By Enrique Lescure
It becomes increasingly clear that the future we are shaping for tomorrow will be considerably different from today, and that the 21st century can potentially become even more dramatic than the 19th century in terms of techno-social development. While the future is indeed shifting, we can see two competing trends which will shape the future. The first one is the increasing exponential pace of ecological devastation, which threatens to destroy the current biosphere and usher in a new dark age for humanity. The second trend is exponential technological development, in terms of computational capacity, information technology, miniaturization, bio-tech, renewal energy and space research development.
These trends will undoubtly transform not only our civilization, but our planet as well. Therefore, it has never been as important as now that we establish a common ground on which we can shape the future existence of the human species and its interrelationship with the planet. To a large extent, social and technological development is not intentional, but a result of emergent processes – meaning that when a new technology is introduced, it will change the way in which human beings interact with the environment and thus eventually transform society and even – in the far perspective – human culture.
While it is difficult to predict the future, it is far from impossible to see towards where technological development could lead us if taken to its logical conclusion. While some are believing that the history of the human civilization is deterministic and will naturally lead to its end-state – the post-1991 realignment in most cases – that is only appearing to be so. In fact, while emergence strives to flow like mighty currents, we fundamentally do have the power to steer it towards the direction where we can see the optimal goals from the perspective that our civilization has chosen to embrace.
We argue that one of the potential logical conclusions of the implementation and development of the Internet of Things is the establishment of an intelligently managed and integrated infrastructure. Such an infrastructure can be utilized in order to create a near-total overview over the usage of resource flows, energy, trade, production and distribution. Thus, from the emergence of the Internet of Things, a technate can be formed.
- Integrated computer technology and miniaturization means that applications can interconnect to optimize communication and information to optimize functionality within various fields.
- This process leads to the formation of intelligent cities, which in their turn will interconnect with one another and form larger and larger networks.
- Eventually, this could mean the establishment of a global integrated network which allows for a total overview over energy-, infrastructure- and resource management on our planet.
- This would present a great opportunity to exponentially increase our ability to manage resources sustainably while providing a good quality of life to all human beings, but also increases the risk for totalitarian centralized control.
- Therefore, it is paramount that we establish a dialogue on whether this transition is desirable, in what way it should be implemented and how we could ensure popular influence over the transition process.
- Fundamentally, the struggle is about who and how technology should be controlled during the 21st century.
Technological determinism and evolution
It is easy to imagine that the world we are living in today is the natural consequence of capitalism, industrialism, the scientific revolution and parliamentary democracy. To some extent, it is also true. For example, the rationalization process that the growth-oriented economy initiates when it transforms eco-systems into mono-cultures is the direction towards which the logical conclusion of Smithian Economics point. However, some characteristics of our current economy are to a large extent dependent on co-incidences.
One example is the ascendancy of the private automobile. Motoring has for three generations been such a natural part of western civilization that most people generally are taking it for granted. In the United States, a large part of the surface territory consists of highways, parking lots and the suburban regions made possible by the culture of motoring. The reliance on combustion engine cars have greatly affected climate change during the 20th and early 21st centuries.
However, neither the culture of motoring or the reliance on fossil-based fuels was a historical inevitability. During the early 20th century, there were cars that were powered from various differing sources, and it was not at all certain that the combustion technology would win the techno-evolutionary competition and become the dominant energy model for transport during that era. It was due to a series of historical accidents and investment patterns that this model won out.
Another example of a historical co-incidence was how the wild horse was hunted to extinction in North America during the older Stone Age, but how a small group survived on the Eurasian landmass and was domesticated. If the horse had gone extinct in Eurasia, or survived in the Americas, history as we would have known it would have been entirely different.
Thus, we need to look at technological development not as deterministic, but as evolutionary. Technology is developed on the basis of what has been tried before and proven to work, and thus constantly improves with baby steps. When new technological areas are discovered, the same process generally applies to them (unless these new technologies are outcompeted by established rivals that achieve the same aim). This also means that we can consciously choose what technological development we want to emphasise, and to a limited extent direct what effects on society this progress will have by consciously adapting our infrastructure to the future we are setting the course for.
On the Internet of Things
The Internet of Things can be defined in many ways – one of the simplest if to say that it is an observed trend. More and more, the minaturization of applications have allowed for a digitalization of previously non-digital technology. This means that the operational intelligence of everyday household items and infrastructure will increase, and that these items will be able to be a part of a large communications network.
If this technology becomes widely available in the market, we can imagine that it would not be unusual to see integrated homes, which reminisces of the kind of computerized homes seen in old sci-fi shows from the 1960’s, where people are operating their home environment through their voice or through small chips placed inside their own bodies.
Let us think further. These systems can make homes inter-communicate, allowing for example a more optimal energy distribution between houses within the same neighbourhood, or why not integrated fire warning systems, that would alert the nearby homes of a fire in an application? Or what about integrated waste management systems and automated aquaponics production systems within every habitat, as envisioned by Alexander Bascom?
Eventually, there will be smart cities where all of the infrastructure consist of fully integrated systems, that can monitor energy and resource usage, set up alternative plans for resource usage or assist in the making of such plans, and also to some extent self-manage.
This interconnectedness will grow out from the cities, connecting through power grids, roads and railways, and eventually entire states and continents will be interconnected. This will inevitably – if taken to its logical conclusion – make the existing economical, social and political power arrangements outdated and lead to a complete transformation of not only the human civilization, but of the very concept of civilization itself.
Eventually, what will emerge will be a planet united through a network which allows for the transparent overview and the centralized, de-centralized or integrated management of energy and resources. In short, humanity will be within the reach of establishing if not The Singularity, so at least a Singleton.
The risks of neo-totalitarianism
While there are many causes to celebrate aspects of the ascent of the Internet of Things, there are also profound risks that need to be analyzed and put into context. The foremost of these risks is the issue of power. Already today, we are seeing tendencies towards a greater and greater concentration of wealth and power in supranational financial institutions and in multi-national corporate entities.
If such structures are given control over the Internet of Things, we would most likely see a very predatory process, the reduction of popular sovereignty and the increase of surveillance and centralization. What could become a system that can help save the biosphere and empower humanity, can under the wrong conditions instead become a virtually un-overthrowable neo-totalitarian Brave New World scenario.
Therefore, the role of the Earth Organisation of Sustainability – and similar organisations aiming for a socially, economically and ecologically sustainable world – should be to increase the availability of this knowledge, but also of the applications and the ability to construct the applications themselves, to the general public and to local communities, within the context of a consciously evolving proto-technate.
What is a proto-technate?
A proto-technate (a term defined by dr. Andrew Wallace), is a consciously evolving infrastructure management system, which includes and empowers all participants through transparency, de-centralization and constant availability for education. The system is evolving by learning from its previous mistakes, and the goal is increased sustainability, as explained in The Three Criteria.
This means that the control of the Internet of Things within the context of a proto-technate would be given not to corporations, governments or supranational institutions, but to local, voluntary groups that would utilize these technologies to manage their own local environment and the sustainability of their neighbourhoods. This would also allow for a more diverse array of solutions adapted to the local and regional needs of communities and individuals.
In the city of Umea, we in the new EOS Board are aiming to establish an intellectual and practical centre for the development and utilization of technologies to be adapted for the transition towards a sustainable society. The first step would be the establishment of an eco-lab in Umea, through which many local groups – as well as the public – can become connected and learn how to make their imprint in the process of developing and implementing techniques.
Ultimately, if we have a vision of how the world should look like in 100 years, we must work locally and together with individuals and communities to make this a reality. Our main goal in this respect should be to help ensure that the control of the knowledge and the new technologies is in the hands of the people and that it is used in a context of forming a sustainable civilization.