The Internet of Things: some implications for sociology
This week BBC News asked “can wearable tech make us more productive?” The news package covered a research project which has the broader purpose of investigating impact of wearable connected tech on every aspect of our lives. The umbrella term that (albeit loosely) confederates connected technology is the ‘Internet of Things’. Its advocates believe the Internet of Things is one of the most compelling ideas of the twenty first century. The original definition of the Internet of Things referred to inanimate objects that had an electronic product code so they could be inventoried. Now, thanks to IPv6 (which provides 3.4×1038 addresses on the Internet), as utility (or the market) demands it, all our everyday objects such as TVs, microwave ovens and cars can be allocated an address on the Internet and offer the potential to transmit and receive digital data. However, an IP address is not a prerequisite of the Internet of Things. The term can also refer to devices that have the potential to produce digital data for the Internet. This includes technologies of the ‘quantified self’, such as the GPS enabled sports watch I use for example.
We are told the Internet of Things could transform our lives for the better. John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s predicted that, by now, we’d be working a 15 hour week; the rest of the time we’d be free from domestic chores and waged labour. The Internet of Things could be facilitating this near-utopia. You could be on the golf fairway while your smart phone is recording all your stats on the course; sending your golf coach instant updates about your varying heart rate and power output during drives and body angles during swings. As you are about to finish your round your smart phone would order drinks at the bar, then later tell your smart car to turn on the air-con; even drive around to the clubhouse to collect you. Your smart phone could then: tell the oven at home to start heating your dinner; your TV to record your favourite show; arrange a Skype chat with your coach – you get the idea.
However, technology usually benefits most those with power and wealth to exploit it. For the well-heeled the fantasy I’ve described above is the near future. For many service and production workers the Internet of Things is here and it’s already been assimilated into their employment practices. Various monitoring devices allow companies to keep track of its employees’ performance. To an extent this is nothing new: weighing scales for coal collected by miners; punch cards to clock-in at factories; words per minute to measure typing output; these are all examples of traditional employee-measuring technologies.
What is new is the all-pervasiveness of new technology. Rather than liberating employees from the quicksand of neoliberal economic imperatives, the boss (or his electronic embodiment; the digital monitoring device) is forever encroaching on workers’ private spaces and extracting every ounce of productivity out of them by clamping down on micro acts of defiance such as unauthorised coffee breaks. In the end trust and compromise is annihilated by ‘objective’ (i.e. socially constructed) performance measurement statistics produced in real time by these monitoring devices. This modern form of Taylorism creates a work culture of meanness and mistrust: if you are paid minimum wage you must be accountable for every cent/penny you are rewarded. Employers argue this new tech improves workplace safety, empowers employees; for example helps them investigate harassment or discrimination claims. Sadly, a series of high profile exposés tell another story. Moreover, workplace tracking technology is largely unregulated, and courts have found that employees have few rights to privacy on the job.
The research the BBC covered looked at office-based workers in the media industry. It reported an increase in productivity and job satisfaction. But is this governmentality in action? Governmentality refers to a more ostensibly benevolent, “less spontaneous” exercise of power over workers, to enable the “use of techniques and technologies” to intervene, “regulate individual practice”(Hindess, 1996, p106). It intends ‘the self’ to be more accountable to an external agenda; so knowledges, practices and procedures are enacted through self-regulation. Governmentality aims “to shape, guide or affect the conduct of some person or persons” (Gordon., 1991, p2). It therefore seeks to convince its subjects that conformity is an act of rational self-investment. Connected wearable tech, in this instance, ‘helps’ workers become model employees.
The Internet of Things is of interest to sociologists because our relationship to connected measuring devices is defined and shaped by our socioeconomic status. If you are lucky, you are person primarily using the Internet of Things to monitor your health and manage your leisure time. If you are an office worker it can enable you to become ‘happier’ (i.e. convince yourself you are happy) in your job. If you work for a famous multinational on minimum wage you are a thing on the Internet transmitting data that could be used as rational justification for your dismissal.
Gordon., G. (1991). Governmental rationality: an introduction. In G. Burchell, G. C, & P. Miller (Eds.), The Foucault Effect: Studies in Governmental Rationality. Hemel Hempstead: Harvester Wheatsheaf.
Hindess, B. (1996). Discourses of Power: From Hobbes to Foucault. Oxford: Blackwell.