How the Internet of Things Influences Democracy

By 2nd February 2016 Internet of Things, Politics

“The shift from a generation that started out unconnected to one that is growing up connected will result in conflicts, disruption, and eventually the redrawing of our societal expectations. The human race has experienced these shifts before — just not at the speed and scale of this shift.” – Om Malik

The Internet of Things has the potential to vastly strengthen the democratic values and institutions that together form the bedrock of Western civilisation. Collectively, these technologies facilitate the movement of social and political power from the ‘centre to the edges’. However, in order for this vision of our connected future to come to pass, people have to demand the same level of disclosure and transparency of data from hitherto powerful institutions as they currently do from us. The most successful companies in the age of the Internet of Things (IoT) will created products and services that are at once hyperpersonal, transparent and take to heart the protection of individual privacy and security.

The Internet and the World Wide Web have strengthened democratic values, so it has been claimed. By providing everyone connected to the network the opportunity to share their voice, the Internet and the Web become the digital embodiment of one of the great achievements of democracy; the ability for people to contribute their voice to global society. People now, to a greater or lesser extent, can share anything, anywhere at any time.

We are confronted with an imminent avalanche of Internet connected devices, services, data and people which together comprise the Internet of Things, a collection of technologies that promises to revolutionise business, governance and society in much the same way as did the Web 26 years ago.

From one perspective, it is possible to see how the IoT will further concentrate social and political power in the hands of institutions and companies with the effect of submitting people to even greater surveillance (orsousveillance) than we have been subject to. The most obvious place to witness such contemporary sousveillance is in the behaviour of self-tracking applications and hardware that have proliferated in the marketplace today; sensors that track everything from our physical movements to the strokes our toothbrushes make, to the availability of car parking space. These technologies are capable of collecting digital data about our interactions with the physical world and transmit that information into the cloud which will be owned by aparticular organisation or subject to analysis by governments if required.

This vision of the future is not science fiction. Data-driven governance in areas such as crime exists as a means of predicting and preventing criminal acts before they occur. This type of governance has been termed Algorithmic Regulation and is used in assisting cities in areas such as counter-terrorism and fraud.

In the wake of the Snowden revelations, it is entirely conceivable that that the Internet of Things is taken to be a boon to institutions and companies invested in monitoring human behaviour. For instance, insurance companiesalready install Internet connected black boxes into cars to create data-driven insurance premiums.

Shifting Power & Radical Openness

If we, in 10 years, have produced everything I can imagine, we’ll have failed. The idea is to produce everything other people can imagine.” Tim Berners Lee – 2008

If the manifest democratic potential of the Internet of Things is nothing more than a colossal data collection network for the purpose further interpreting human behaviour for short term economic gain then a tremendous opportunity will have been missed. This panopticon-esque vision is also unimaginative to conceive of the vast quantities of data and capabilities that the IoT provides.

A more compelling vision is that the Internet of Things will migrate social and political power from the centre to the edges, continuing its trend to quantify and liquify the physical world. As the IoT grows into an immense network, the trillions of sensors and devices aggregating and communicating data with the network will automatically make decisions on behalf of, and in the best interests of their User, essentially evolving into an Internet of Autonomous Things. This was the opinion of IBM’s Paul Brody and Veena Pureswaran in their recent paper on device democracy and the Internet of Things in which they suggest that in order for the IoT to function properly, devices will be able to make important decisions on their own. Think of a self-driving car automatically swerving to avoid an obstacle, or driving according to a predefined safety pattern as defined by your insurance company to comply with a particular policy. This is the age when IoT devices, data and people becomeintelligent agents. Power, in this scenario, migrates from the centre (institutions) to the edges (Users).

It’s not a stretch to imagine that once devices are safely and securely making intelligent decisions for us on our behalf as part of a giant hyperconnected network, that people will become more involved in democratic processes. As more of our information becomes digitised and collated in the Cloud, a greater awareness of the power and salience of data and our role in relation to that becomes essential for an Internet-connected society. The demand for greater data transparency will become commonplace and companies and institutions that do not respond to this will be supplanted by those that do.

Progressive government initiatives such as Data.gov and Publicdata.eu are a start but which government will suffer the same fate as Kodak and Blockbuster Video? While Users are required to share their data on a daily, almost minute-by-minute basis, institutions are not.

Business and governance models that incorporate low barriers to entry, privacy, security and transparency will do much to ensure success in this new collaborative, connected, and data rich environment.

Of course greater data democracy is only one part of our total democratic network, but it is a significant part, and one that can have significant ramifications as our interactions with government and businesses is increasingly mediated by ones and zeroes. The IoT not only has the potential to make us healthier, more efficient and safer, it can also render us better informed and make government and governance more participatory than ever.

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Managing Director at Semantica Research
Lawrence Ampofo is a thought leader on the impact of digital technologies on humans and society. Lawrence is a trained political scientist, strategic communications consultant, author, trainer and speaker who focuses on the impact of emerging digital technologies on the geopolitical system and global business.
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