Here is a somewhat lengthy and random commentary on the 2011 pamphlet by Rob van Kranenburg and Christian Nold, to which Rob referred me above: “The Internet of People for a Post-Oil World”. It would deserve its own topic, but as the title of this topic fits very well, I just leave this here (we can still split threads later if there is a need).
All quotes from the above pamphlet are used under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported licence.
The authors suggest an IoT as a non-commercial refuge, as an umbrella of emerging technologies that do not only serve capital but also facilitate grassroots survival networks in a world faced with ecological and social devastation. (p. 5)
We feel that unless we redirect our societal energies, we will be driving ourselves into a concrete wall of ecological, economic and social crisis. (p. 11)
Today, commandos are directed through the battlefield with the help of real time camera feedback. Tomorrow, consumers will be steered through smart shopping malls based on their status updates and spending profiles. (p. 15)
That’s quite a good illustration of the very different scenarios that can be supported by IoT technology. The first is empowering (though only in support of current elites). The other is disempowering (as consumers are force-fed avoidable consumption goods by exploiting human psychological weaknesses with micro-targeted ads). At least in online shopping, the second scenario is reality already.
I suppose what you’re heading for is realizing an empowering scenario for “ordinary citizens” using IoT and IT technology. And I very much agree that there is a huge unexplored potential for that. To this date, I don’t know of any existing system that would provide military-style “jointness” capabilities to citizens. If we had that around, and it would be in widespread use, it’s hard to imagine the power that citizens would have with that. Perhaps the closest real-life demonstration was the Spanish Indignados movement and the Arab Spring, both largely organized via Twitter messages. But what a poor substitute microblogging is for a military-style jointness system. It’s like I’ve heard once: “You can use a word processor software for everything, including writing a newspaper and organizing a revolution, but for most things there are much better tools for the job.”
While not the IoT angle directly, I have my own long-term interest in jointness software for civilians, including for grassroots movements and social organizing. (In my final thesis when studying computer science, I tried my hand at designing such a system. Not sure what value that thesis has in 2019, but yes, I have a history of interest in this stuff. )
[M]ost people reading this pamphlet will see dramatic changes within their own lifetime [due to climate breakdown]. This gives us a short time frame to build novel types of technology that will support strong local relationships that make areas resilient in the face of impending global failure. […] It seems clear that the present centralized system will break down. We will have to build a post-oil network composed of Islands of Things, […] made up of local units of organization and production. (p. 20)
It’s amazing how similar that sounds to my vision of the Autarkic City
There are moments when society is ready to act on a specific issue. (p. 21)
Totally agreed. With @natalia_skoczylas we witnessed this first-hand when we happened to be in Nepal during and right after the 2015 earthquakes. We even have a small research paper about volunteer disaster response from that time. But we also saw the limits of that grassroots action: it can get exhausted quickly (within weeks) by fulltime action because there is no external funder and people have to go back to their jobs. And it cannot adequately deal with problems that require large investments and infrastructure.
So if we want a successful grassroots response to climate breakdown, we need one that takes these limits into account. I am not too sure yet, but I think that action on the demand side will be more effective than directly fighting against greenhouse gas emitting big industries. Think a grassroots movement converting society towards being carbon negative, one house at a time.
What I have not (yet) found in your paper is a concrete vision of how a self-governed Internet of People society would look like. What tech, what software, what forms of social organization might it use? It’s still a bit of an abstract vision to me. (Admittedly I am going into the other extreme … my visions tend to take the form of lists of equipment, and of course society won’t implement it like that …)
Extending this Cuban example, the Russian anarchist Kropotkin offers a powerful vision of production through small-scale physical workshops, which in the Internet of People brings together low and high-tech bike repair and sensor networks. […]
This model of local workshops allows people to do a variety of work, some manual, some intellectual, some exciting and some less so. If we produce things in our local area, we get fulfillment from our multiple roles of manual work as well as empowering brainwork and will not need “hobbies” anymore. The Internet of People enables a vision of globally interconnected workshops that change the type of things we produce, as well as our social and cultural relations in which we do so. (p. 26)
I think this is such a 2011 thing to say 2011 was prime time for low-cost FDM 3D printers, for Open Source Ecology with their vision of an open source civilization, and so on. It felt hopeful, and I like the memory. And whil I still stick to that vision of an open source and collaborative world – the local manufacturing revolution turned out to be way more difficult to start than we imagined in 2011 …
In my view of today, that is largely because people are locked into the mainstream economy of with its price competition and the resulting winner-takes-all mass production by the current money system and by the huge needs for money that are not simple to replace with “local production” in the sense of self-supply, as it needs economic exchange. For the urban population, that is mostly rent. And as and while (1) money is scarce for much of the population and (2) prices of non-locally-produced item (read: from China) are cheaper, people are locked into the mainstream economy for the time being.
Recognizing this resulted (for me and a co-founder) into another startup called PayCoupons that aims to replace money in the local economy with algorithmic network bartering, to unlock local production in a space protected from global competition over price alone. More about that here.
But starting that kind of marketplace in Europe while the economy is officially “well” is difficult. As dark as that sounds, we’ll need another economic crisis before a tool like that will get the attention it deserves.
In the coming years, […] [the IoT Council] can advise governments and institutions on how to transform into interconnected workshops. (p. 30)
I like that vision of interconnected workshops Has there been practical progress on proposed standards for distributed manufacturing in the years since the publication of the 2011 pamphlet?
In particular, I am interested in standards for versioned, collaborative development of designs for physical items, including dependency management between them. It would be “like Git for physical products” and “like a software package management system for installing designs of products”.
With that in place, it’s not far fetched to automatically or semi-automatically feed this into CNC machines or a flexible manufacturing system like CubeSpawn.
But so far, I don’t know of any practical standard for this kind of data exchange. There has been SKDB, VOICED and now Wikifactory, but none of it is usable for its stated purpose so far. I am always tempted to just create that standard myself, package the first 100 existing open hardware projects in the format, and see if it will catch on …
We exist in complex relationships with our environment simply by living our everyday lives. If we would get feedback on how we feel and how we might feel better, how our talents could get recognized, how we could relate better to our neighbors, then having sensors and actuators make sense. (p. 37)
I guess is this is where our visions for the future start to differ. My vision, with its focus on autarky-enhancing technology, is to reduce the complexity of the modern environment to something manageable. Complexity to be managed by an end user will actually rise as people will have to learn a lot of new and strange tech. But most of the hidden and uncontrollable dependencies from external entities of a mass society will vanish, this way putting citizens back in control of their lives and wellbeing.
Proximity […] In the future Internet of People, we will have to rely much more on our immediate environment for support. We are already linked to our neighbors with power and water but in the future we may have to rely on them for growing food and making things. What we are really talking about is a kind of mutual responsibility that we might call solidarity. (p. 42)
I read this as a high-tech reincarnation of the village-based economies that existed in central Europe until about 1960, and that still exist in many parts of the world, including villages in Nepal that I visited. Good solutions come back when unsustainable forms of social organization end
If only there was a way to persuade villagers in Nepal that the system they have is good to begin with and that they just need to add some tech to make everything more efficient, safe and comfortable. No need to break the whole structure of society down in the name of “progress”, just to come back to the same roots decades later.
This will leave our environment and us with an amorphous mass of data to make sense of. It’ll also bring about new identities for things. What are our tools for sense making at the moment? […] We want everybody to be able to draw on the largest and most available amount of data. [I]t will also create new forms of decision making for large groups of people and small communities on the basis of newly available data. (p. 47)
While I don’t have much of an opinion about big data, other than that it’s useful for scientists and others with the time and skills to analyze it adequately, here’s a complementary perspective that needs IoT devices as well, and right now.
Let’s call it “tiny data”. In the highly resilient society of the future, we’ll have to rely on local resources much more than now. This can be a city-level or neighborhood-level micro-grid or an off-grid house, or probably all of these to have multiple levels of redundancy. I am personally living off-grid and from that experience I can tell that good monitoring of ones energy, water, wastewater, heating and cooling systems is essential for wise resource use and proper functioning. For example, I know that I need 500-700 Wh of photovoltaics energy a day, and that I can cope with at most 10 days of gray sky in winter. That’s where IoT comes in. Network-connected sensors and an evaluation software would combine local consumption data and weather forecasts into behavior recommendations.
For an energy system using this kind of technology for monitoring, demand management, “energy solidarity” and other purposes, I published some notes in an earlier treat we were having here in the IoH forum. No such thing exists on the market today.
The total overview is impossible. […] It is the communal and participatory uncovering of the machinery that administers “area construction,” which creates what I call system thinking. System thinking is the personal and communal awareness that all things are connected in multiple networks of agency. It thus creates a space for multiple intelligences to form new kinds of awareness. (p. 48)
Again, let me introduce a complementary perspective: systems engineering. Indeed, we may not be able to ever uncover or understand in whole how our world or local environment works. But instead of accepting this as “a feature and not a bug”, the other option is to reconstruct the world, including the technosphere and social relations, to conform to principles of good systems engineering (hiding of complexity, public and private interfaces, reusability, redundancy and so on). A too complex world is an engineering failure – because too much social complexity is the main risk for societal collapse in the face of an arising resource shortage (as per Joseph A. Tainter: The Collapse of Complex Societies).
What I have discovered in my various explorations of and experiments with autarky-enhancing technology is that this is a largely unexplored area with a high potential for creating a resilient and sustainable civilization with modern comforts and only the essential complexity. This is certainly no silver bullet as there will not be total autarky on the household or city level in the foreseeable future. I’m mentioning it as a complementary approach to the problem of complexity: instead of only using better mental models to understand it and deal with it, we can also discard it and “start from scratch”.
Summary: the last part of the book, “Sociability Standards for the Internet of People”, is a good summary of the design guidelines developed throughout that document (also good for everyone interested to join the discussion but needing a tl;dr). Summing up my comments by going along that list:
Proximity: I see that as an essential property of resilience and economic fairness in a future society, and it fits right in with my own notion of local autarky and PayCoupons, our innovation for local economic exchange. Proximity and local production should not be confused with anti-globalization: all knowledge should be globalized, for proper global collaboration. So it’s rather in the realm of alter-globalization.
System Thinking: Above, I proposed systems engineering as a complementary approach to system complexity, and a local and fully circular economy (“autarky”) as a possible outcome. I like the practical proposals though, esp. “Systems that automatically generate a fixed, public discussion url for each item.”. That would be a good entry point to share user-generated knowledge about using an item / type of product, to report issues and contribute to its development in an open source manner, and to interface with a lending system, second hand offers of the product etc…
Affect: That’s really interesting to me as it shows a gap in my designs for local autarky so far. I have no idea though what kind of changes could incorporate a space for emotions and conflict into local autarky tech – I might not be the right person to have that idea, but then somebody else will be.