The internet of everything and nothing?

By Ray O'Reilly

Jerry Michalski, the founder of the ‘Relationship economy expedition' (REX), shares his insights on the future of the .

Monday 25 May 2010

From 1987 to 1998, Jerry Michalski was a analyst, focusing not on quarterly earnings but rather on which technologies would be useful and which would be distractions, what trends and forces create new potential, and where all these forces might take us over a 20-year timeframe. For the last five years of that period, he was the managing editor of Esther Dyson's monthly tech newsletter Release 1.0, as well as co-host of her annual conference, ‘PC Forum'. He was fortunate to be on duty when the internet crept up on us all.

Since 1998, he has been an independent consultant, doing business as Sociate, a name he coined because he is skilled at associating ideas and people, and also because he believes that the social changes that we are going through as a result of all the new connectivity (e.g. internet, mobiles, inexpensive cameras, video sharing, tweeting) will be more profound than the structural and economic changes we have already seen.

What do you understand by the term ‘'? Isn't it a misnomer ― aren't we already seeing it?

The internet as we know it is maybe 15 years old. It's very young. From my perspective, we are pretty early in a longer process that may take 30 or 50 years to complete. This is one of those moments of punctuated equilibrium, the kinds of moments it's really nice to be alive during.

Because there's so much change going on, the internet is always evolving. Right now, it's quite plastic. The cost of experimenting with it is very, very low, and there are practically no barriers to entry.

The internet crept up on us. It was designed out of a defence project by engineers who didn't have a stake in the game. They hardly cared whether their companies could turn the internet into a profitable new channel or platform. My belief is that no commercial venture could have invented the internet. If you play this idea out, it is possible that attempts to ‘improve' the internet may well end up ruining it. After all, television was going to revolutionise education. It hasn't.

Technologies tend to run far ahead of our ability to understand them or their effects. The telephone, for example, was a century ahead of our understanding of its effects. I can whisper into a telephone, and I will seem to be closer to the person I'm speaking with that I could be in person. The telephone is incredibly intimate.

Now multiply this a thousand-fold. People are divulging their favourite music, their location and far more information than is healthy for them. We have very little idea where this all might go. Unfortunately, there are many forces who would like to privatise the internet, to rope off certain parts for them, or to create ways of charging extraordinary rents for their services (read Jonathan Zittrain on this). Once a technology has gotten business's attention, bad things can easily happen.

There's another problem: a ‘better' internet may not be what engineers and scientists envision it to be. It may not be giga-fast, semantically smart, sensor driven or otherwise more fully featured. It may be that the best internet is the simplest internet that reaches the most people, and allows the greatest range of creative responses and experiments.

What got you involved in technology and the ‘futurist' business (if we can call it that)? What advice would you give to anyone setting off in a career in IT or related sciences?

Years ago, I would introduce myself as the accidental technology analyst. Without a degree in computer or journalism, I ended up writing about technology for a largely business audience.

In 1981, I bought an Apple as a hobby. Later, I discovered a passion for history and the future, which complement one another very well, the latter turning into the former in a very messy way. I've always followed my instincts about what to learn and what to write about, which has served me wonderfully and terribly.

I say wonderfully, because today I feel that all the strange little grottoes of knowledge I stumbled into, like neurolinguistic programming or pattern languages, inform my world view in fabulous ways. I say terribly because I've sacrificed a more ‘normal' career path to my curiosity.

My advice would be to avoid the well-worn path and dive deep into a few interesting areas. Develop a broader thesis about what is going on than Moore's Law and Metcalfe's Law. Learn about sociology and history, then fold that into technology. Don't overdose on engineering or management practices. Both are valuable, but in isolation, they're part of the problem. Learn about spirituality and eco-feminism, for example. Some of the solution is in those worlds.

The future internet is being touted as something of a panacea for all that dogs Western society, from ageing populations to ailing economies and financial sectors. Can you help our readers sort the happening from the hype? What's really possible and how can people benefit from it?

The internet pierces or tears down many walls that existed before, like the walls that separated the CEO from everyone else (now you can email him/her), your employees from the outside world (they're all on LinkedIn and Facebook! or they're Tweeting!), your ideas from everyone else (they're wafting in the info-breeze, openly).

Many of those walls were the premises of business models based on scarcity. Many things that were once scarce are now abundant. We're going to see a very messy few decades ahead as everyone adjusts to these changes. Businesses need to figure out how to make profits while nurturing the Commons, instead of roping off their part of it and damaging it.

So the internet is both a big opening/opportunity and a great danger (to incumbents, mostly). We're likely to see far more chaos than we've seen so far. But in the long run, we're correcting many errors that came about when market society was born, back in the 17th and 18th centuries, and we may end up rebalancing those errors over time.

When you start to see today's progress from this perspective, all sorts of new ideas pop into your head. Some are business ideas, some are simply things that ought to exist, which some small group of motivated individuals could do for free over several months, if they were inspired to do so.

It's a wonderful (and even scary) time to be alive.

The ancient Greeks believed that the universe was filled with a mysterious element called ether ― the substance that filled all space. We know better now but perhaps the sort of pervasive, ubiquitous computing touted as part of the future internet will revive the power of the ether. Care to comment?

I fear the sensor-filled future that many tout. If car-makers can't make the software in their high-end cars run properly, how are we supposed to live in a world filled with connected devices too small to see, all chattering with one another and talking about us? I fear we're opening Pandora's Box even further in such a world.

I love that the net allows people who have never had a voice to find one online, and to connect with other people. That is one of the Net's great virtues. But one of the casualties of this progress will be our privacy, and with it, our autonomy. Get a government that's a shade or two more devious than recent ones we've had, and we'll be spinning towards one of several dystopian science fiction futures.

Software is today what hardware was in IT's halcyon days, say 30 years ago. But the critical systems running everything from vacuum-sealing machines to train networks are getting too complex for mere beings to maintain, let alone upgrade. Is there a place for self-healing machines, networks and applications?

I believe a few disciplines will figure out how to field self-healing devices and applications, but it will be the exception, not the norm. On the whole, broken devices and systems will be typical. Complexity overwhelms, then we could see collapse.

How far are we prepared to let an ‘internet of machines' run themselves?

I think we're blithely confident that whatever bad things that show up can be controlled, and that we believe the emerging internet of things will be generally benign. That is misplaced optimism. Hackers can easily be able to take over most of those sensors and devices, and who knows what they will do.

Smart cars? I don't think so. That's merely an invitation for the driver to nap, and if the car can't handle 100% of the task of driving, we're asking for trouble. And on from there into other domains.

The big issues of today are climate change, poverty, sustainable economies and energy… To what extent do you see the internet of tomorrow shaping up to help solve or tackle these sorts of global issues?

I'm constantly inspired by smart initiatives fuelled or lubricated by the internet, from the Extraordinaries to Open Source Ecology, Khan Academy and Kickstarter, to name just a few. The cost of launching an initiative has fallen through the floor, to almost nothing. That is terrific. The danger is that we try to tackle all these problems with a centralised, “we have the right answer” mentality, rather than look for local wisdom and help amplify that.

And all the data centres needed for this internet thing to happen cause a great deal of pollution and energy waste themselves. Just look at the externalities of semiconductor manufacturing.

We see more and more little robots that act like rats or ants or other natural phenomena. How do you see the work on bio-inspired computing, such as neural networks, panning out in the future?

Interestingly, neural networks is the technology that pulled me from general-purpose (non-tech) consulting into the tech world, back in 1987.

I'm ambivalent about these technologies. On one hand, as I mentioned, I fear the unconstrained use of micro-sensors and bots that will litter our landscape and invade our privacy. I'm not sure how many useful things they can actually do for us to offset those forces.

On the other hand, I believe we are weaving a global brain, and that this is a very positive accomplishment in human evolution. Every time someone forwards an interesting e-mail to someone else, or friends them on Facebook (believe it or not), or tweets into the ether, or blogs ― they are creating small, weak dendritic connections with other people.

We don't know ahead of time what might happen over those connections, but later they might determine whom you trust in a national emergency, or what products you trust and purchase. These relationships are crucial, even (maybe even especially!) when they are weak.

I've been weaving a small brain of my own, using a commercial product called PersonalBrain. You can view mine online. Here's a link to a good starting point, which expresses my personal beliefs.

As more business and activity moves to the net, security, data protection and privacy issues are reaching a critical stage. What is your prediction on how this will evolve, and on the subject of eTrust?

Several parallel forces and outcomes come to mind: security is an arms race, though it is more biological than military (and thus more complex). We are likely to be very surprised by cyber-attacks in the next five to ten years. I wouldn't be surprised to see a country's power grid taken down for a week or more in this way, which would be devastating to the economy and social structure in its current high-consumption state.

Privacy seems to be in the process of shifting. Millennials [the net generation] not only make much more information available publicly, it could be that they won't trust anyone who doesn't have such information (say, embarrassing photos from an out-of-hand party) available online. If you left no electronic footprints, maybe you didn't even exist? So I think privacy will shift markedly from what 45-year-olds would hope today, towards the Facebook generation. But I think it'll pull back from the extreme of everyone knowing everything.

Companies are furiously harvesting all the data they can now reach easily, and they're trying to analyse it in order to influence us. That sort of behaviour works, but is not trustworthy. My hope is that trust and authenticity trump all those efforts at data mining, and that companies which spend very little money trying to manipulate us but fulfil our needs really well will do better than those whose costs are higher because they're busy figuring out how to make us buy things we don't really need.

That may be a bit Utopian of me.

Find out more about Jerry Michalski's REXpedition.

Published with the author's permission.  © Ray O'Reilly. All rights reserved.


  • Ray O'Reilly

    Ray O'Reilly writes like he thinks… between the lines. Formerly a columnist for (A)WAY, an English-language magazine in Belgium, today Ray focuses on script-writing projects, blogging and avoiding parties.

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