pricing may increase the odds of a purchase. Knowing how often or intensively a product is used can create additional options—usage fees rather than outright sale, for example.

It's hard to get enthusiastic about this if you're one of the customers whose data is being collected. Not only would these practices be more intrusive than many people would like, they'd come with their own set of non-trivial security concerns. Should it become standard to gather and transmit information like "how often a product is used," it's not hard to imagine a scenario where that data gets hacked or otherwise made available to people who weren't intended to see it.

These aren't exactly new or imaginative concerns, but it's odd and perhaps a bit telling that the McKinsey report only refers to them in passing. In a moment where the national political conversation is shaped in large part by people worried about government intrusion into their private lives, the decision to gloss over this aspect in a discussion of the Internet of Things—which McKinsey finally admits, near the end of the piece, won't come to pass until major and unspecified evolutions in technology and the market take place—is both strange and not totally surprising.

The Internet of Things [McKinsey Quarterly]

Photo by crapavalanche, used under a Creative Commons license.