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The Internet Of Someone Else’s Things

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The Internet Of Things is coming. Rejoice! …Mostly. It will open our collective eyes to petabytes of real-time data, which we will turn into new insights and efficiencies. It will doubtless save lives. Oh, yes: and it will subtly redefine ownership as we know it. You will no longer own many of the most expensive and sophisticated items you possess. You may think you own them. But you’ll be wrong.

They say “possession is nine-tenths of the law,” but even if you physically and legally own a Smart Thing, you won’t actually control it. Ownership will become a three-legged stool: who physically owns a thing; who legally owns it; …and who has the ultimate power to command it. Who, in short, has root.

This is not a hypothetical situation. Your phone probably has three separate computers in it (processor, baseband processor, and SIM card) and you almost certainly don’t have root on any of them, which is why some people refer to phones as “tracking devices which make phone calls.” The New York Times recently ran a story about cars being prevented from starting because payments were days late. (And as CityLab points out: “Losing transportation could mean losing everything.”) Consider also the recent discovery that Belkin routers apparently had to connect to Belkin’s servers before they would connect to the rest of the Internet.

As The Atlantic puts it:

the smarter one’s things, the greater the possibility that they’ll be conscripted into schemes you never would have imagined and might not like.

The fundamental issue here is that the Internet of Things will not have a standard set of open APIs for consumers. (Well, there’s ThingSpeak, but it’s not exactly widely supported.) You can’t get your Tesla to dump all of its data to a server you specify. While Nest has a public API, they maintain gatekeeper control over it. (You may think: “Of course!” — but imagine being told that you can’t use Safari to access any Google services without Apple’s explicit consent and approval.) When you buy a Smart Thing, you get locked into its software ecosystem, which is controlled by its manufacturer, whether you like it or not.

Techno-utopians like to argue that open systems always win, but that simply isn’t true, as the mobile era has shown. Android is more open than iOS, but for most intents and purposes, both are walled gardens.

So are we doomed to a future of fifth-column Smart Things that we don’t really own, talking behind our backs to an array of siloed Stacks?

…Maybe. But not necessarily.

For one thing, I suspect that at some point, after the first wave of the Internet of Things, open APIs and root access will become a selling point. Either enough customers (especially business customers) will want them badly enough, or smart hardware will become enough of a commodity that startups will start selling “repluggable” Smart Things, which buyers can root and configure to speak to the server(s) of their choice.

More interesting to me, though, is the possibility of a decentralized Internet of Things; smart things which don’t communicate with any central server, but rather with a peer-to-peer, perhaps blockchain-based network. Consider the way FireChat is being used in Hong Kong, so that protestors can communicate despite the authorities’ control of the mobile networks. You don’t always actually need a central server, especially if you have a distributed-consensus system — like a blockchain — for longer-term data storage and algorithmic coordination.

I concede this is a handwavey vaporware notion, but, well, I believe it’s an important handwavey vaporware notion. Similarly, a la Overstock or Reddit:

As someone who often argues that capitalism needs to evolve as technology remakes our societies and economies, I’m not necessarily opposed to a subtle redefinition of “ownership.” But I don’t want it to come to mean “transferring de facto control over every interesting thing in my possession to distant corporations.” Bring on an open, decentralized Internet Of Things, eventually. The Stacks control quite enough already.

Image credit: Edal Anton Lefterov via Wikimedia