Dystopian Scenarios and the Internet of Things (2023)

Dr. Gaia Scagnetti

The ThingsCon reportThe State of Responsible IoTis a collection of essays by experts from the interdisciplinary fieldThingsConCommunity of #IoT practitioners. It explores the challenges, opportunities and issues surrounding creating a responsible and human-centric Internet of Things (IoT). You can read it for your convenienceon mediumordownload a PDF.

The Internet of Things is a conversation about objects, discussing both the personification of things and the objectification of people.

personification of things

The ecosystem of meanings we grow around objects is a map of our experiences; it can tell about our disposition and personality, desires and fears, past and future. Objects speak to us, as in his first novelThings. A story from the sixties, where George Perec unfolds the characters' stories by tracing the landscape of their possessions and the evolution of their tastes. The way he describes these objects reveals their social significance and symbolic value: "When they stopped in villages to look at antiques on excursions in Paris, they no longer rushed straight to the china plates, to the pews, to the blown glasses demijohns and the brass candlesticks. (..) There was something forced in their predilection for objects which only the taste of the time declared beautiful: imitated pseudo-naive cartoons by Épinal, English-style etchings, agates, spun glass beakers, neo-primitive jewelry made of paste, parascientific apparatus. They still dreamed of owning such things.”1

Dystopian Scenarios and the Internet of Things (1)
Dystopian Scenarios and the Internet of Things (2)
Dystopian Scenarios and the Internet of Things (3)

But objects do not only describe the personal space; they play a role in defining our larger culture. Western society classifies historical periods according to the artifacts produced and the technology used: we are talking, for example, of the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age. In post-war America, the purchase of equipment, objects, furniture and accessories was considered a patriotic action intended to enable social balance through consumption. in the so-calledconsumer republic“Mass consumption was not a personal indulgence. Rather, it was a civic responsibility aimed at improving the standard of living of all Americans, a crucial part of a wealth-generating cycle of expanded consumer demand spurring greater production, creating better-paying jobs and, in turn, creating wealthier consumers who were able were fueling the US Save on their groceries.”2

Dystopian Scenarios and the Internet of Things (4)

The narrative surrounding design uses objects as the primary vehicle for imagination. A chair for an industrial designer is a form of special meaning, a revered object that embodies the history of the discipline and embodies its challenges - designing the first chair is like growing up, arite of passagefor the young creative people. It is a representation of the culture, ideologies and technologies of the moment of design and production, and at the same time a visualization of the designer's voice.

Every object is a blend of inner and outer reality3for its maker and also for its owner. We choose, buy and display objects to speak about ourselves, to express our individuality and participation, to define and prove our intentions.

Dystopian Scenarios and the Internet of Things (5)

However, this is not about personal branding. We tend to describe this phenomenon as an act directed towards others, an attempt to establish rank, assert tribal membership, create distinctions. We use idioms such as "status symbol", "cherished possession", "must-have" which represent a simplistic view popularized by certain advertising traditions of the 1950's. Consumption is more than just a compression of desire, it is not just what Bauman describes as the "dominant identity-forming sphere in society".4' and it is not limited to the mechanism of social distinction. Consumption is a defining aspect of modern society and culture5and, as Polanyi suggests, economic concepts are not only detached "descriptions of human behavior but have also become structuring features of the social order in modern times."[6]

Our society's relationship to objects is a complex and fascinating subject: our material culture, as the word suggests, is indeed a culture. Studies of material culture show that objects we surround ourselves with are a reflection intended to understand who we are rather than a communication with others: "The universe we seek to grasp is the universe of ourselves.” Objects are mediators of understanding and power. As Miller describes, “commodities were not representations of meaning or signs of social distinction, but primarily relational media”. When an object acts as an intermediary between different entities, it can connect or divide, it can be designed to allow or exclude: objects exercise control.

Dystopian Scenarios and the Internet of Things (6)
Dystopian Scenarios and the Internet of Things (7)
Dystopian Scenarios and the Internet of Things (8)

This is where the Internet of Things comes into play. The IoT's claim to mediate our relationships with others is driven by an interesting rhetoric. Sentences like "Put simply, when the information of the internet is added to previously dumb objects, the stuff becomes useful" (from wareable.com6) means your fridge isn't really useful until it's connected to and communicating with a network.

The fallacy of this rhetorical argument is obvious. Objects are obviously not dumb, as they absolutely do not require the internet to perform their assigned function - unless we expect their role to have changed. We used to rate an object by its ability to communicate and perform its assigned task to the user. A stupid object is badly designed, and consequently we don't understand what to do with it - the door we push when it should be pulled, the button that sends a message when we want a line break. A smart object is the one that makes a clear statement that we can interpret: the fundamental question ofaffordability. But IoT advocates aren't questioning the core function of our devices or their affordability, they're arguing for a new feature. The most significant difference between the old fridge and the new one powered by the IoT is that between an object thattalks to youand an object thattalks about you. In the IoT arena, something intelligent is something that talks about you; and it talks about you to other objects, to your boss, your insurance company, your friends, your government, the police, the officer who approves your visa, the human resources department who makes hiring decisions, etc. Talking about people who were once seen as characters perceived by lesser intelligence - great minds discussing ideas; average minds discuss events; Small minds discuss people7— is now promoted as a sign of ingenuity. Data is becoming more important than ideas, events and people.

Central to the discourse on the IoT is a conversation about data, a transdisciplinary effort to address ownership, privacy, sharing, representation, security, storage, standards, legality, liability, rights, and visibility (to ourselves and to others). .

objectification of people

As Benjamin says: “Humanity, which, beginning with Homer, was once the object of contemplation for the gods, has now become the contemplation of itself.8This is particularly relevant in the context of "reality" shows on TV, our social media and surveillance. Baudrillard confidently describes it in Telemorphosis “at a time when television and the media are less and less able to explain the (unbearable) events of the world, they discover everyday life, the existential banality.9

Baudrillard is very clear about the fact that it's not just about being observed, it's about making everything visible. Even more makes everything transparent in what he calls a voluntary bondage. “We are far beyond the panopticon of visibility as a source of power and control. It is no longer about making things visible to the outside eye, but about making them transparent to oneself through a penetration of control within the masses, erasing every trace of the operation.10

Inspired by these concepts in Telemorphosis, a team of designers11and I myself developed a speculative design project sponsored by Verizon. In September 2016, Verizon published the call for proposals for the Connected Futures Research and Prototyping Challenge; Among other things, they asked the teams to imagine and design a “future without phones” in 10 years.

Our team discussed and examined the role of surveillance in the future: The present seems to point clearly to a future where physical surveillance will be ubiquitous, facial recognition and image processing technologies will automatically identify anyone appearing in footage. Additionally, we were interested in examining the public's dissonant reactions to the issue of surveillance: a negative connotation when described in terms of video surveillance and government data collection, but a ridiculous and positive association with the data we voluntarily produce and share (locations, reviews, purchases, photos, etc.). Again Baudrillard: “…not to be seen and to be constantly visible. Everyone wants both and no legislation or ethics can get to the bottom of this dilemma – the unconditional right to be seen and at the same time not to be seen.12

Dystopian Scenarios and the Internet of Things (9)

Some features of this project were more like a design bet: we speculated on the disappearance of interfaces for wearable devices, we imagined a world in which some of the functions of a phone are provided by the space we inhabit as a diffuse and distributed access point more digital Contents. A place where architecture becomes an interface. The project was called Auteur.

Dystopian Scenarios and the Internet of Things (10)

Auteur was a service that allows accessing, deleting, saving or sharing footage from a surveillance camera, in real time, by gesturing hands on the camera itself. No need for a phone, no need for feedback: a flick of the wrist would tell a security camera to capture the exact image of that moment. In addition to the gesture-responsive camera system, we have developed a web-based interface to access and modify the content; Preferences could be customized and a scalable camera system that responded to gestures could be programmed.

Dystopian Scenarios and the Internet of Things (11)
Dystopian Scenarios and the Internet of Things (12)
Dystopian Scenarios and the Internet of Things (13)

Auteur was not conceived as a desirable service, but as a dystopian experiment in speculative design, developed with Verizon sponsorship and under their supervision. Developing such a project in such a commercial context was itself a provocation. We wanted to continue the tradition of the resistance movement and the art of surveillance; In homage to Reclaim The Street, we offered a way to reclaim your image, take back control of documenting yourself, and leverage existing systems. We created a 'dystopian' scenario in which the objectification of ourselves was completed and accepted, and this gave us an opportunity to reflect on the idea of ​​'dystopia'.

We usually label and describe a dystopian society as a future alternative, an imaginary other world. The term was first used in a policy speech by John Stuart Mill when he was discussing the government's Irish land policy. Mill defines "utopia" as something too good to be practical and "dystopia" as a proposition too bad to be practical. The original text recites: “Does the noble lord really think it possible that the people of England will submit to this? Allow me, as one who, like many of my superiors, has been accused of being a utopian, to congratulate the government on joining this good society. It is perhaps too flattering to call them utopians, they should rather be called dystopists or cacotopists. What is commonly referred to as utopia is too good to be practical; but what they seem to prefer is too bad to be practical. Not only would England and Scotland never submit to it, but the Roman Catholic clergy of Ireland also reject it. They will not take your bribe.13' The original text introduces the idea of ​​'submission': dystopia is a reality so unfeasible that no one would submit to it. Since Mill, the idea of ​​dystopia has evolved through culture to now denote an undesirable society, "a place one does not wish to be."

In literature, behind every dystopia is a utopia gone wrong or good goals that have degenerated:The way to the hell is paved with good intentions. Dystopian narratives can be classified into two main typologies: totalitarianism and post-apocalyptic. The former provides excellent insights into the context of IoT.

All totalitarian dystopian societies exhibit the same elements:

  • a hierarchical social structure based on profound inequalities
  • a propaganda and educational apparatus that teaches the best and only way of life
  • a culture with a solemn cult of victory and generalization of their personality traits
  • an invisible and ubiquitous surveillance infrastructure
  • a brutally unequal penal system
  • a closed separation between an "outside" and an "inside" usually defined by the presence of nature
  • a culture where individuality and diversity are discouraged
  • a public or individual dissent and an organized resistance

It is instructive to use these examples from the literature to assess our contemporary society. We obviously live in a society with an established hierarchy based on deep inequalities such as income, gender and race. We are being bombarded by a media infrastructure that is all interested in a more appropriate and "acceptable" way of living and being.

We cultivate a cult of personality around the winners, be they the new millionaires, unicorns or celebrities. Surveillance systems are ubiquitous and more present than we think, as Snowden has suggested. Our penal system is brutal and unequal, especially when it comes to race. Part of the population lives in gated community, separated by walls. Diversity is another goal, and uniqueness is discouraged; We are surrounded by voices of approval and affirmation, our safe echo chamber. Advocacy, dissent and resistance exist and thrive. We already live in a dystopian society. What role can the IoT play in this scenario?

In the tradition of dystopian narratives, there are always four main characters: the establishment, the workers, the hero, and the resistance.

These characters play a fundamental role in defining what the IoT is and will be, and the role each of us can play in its evolution. Would the IoT be a tool of the establishment, a means of labor exploitation, an instrument of resistance, or a weapon for our heroes? How we want to shape it and for whom is up to us. Since Utopia is a place of perfection that never exists and Dystopia is already there, we can all play out our own story on the current stage.

dr Gaia Scagnetti is program coordinator and full-time assistant professor in the Graduate Communications Design Department at the Pratt Institute in New York. Her current research projects discuss new pedagogies, strategies and approaches for higher education in design.

In 2010, Gaia Scagnetti completed postdoctoral research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Design Lab. In 2009 she received her Ph.D. Degree cum Meritus in Multimedia Communication at the Politecnico di Milano with a thesis on Visual Epistemology in Information Visualization and Mapping.

Her work has been featured at several conferences and exhibitions, as well as in publications and showcases. You can find her full portfolio atwww.namedgaia.com.

ThingsConis a global community of IoT practitioners dedicated to advancing the creation of a human-centric and responsible Internet of Things. Learn more atThingsCon.com, joinevent near you, andFollow us on Twitter.

This article is licensed under a Creative Commons license (CC by-nc-sa) license. Please name the author. You can also use the short link to link to this pagebit.ly/riot-report.

  1. Perek, George. Things. Imprint ed. White. Paris: Bag, 1987.↩︎
  2. Cohen, Lisabeth. 2004. A Consumer Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Post-War America. Journal of Consumer Research 31(1): 236–239.↩︎
  3. Ochsner, J.K. (2000), Behind the Mask: A Psychoanalytic Perspective on Interaction in the Design Studio. Journal of Architectural Education, 53:194–206.↩︎
  4. Bauman, Z. (2007) Consuming life, London: John Wiley & Sons.↩︎
  5. See Krisis, Journal of Contemporary Philosophy, 2012, Issue 1↩︎
  6. Wareable.com: What is the Internet of Things ↩︎
  7. Attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt. For more seehttp://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/11/18/great-minds/ ↩︎
  8. Walter Benjamin in Baudrillard, Jean. Telemorphosis: Preceded by dust breeding. 1st edition ed. Pharmakon. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Definitely, 2011.↩︎
  9. ibid↩︎
  10. ibid↩︎
  11. Gaia Scagnetti, Jillian Barkley, Kiran Puri, Ryan Schoenherr, Jennifer Sclafani↩︎
  12. ibid↩︎
  13. John Stuart Mill in Chapters and Speeches on the Irish Land Question… Nachdruck aus „Principles of Political Economy“ und Hansard’s Debates, 1870↩︎
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