Justin McKeown

Senior Lecturer in Fine Arts

05.A02. Technology

On Human Beings and Being Human: Ethics and The Internet of Things

The Internet of Things / Context

The Internet of Things is an umbrella term used to describe the next phase in the evolution of the Internet. While the first phase of the web can be thought of as the semantic web – the Internet of hypertext pages – the next phase is an internet of ‘smart’ objects – or ‘things’ – communicating with human beings and each other over network connections: This is the internet of Things.

Underpinning the development of the Internet of Things is the ever increasing proliferation of networked ‘smart’ objects in everyday usage. Such objects include laptops, smart phones, fridges, smart meters etc. The number of ‘things’ in common usage is set to increase worldwide from the current level of 4.5 billion to 50 billion by 2050. By dint of this, life as we know it on the planet will undergo a multitude of miniscule but incredibly significant changes that will alter not only how we relate to each other and the world, but also how we conceive of ourselves as beings.

Behold, I show you the Last Man. “What is love? What is creation? What is longing? What is star? Thus asks the Last Man, and he blinks… Everybody wants the same, everybody is the same, whoever feels different goes voluntarily into the madhouse… “We have invented happiness,” say the Last Men, and they blink… (Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, p129)

The drive towards the Internet of Things and the recent UK government attempt to launch the concept to industry and academia heralds a time where not only the means by which we relate may change drastically, but the very definition of what it means to be human will also be challenged. While in many ways we may imagine the advent of the Internet of Things not only as the first major evolutionary step in the existence of the internet, we also may conceive of it as a step in the evolution of our species; for as research has shown the brain already treats tools including computers as temporary parts of the body and thus, phenomenologically speaking we are more amalgams of man and machine than we may realise. The potential offered by the technology underpinning the Internet of Things is extreme and, as with all extremes, opinion on its deployment is widely divided. At the root of these divisions are issues of ethics and agency with those on either side of the divide perceiving the challenges enmeshed in the technology to be the key to man’s emancipation or total enslavement. While some are preoccupied with such techno-utopian dreams (or nightmares) of augmented life I cannot help but feel that – if we are to become Übermensch rather than letzte Mensch – before we step off down the road towards the post-human we’re all going to have to learn to become fully human first. To be clear: We will have to become cognizant of our humanity and take on all the responsibilities that come with that. This will require serious consideration of all our ugliness as much as all our beauty.

It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. While this may be true, one might also speculate that in the early 21st century it may also be paved with smart phones and tablet computers. These devices have obliterated the revolutionary potential promised in the early days of the world wild web wherein users had to be not only consumers of media but also tech-savvy producers not simply of content; but platforms. These egalitarian dreams now seem like distant memories: a fuzz in the mind like that left behind after a really good party. The web has since been sanitized – and will be sanitised even more – by commerce in its drive to mine the network potential of so much conversation and welled concentration of attention.

In contrast to recognising the more ugly or negative aspects of our being we must also acknowledge the aesthetic and its expression through art, romance and play. These aspects of our being are evermore considered social irrelevancies. If anyone doubts this all they need do is examine the areas most badly affected by governmental austerity measures in Europe, for example the Cuts to Arts funding in the UK . If we remove the cultural articulations of the things which in themselves are the liminal edges of our knowledge then we will be left only with a machine. Let us not forget in our haste that – to borrow another sentiment from Nietzsche –

Frederic Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathstra, p46

‘One must have chaos in one, to give birth to a dancing star’ and further, that the seeds of chaos are found in active aesthetic experiences.’

To summarise, bound up in the desire to eliminate the irrelevant is the drive towards an economy of efficiency. Within this is the preposition that some aspects of life are superfluous and therefore expendable. Yet those aspects that are viewed as such are frequently those things that are most quintessentially human. One must recognise that the drive to eliminate irrelevance in the name of efficiency is, if carried to the absolute logical extreme, the logic of the death camps. As a species we’ve been down that road before and we know what lies at the end of it. To attempt to become fully human is the only viable option no matter how difficult or painful it may sound to us.

Thus, in contending with the question of how the integration of the Internet of Things might be possible without succumbing to some form of techno-utopian fascism we must recognise that what we are discussing is implementing a new system of power. In recognising this we must acknowledge that to create a system of power is to impose a social dynamic. At the root of this new system of power is the desire to find a means by which we might construct a symbiotic approach to systems of power and the social through technological evolution. In his report titled Ethics Report Venice Internet of Things week, Rob Van Kranenburg acknowledges the potential challenges we may face in terms of the potential for inadvertently creating techno-utopian fascism through the deployment of the Internet of Things. This is made most explicit in his report when he cites Ernest Benda, who stated:

Ernst Benda (1983), German Federal Constitutional Court (Chief Justice), on the court’s decision to stop the 1983 census and create the novel basic right on ‘Informational Self- Determination’ (Informationelle Selbstbestimmung). Cited by Rob Van Kranenburg, Ethics Report Venice IoT week, p16

The problem is the possibility of technology taking on a life of its own, so that the actuality and inevitability of technology creates a dictatorship. Not a dictatorship of people over people with the help of technology, but a dictatorship of technology over people.

Building on Benda’s sentiments it is worth considering that somewhere in the middle to late part of the last century the locus of fascism began to migrate from human beings into machines and legislative systems. Today fascism evermore resides in the systems we continue to build for ourselves. The technological implications of the Internet of Things bring another layer to this complexity, but they are not the only layer and therefore technology should not be cited as the sole source of this problem.

In considering the problems of the various faces of fascism one is forced to cast an eye to history so as to consider the relative differences and similarities of both former Soviet and Capitalist systems of power, and the subsequent social dynamics that they gave birth to. In so doing one must acknowledge that while the problem of the Soviet East was the right to free speech one of the unacknowledged problems of the Capitalist West has been the right to be properly heard. Thus while communist systems were aggressive in their repression of free speech capitalist systems can be just as aggressive in their indifference to what is being said. If we are to build a world for human beings – or indeed post-human beings – then we need to think about this matter very carefully, for if the machine or its algorithm will not function properly for one person at the point of interface then the person is left hanging while the rest of the machine turns – oblivious and indifferent. In that moment technological dictatorship comes into being for the individual who is powerless to respond to it. One need only look at things such as the actual functioning of social security systems in the UK to know the social problems that the deployment of legislative systems through technology can have when interfacing with human beings. People must be people first and data second. It’s often the other way round when it comes to conceiving of legislation. This issue must be rectified if the Internet of Things is to avoid being a system of technological dictatorship.

Such concerns may be seen as the flip side of the utopian vision of the Internet of Things expressed by Han-Jürgen Kugler and Stefan Ferber:

Hans-Jürgen Kugler and Stefan Ferber, The Internet of Things & Services: Renaissance Re-Born, cited by Rob Van Kranenburg in Ethics Report Venice IoT week, p2

The Internet of Things & Services is a major driver for technological development and will dramatically change products, services, and markets. It not only empowers people to collaborate, but any product or service developed by people – or those emerging from such collaboration. The technology will definitely change business, but the social implications will change our society beyond our wildest dreams. We are in the transition to a new society: We are in the 2nd Renaissance.

While their optimism is to be admired the Utopian nature of this vision obscures the challenges previously addressed in this text. Further, while I am in agreement with the notion that we may be entering into a second Renaissance – one that is technological – I am also aware that the inverse may be said in terms of other aspects of our development. For while we may be in a technological 2nd Renaissance – indeed the governmental drive towards big Data and interdisciplinary research in universities confirms this – our development in the history of ideas and philosophy may be heading in the opposite direction. It is important that I take a moment to clarify what I mean.

The Renaissance was the historical moment when man began to stop basing his philosophical assertions on questions of the unknown or supernatural. It was in this moment that a move towards science and reason began. Man began to look at the world around him to try and reason out his relationship to it based on empirical facts. To put it simply he began to stop asking ‘what if’ and began instead to start asking ‘what is’. Yet since the tragic events of September 11th we have made a sharp leap back towards ‘what if’ as an organising principle of the logic through which we structure the social.

As a result we have passed many repressive laws and created a much more policed less trusting society. Thus while it can be argued that we are entering a technological 2nd renaissance it can also be argued that we may be entering something of an ideological 2nd Dark Age. This is a startling thought, but one that we should fully consider in trying to weigh up the question of how to contend with the challenges of still not being fully cognisant of our humanity while striving for a post-human state of being through the deployment of the Internet of Things.

In considering the potential impact of the Internet of things upon the cohesion of society Rob Van Kranenburg asks:

What kind of people do children that grow up like that become? Is getting lost a bad thing? Is optimizing time always good? Do you want to be told your daily schedule while you are brushing your teeth? (Rob Van Kranenburg in Ethics Report Venice IoT week, p5)

In raising these points Van Kranenburg confronts us with some of the most significant questions we may have to answer when considering the implementation of the Internet of Things. Attempting to answer these questions may go some way to negating the dangers of much of the Utopian rhetoric prevalent on the subject of automated society. While answering these questions is beyond the scope of this text, what is significant to note with regards to them is that it is man’s attempt to grapple with the unknown and even unknowable aspects of being that arouses human stimulation and therefore encourages individual humans to develop. Thus if our children were to grow up in a fully automated world would we not lose the sense of enquiry that has characterised our development as a species from cave dwellers making fire, to scientists making atom bombs? If the challenge were removed from life by optimizing everything wouldn’t we be removing one of the most significant catalysts to both individual and societal development? If we were to do this regardless then we would have to look to game theory and game structures in order to find ways to simulate challenges in our optimized society. We would thus have to build challenges into the automation of our optimized society. The significant question is would these synthesised challenges be as effective as real challenges since we would know that they are synthesised?

Here the notion of the post-human is interesting. The recent rise in popularity of the notion of transcending the human is in fact a very old religious preoccupation. Often, as the political philosopher John Gray’s writing signalled, there is much in the modern reasoning of man and his relationship to science that seems like knew foliage growing over the scaffold of ancient ruins: the content may be different but the underlying psychological forms giving rise to them remain the same. Thus while we may be forthright in our assertions as to the significance of scientific progress it is also salient to remember and contemplate Gray’s remark that ‘Most people today think they belong to a species that can be master of its own destiny. This is faith, not science’ . In this way, with an eye cast to human history we have to ask ourselves if technological dictatorship is almost inevitable – or will mankind break with past form and surpass himself as he strives toward the Übermensch? Perhaps, the answer to these questions lies not in the design of networks and interfaces but in the design of our systems of education and the means by which we seek to empower one and other not only to participate in society, but also to create it and change it.

This is an edited version. The full text of the article can be found at -


Image © Sergiy Trofimov

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