No Place Left to Hide
Everywhere you look around you, there’s a hidden world layered on top of the one you see. This world is made up of information and data, silently being measured, transmitted, and analyzed. Invisible connections between devices, routers, cellphone towers, satellites, and servers comprise this gigantic network and make everything possible from online shopping to GPS navigation to Pokemon Go. This network of connections is the internet of things (IoT), and it’s growing around you by the minute.
While speculative numbers on IoT growth may have been a little high, we’ve been able to zero in on the number the closer we’ve gotten to everybody’s target date of 2020. The world is on track to play host to between 6.4 billion and 17.6 billion devices by then (not including smartphones, tablets, and computers) according to estimates by Garner and the International Data Corporation. If we did include phones, tablets, and computers, that number would begin approaching well over 50 billion.
Smartphones should be included in the IoT conversation; however, because it’s precisely their technology that’s encroaching upon the last bastions of unconnected wilderness. ISPs and cellular service providers are becoming indistinguishable. Plans of expansion on both fronts means that sooner or later, there truly will be nowhere left to hide. The hidden world will permeate everything.
The Rise of 5G and Wireless Saturation
If anybody is pushing the wireless experience further, expecting all-connectivity all the time, it’s the wireless cell providers. T-Mobile has been hinting at its foray into 5G coverage on its own site for a while now, but after recently acquiring the airwaves at a government auction, the company has fully announced its plan to broaden its nationwide offerings via a next-gen wireless network by 2020. Interestingly, T-Mobile’s focus for 5G isn’t necessarily on speed but on coverage.
“It’s a surprising move given those airwaves operate on a lower band, which is great for covering long distances but won’t give you tremendous speeds,” writes Roger Cheng for CNET. “The move goes against the conventional thinking about 5G, which has spurred excitement because of its ability to give you a seemingly supersonic connection to the network. Instead, T-Mobile is stressing a better signal everywhere and the ability to manage multiple devices beyond the phone.”
T-Mobile isn’t the only company trying to bring the Internet to every nook and cranny on the surface of the earth. Google’s been trying to wrangle balloon-powered internet for a few years now, and are apparently getting closer to actually achieving such a lofty goal. Facebook, on the other hand, is opting to use drones to beam Internet to the far corners of the earth. DeVry predicts that this proliferation of connectivity will change urban areas forever, ushering in smart traffic lights, and parking sensors, to name just a few changes. The point is that, whether you like it or not, in the future, the Internet will come to you, wherever you are.
Ushering in the Age of AI and Wearables
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and we have to remember that. As we create more connections, we’re laying the groundwork for automation beyond our wildest dreams as well as the eventual rise of AI. Analysts are in agreement that these innovations will reduce risks and save lives: Stan Schneider writing for Electronic Design believes that the IoT can save up to 50,000 lives a year in the healthcare industry alone, while Adrienne LaFrance with The Atlantic posits that automated vehicles on the roads, relying on the precision of networked movement, could thwart up to 300,000 deaths a year.
The IoT will also enable widespread use of augmented reality (AR), bringing visibility to a previously hidden world of ones and zeros, from turning your world into a real life game of Portal to floating ads that you can only see with a pair of AR contact lenses. Manufacturing will be affected positively, as will retail, smart cities, and myriad other facets of living. Most people will notice the change in consumer electronic offerings before anything else, because smartphones, tablets, and wearable seem to be attached to our hips … but what if they really were attached to our hips?
It sounds semi-crazy, but the idea of “transhumanism” really isn’t new. People have been adorning their bodies with implants for utility as well as pleasure for some time, but only recently have we begun to see these technologies connect to the cloud. Wireless implantables have been empirically popular in the form of insulin pumps and as well as pacemakers, but new tech is being developed daily that could challenge the ways we experience life in our own skin. Elon Musk recently announced plans to connect your brain to the Internet directly — and while we’re at least two decades away from it, he’s dead serious about it. The potential benefits of being able to connect to an AI-powered internet via telepathy are astounding, but of course, with the good comes the bad, and the potential to do bad on the Internet of Everything is huge.
The Fight for the Future of the Internet
The battle for the future of the Internet will take place between consumers, corporations, independent hackers and cybercriminals, and the governing bodies of the world. Some would argue that it’s already underway. The biggest problem with the internet of things right now is just how insecure it is. With 1 million new malware threats released every single day, security should be a top priority — but it isn’t.
TechCrunch author Ben Dickson mentions how these insecurities and vulnerabilities can be exploited on various devices. Baby monitors, internet-connected cars and homes, even some of the wearables and implantables mentioned above — these are all under the threat of compromise by hackers. Imagine, for example, a hacker taking control of your smart home and cranking up the thermostat to 99 degrees unless you pay their ransom? Or a would-be assassin veering your internet connected car off the side of a cliff, or causing an artificial heart attack via your pacemaker?
While consumers might need to demand better security for products with such poorly built in security, some think that it should be the manufacturers and corporations using their power to implement it in the first place. Another option for securing the IoT is to call upon the government to regulate it — but this opens up a whole new can of worms to deal with.
It’s a long read, but Victor Luckerson’s “The Long Fight for the Future of the Internet” describes how government and corporate interests in controlling the net have been met with resistance in the past, but is slowly winning the fight. Back in 2014, net neutrality was a huge deal — John Oliver even made a big impact by covering it as a part of his Last Week Tonight series, in which he urged the public to fight for their right to a neutral net.
“On June 1, Oliver spent more than 13 minutes deriding cable companies for trying to institute fast lanes on the internet and the FCC for seemingly being willing to play ball,” writes Luckerson. “More important than the jokes, though, was Oliver’s call to action. He asked the ‘monsters’ of internet comment sections (his words, not mine) to turn their anger on the FCC, which was seeking public feedback about its net neutrality proposal at the time. ‘Seize your moment, my lovely trolls,’ he said. ‘Turn on Caps Lock and fly, my pretties!’”
While the argument for net neutrality is pretty well defined in terms of the traditional net, the question is: how will net neutrality affect the internet of things? When our cars, our homes, and even our bodies are connected to the internet, how will the government or big corporations throttle our connections? How will they decide to exert their control over what some call a basic utility?
Internet Connection vs. People Connection
Another concern with widespread internet connections is that the more we interact with technology, doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll become more happy. In fact, some studies have shown that the more people interact with social media like Facebook, the less happy they become.
There’s also evidence supporting the idea that more technology in general doesn’t necessarily make us happier. While yes, advances in healthcare tech, improvements in quality of living like water purification, and other technological achievements have extended human life (and human capacity to be happy), other factors have hedged that happiness. The hedonic treadmill, for example, explains how even after buying a brand new piece of tech, we experience only a slight increase in happiness that is quickly leveled out and replaced by our desire for “the next new thing” or for the things that somebody else has instead of yourself.
The problem is that the more connected we all become, the further apart we’re going to feel from one another — at least in intimate ways. The rise of internet trolls can be attributed to this phenomenon. People with volatile personalities wouldn’t feel comfortable saying half of the things that they say on social media and in blog comments if they were face to face with whomever they’re trolling. The anonymity provided by the internet empowers people to act nasty if they want to. As it expands, don’t be surprised to see trolls in new aspects of life.
While the internet has provided the human race with amazing opportunities and potential, we have to be wary of what we’re creating. The internet of everything is growing so quickly but still is characterized by major, potentially fatal, security flaws, an uncertain future in the face of governments and corporate regulation, and no way to tell how it will impact society.
This shouldn’t necessarily deter us from embracing an expanding internet but should instead inform how we proceed in its adoption. If we don’t demand tighter security, net neutrality, and conscious conversation about the expanding internet of everything and everywhere, we may just be stuck with a dystopian machination as our overlord, with no place to run, and no place left to hide.
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