The Future of the Internet: Everything, Everyone, Everywhere

Kaczynski typewriter

“amplified connectivity will influence nearly everything, nearly everyone, nearly everywhere.” (26)

“we can think of each person as a plug and each part of life as a socket…the transition will be relatively seamless and accompanied by little resistance” (26)

1. The Next Unabombers

A recent article appearing on the website of the UK newspaper The Telegraph was titled “As Technology Swamps Our Lives, the Next Unabombers Are Waiting for Their Moment”.  In a sense, to borrow a tech phrase, Ted Kaczynski may have been an “early adopter”; an early adopter, that is, of a violent methodology to resist all-encompassing totalitarian technological development.  Early adopters always pay an inflated cost but they also attract followers and help create trends.

Following Kaczynski’s arrest, it was alleged by some that he selected his targets from a zine titled Live Wild or Die or possibly from the Earth First! Journal.  Such suggestions are probably best understood as calculated attempts to link Kaczynski with such entities as a means of discrediting them; an attempt to blame the violence of one individual on a host of political enemies.  It’s guilt by association except that the association is completely contrived. In fact, Kaczynski deliberately sought isolation and didn’t have access to much more than a local public library—it’s beyond unlikely that he was attending zine fairs or relying on hand circulated photocopies from radical environmentalists as a means of identifying potential targets.  After all, targets can easily be found in mainstream news coverage  by anyone who is interested in looking.

2. “The Internet of Things Will Thrive by 2025”

For example, there is a new document that the “Next Unabombers” may be keen to read.  It’s not the pages of a radical zine.  It is a report that was just released last week on May 14 by the Pew Research Center focusing on the so-called Internet of Things.  It is a survey of experts, analysts, academics, journalists, trend trackers, futurists, and other self-styled gurus who offer their opinions and predictions on the future of the Internet of Things.  The title of the report—“The Internet of Things Will Thrive by 2025”—presents the opinions of those surveyed as being generally optimistic.

1,606 people responded to the following question (providing both a “yes” or “no” as well as an elaboration of their point of view):

The evolution of embedded devices and the Internet/Cloud of Things—As billions of devices, artifacts and accessories are networked, will the Internet of Things have widespread and beneficial effects on the everday lives of the public by 2025?

83% responded affirmatively.

And while more than 4 out of 5 indicated that they expect “widespread and benefiical effects” there is no shortage of warnings being sounded in the report…or, at least what sound like warnings to my ears (for it is sometimes difficult to ascertain if someone is horrified, ambivalent, or enthusiastic about their own predictions and it is all to easy to assume that something that sounds horrible to oneself was intended to sound that way).

Consider the following excerpts from the survey responses:

 “People will engage with information using all of their senses: touch and feel, sight, sound, smell, and taste” (7)

“Every part of our life will be quantifiable, and eternal, and we will answer to the community for our decisions” (8)

“There will be absolutely no privacy, not even in the jungle, away from civilization” (9)

“The effect will be widespread but pernicious…The Internet of Things will demand—and we will willingly give—our souls.” (10)

“the workplace plugged into the Internet of Things will be more productive and more prison-like” (10)

“A major global megatrend here is de-skilling—our children will learn less and achieve more” (19)

“Finally, my toothbrush will tell my dentist if it detects something that needs fixing.”  (19)

“The biggest effect will be government-sanctioned spyware in every aspect of our lives.”  (44)

“effects will be primarily to increase the level of control and monitoring of citizens to further de-skill jobs. It could be more dystopian than the Borg.” (50)

“The Internet of Things could be a major threat to society as we know it, and possibly, to our continued existence as a species on this planet” (50)

Many of these would not be out a place in a communique taking credit for some act of industrial sabotage.

3. Reading Past the Headline

How is the prevalence of such seemingly negative opinions consistent with the fact that over 80% of survey responders answered the overarching question about “widespread and beneficial effects” affirmatively?

At least a few survey responders provide an explanation themselves.

Stuart Chittenden: “My main concern is that the question asks about beneficial effects, which I can see with such devices, though the diminuation of the human experience, our uniqueness, and interaction with the world around us, may be at risk, too” (30)

The other difficulty with the question is that it is really two questions.

Internet law and policy expert Robert Cannon explains: “Will it have beneficial effects? Certainly. Will it be beneficial on balance when weighing the negatives—that’s another question.” (26)

The survey is worded in such a way as to guarantee a highly favorable headline with an overwhelming majority of experts successfully identifying possible “beneficial” effects; only the pathologically uncreative would be unable to imagine any benefit whatsoever.

Karl Fogel of Open Tech Strategies said: “we don’t need this, and most people aren’t asking for it. I’ve never been quite clear on where the demand is supposedly coming from.” Certainly Fogel realizes that sometimes demand simply needs to be manufactured.

4. Kaczynski’s Ideological Descendants

There are signs that the violent tactics employed by Ted Kaczynski may be catching on.  Groups in Mexico such as Individualists Tending Toward the Wild (ITS) and Obsidian Point have, perhaps even more recklessly than Kaczynski, adopted violent tactics to resist imposed technological development.  They have not needed to seek out targets in obscure places for targets are “nearly everywhere”. Triumphant news reports in mainstream publications announcing “breakthroughs” provide more than enough targets.

But it is important to read past the healdine to differentate friend from foe from bystander.  The apparent momentum of the technological juggernaut is not without weak links and self-doubt. There is no uniformity of opinion about a coming technological nirvana; even the so-called experts see the possibility of a future consisting of a technological boot stomping on a human face.  In fact, many of these experts are strategically positioned to best see the boot coming down, many of them are apparently ready to start sounding alarms.   They may not always be prepared to offer much in the way of tangible resistance but others clearly are—sometimes violently, sometimes recklessly.

The opinions expressed in the Pew report suggests that gleeful futurists like Ray “Live Long Enough to Live Forever” Kurzweill may be at least as far from the mainstream as Ted Kaczynski.  Perhaps Kurzweill and his ilk will be remembered as monsters while Kaczynski and his ideological descendants such as ITS and Obsidian Point will be remembered as astute, well-meaning, even if somewhat reckless.   History can be surprisingly willing to forgive excesses when they are excesses in pursuit of a more sane world.


Note: All numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in the original Pew report.