The internet has altered our lives in important but intangible ways: how we make friends and maintain relationships, absorb news and information, consume entertainment, and more. Now its latest outgrowth, the Internet of Things (IoT), promises to monitor and control the actual physical states of our environment and our bodies. If this new connective web develops as expected, it will change the simple acts of daily life—switching on a light, setting a thermostat, and buying groceries—into something you do by tapping your smartphone. More deeply, it may improve the human lot, or possibly debase it.
As is true for any new technology, we cannot confidently predict all the changes the IoT will induce. But we can find guidance from the early 20th-century novelist E. M. Forster, author of Howards End and A Passage to India, who foresaw the possibility of a similar global web in his remarkable futuristic short story “The Machine Stops” (1909), in which technology supplies everything that humanity needs.
Forster disliked the automobiles and aircraft that represented the great technological change of his era. In 1908 he wrote “…if I live to be old I shall see the sky as pestilential as the roads… Science, instead of freeing man… is enslaving him to machines.” His reaction sets the tone of his story as an anti-Utopian work that projects a dystopic future. In the article “Utopias in Negative” in The Sewanee Review, the critic and political essayist George Woodcock calls “The Machine Stops” a significant forerunner of two important dystopic novels: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1920) and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).
Forster’s pessimistic stance in “The Machine Stops” relates to his famous dictum that urges us to “only connect.” This humanistic value, along with Forster’s personal fear that the rise of machines would crush “such a soul as mine,” shapes his commentary on what technology may do to people – a commentary worth reconsidering today.
Not that there are many similarities between Forster’s story and the initial version of the Internet of Things. When the British technologist Kevin Ashton coined the phrase “the Internet of Things” in 1999, it comprised one basic idea: tagging real objects, such as parts needed for an assembly line, with tiny wireless chips that could be sensed so that each “thing” could be tracked in space and time via the internet. Ashton saw the IoT as providing efficient management of resources and products with benefits for business and consumers. But later he found a broader meaning and impact from using computers to manipulate real things as well as data, writing:
We’re physical, and so is our environment. Our economy, society and survival aren’t based on ideas or information – they’re based on things. You can’t eat bits [or] burn them to stay warm… Ideas and information are important, but things matter much more.
Now we are managing real things in ways that begin to match Forster’s imagined world, for the IoT now includes devices that actively affect our environment, well-being, and privacy: remotely controlled light sources, thermostats that automatically set temperatures, cameras that monitor traffic or scrutinize our activities. One early developer of this technology, MIT engineering professor Sanjay Sarma, thinks that “every light bulb, fan, and device” will eventually become part of the IoT—and the trend is unmistakable. The estimated five billion internet-connected devices in use today are expected to mushroom to 25 billion or more by 2020, several times the global population, with no end in sight.
This growth reflects the fact that Google, Apple, and other corporations see the potential of the IoT and are exploring its possibilities, though not always successfully. The South Korean electronics company LG has long proposed an “internet refrigerator” that supposedly simplifies life by automatically ordering more milk or eggs when you run low, but LG has yet to develop this grand idea into a workable and practical appliance.
Other IoT devices however are successful, such as the internet thermostat made by Nest, a company that Google bought in 2014 for $3.2 billion. This device is touted as learning through use so that eventually it automatically sets the temperature inside a home according to its occupancy and time of day, to provide optimum comfort and savings on heating and cooling bills. After some initial problems, the thermostat now gets generally favorable ratings and has been shown to produce at least modest energy savings. Some 500,000 of these have been sold despite a much higher price than for conventional units.
The IoT is likewise a natural partner for a recent technological breakthrough, artificial illumination from light emitting diodes (LEDs). After research that led to a Nobel Prize in 2014, these solid state devices have become available as light sources that use little electricity, last for years, can provide colored or white light, and can be controlled over the internet. In homes, or in cities like Copenhagen—which is installing new urban LED lighting with built-in sensors—whole banks of LED illumination can be manipulated to set a mood, or to direct traffic as conditions change under real-time IoT control.
Placing the environmental factors of temperature and lighting within the IoT fits perfectly into what Forster projected in “The Machine Stops,” which is set in a future where humanity has abandoned the Earth’s surface for a technologically mediated existence. Like everyone else, Forster’s main character Vashti lives alone in an underground room that she leaves only rarely. That is because it supplies all her needs through a shadowy central intelligence and mechanism, the Machine.
The Machine provides lighting and ventilation for this underground world, and though people are physically separated in it, the Machine links them. Vashti’s room contains little, but as Forster writes, it puts her “in touch with all that she cared for in the world.” Using video and audio, she can chat with any individual or lecture to a group. For stimulation or relaxation, she can select literature or music through the Machine.
This social interaction and entertainment uncannily foreshadow much of what the internet offers today through Facebook, Skype, iTunes, and so on. But the Machine supplies far more, for it meets all humanity’s material wants, delivering meals, clothing or a hot or cold bath on request to each inhabitant. It also provides individualized medical diagnosis and care at need, through apparatus installed in each room.
Vashti fully accepts this isolated, inactive existence and is unaware of its physical and emotional cost to her and to humanity. She is a dwarfish “swaddled lump of flesh… with a face as white as a fungus.” Though she cares for her son Kuno, she resists direct contact with other people. The human touch has been stripped of affection and meaning, and sex is reduced to brief couplings arranged by the Machine for procreation.
Not everyone in the story, however, consents to this life. Kuno once defied the Machine to climb to the Earth’s surface, where he is amazed to see Nature and finally understands what humanity has lost. But the realization comes too late, for the Machine begins to malfunction. First there are breaks in the music it supplies, then its lighting, food, and medical services fail. In the final scene, the Machine utterly stops, leaving Vashti, Kuno, and crowds of helpless, anguished people to die in darkness. The only hope is that a few surviving humans can rebuild among Nature on the surface.
Forster’s story ends in destruction, but no matter where the IoT takes us, it will not lead humanity to underground catastrophe. To be optimistic, if the IoT were widely accepted and used with care, it could benefit humanity—or, used thoughtlessly, could reduce humanity’s potential. Neither will happen soon, but the seeds of the Machine’s abilities already exist within the internet and the IoT; for instance, in the fast, widespread distribution of material goods. Like Vashti in her underground room, many of us no longer buy items in a store and carry them home, but order them over the internet and await their delivery—and we do not have to wait long, as retailers like Amazon push for ever-faster delivery. The wait times will shrink even further when self-driving and self-flying delivery trucks and drones join the IoT.
The delivery culture extends to food. Ordering prepared food online is increasingly popular, which could have implications beyond just quickly getting a hot pizza. Online ordering of groceries is now available through efforts like Instacart, which can deliver within an hour in 15 cities. If IoT food delivery systems become truly effective, there could be broad benefits in addressing the uneven availability of food across the world, which contributes to what is seen as a looming crisis in global food insufficiency.
The roles of the internet and IoT in medicine are also growing. These services may never replace face-to-face meetings with a physician, but we are seeing the rise of remote consultations that include medical records and images such as MRI results; and medical devices such as pacemakers for heart patients that are monitored by wireless connection. Then there is the explosion of wearable personal devices, such as the Fitbit, that track activity levels, pulse rates, sleep habits, and so on. Wirelessly gathered and analyzed, this real time data can motivate greater personal health awareness and lead to better medical care.
These future possibilities have convinced observers like Ernie Hood, writing in Environmental Health Perspectives, that the IoT could carry humanity into a more sustainable world. But remembering Forster’s reservations about technology, we must also consider its darker and potentially dangerous effects.
Two possibilities are loss of privacy and actual physical intrusions into our lives. Even the seemingly innocuous Nest thermostat makes private information potentially vulnerable by tracking when a house is empty. More extreme is the scenario of a hacker accessing a wireless heart pacemaker, say, to gain medical information, or far-fetched but not impossible, to commit murder. And if entire IoT systems like city lighting were to suffer security breaches, the result could be widely hurtful as in Forster’s story. Seriously robust security is a necessity for the IoT.
Another issue: what ultimate authority controls the IoT? In “The Machine Stops” humanity has come to worship the Machine as God. Today, though some enthusiasts show a cult-like devotion to technology, we do not give it religious weight. But in ceding our lives to the IoT, are we really ceding them to Google, as noted by Joseph Janes in his piece “Google Stops”? Or are we surrendering them to an even greater techno-corporate “God” that has come to be called simply GAFA: Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon.
The least predictable aspect of the IoT is how human nature will deal with it. In Forster’s story, Vashti—stunted, fungus-white, never having seen the sun—represents a humanity that has replaced an active natural life with a passive artificial one enabled by technology. Today, when food insufficiency exists alongside obesity; when people in some cultures must work hard to survive while in other cultures exercise is optional (and often spurned), will a push button, finger swipe IoT bring an equitable distribution of all that humanity needs?; or will it make a world where we abandon the couch or computer screen only to take the latest drone delivery at the front door.