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Devices on the Internet of Things are powerful and can influence us in ways we don’t fully appreciate or anticipate. This great power confers great responsibility on designers and product managers at companies producing these devices.

It is difficult to put into words the nature of the change these devices bring. I have grappled with metaphors to better understand or to better communicate the nature of the change that I perceive from my minuscule section of this galaxy. The internet of things is a vacuously expansive phrase. It is wonderfully enabling of technological progress and occluding of the challenges.

The thing is inert. A thing possesses little that is solid. Its identity is grey. Its function indistinguished. A thing doesn’t get associated with power relations. A thing is a character nobody is meant to notice, the unremarkable office functionary. The internet of such things can only be endlessly boring.

For the past six months, I have been revisiting the idea of a thing. Not frequently but often enough to be bothered by it. I don’t believe that the customary use of a thing gives due regard to the types of thing-ness the 21st century is bringing forward.

Even 80 years ago, Heidegger gave the archetypal understanding of a thing. When discussing the hammer, Heidegger remarked that it was but a tool and when we wielded it we extended our self, our being, into the hammer. Holding the hammer, it became an extension of ourselves allowing us to better imprint our will upon the world.

Heidegger’s notion is emancipatory for the individual. The world is replete with things, which represent boundless potential for the extension of our self.

Things though had striclty bounded agency. Their act was our act. Perhaps in a mechanical sense they could enjoy an automatic component but even that was a result of human intent and human programming.

The thing of the 21st century is a new beast. While not quite the equal of a human it is certainly an evolutionary leap above a hammer.

What is that thing which is now on the internet of things?

This is a deliberately philosophical framing. The thing in itself pre-occupied post-enlightenment philosophers up to, and even beyond, Kant. The asked how we knew of things out there in the world before us. Were they reliable? were they real?

The thing was reinvented after the enlightenment but that happened as a function of our epistemology, what we can know about things.

This time the thing is going to have to be reinvented but from the field of metaphysics. Does the thing have a capacity to act? Can that be ethical or unethical?

Consider the thing that now shapes the world apparently under its own steam. T This tweet today caught my eye as a mission statement of sorts for such things.

I wrote about this drive – the echo of Marcuse resounds from this tweet – previously. One Dimensional Man is a fantastic lens for the 21st century thing. The one dimensional man was motivated by instrumental rationality, the relenteless capitalist drive to commodify and make efficient. If we allow (a big concession I agree) this is in fact a fair reflection of society in late-capitalism, then we have gone and developed a thing in our own image.

What I see in the new thing is a different, distinctive, way of shaping the world. Perhaps it was too simplistic a way to understand the world but we used to think of things in terms of cause and effect. We usually caused and they usually effected.

Now devices are smart – connected – and have access to temporally extended datasets. The device anticipates. The devices nudges. The thing shapes us before we shape it.

This kind of thingness is new, organisms that can communicate in a network array, in two directions and have effective outcomes in the world are often biological. Mechanical thingness with these characteristics is a very human creation.

That we are setting up the majority of these things to the ends of efficicency, including making ourselves efficient, says a great deal about the poverty of our own imagination. Emancipation through more efficient jogging is hardly the stuff of utopia but it is the world we have.

My instinct is that if these devices take up a distinct metaphysical dimension then there are some ethics to be affixed to them. In the sense that this is an overlap between the human and the technological we might be in a realm analogous to assisted reproduction. Though the balance of agency has moved a little more toward the thing and away from humans.

If these things do take up that kind of space, then ethics on their development and use shouldn’t be too far behind.

But mostly – crickets.

I have a follow up brewing on ethics since we need a practical set of ethics – though the speculative does help enormously – especially considering the background against which these devices come into the world. Production now looks a lot like procreation at a global level. We all know how it happens on a smaller scale, at the global scale its just am ass of legs and babies.

Production now looks a lot like procreation at a global level. We all know how it happens on a smaller scale, at the global scale its just am ass of legs and babies. Ethics need to take account of this messiness. The market already has and is in the process of dumping garbage onto consumers and businesses.

 

 

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