Why we don't need an Internet of Everything

A friend recently sent me a link to a YouTube video from a portion of Cisco Live! 2013, held last June in Orlando. The video clip was of Cisco Chairman and CEO John Chambers and Chief Demonstration Officer Jim Grubb discussing all the exciting possibilities of the “Internet of Everything” — how new technologies are making it possible to connect “99 percent of the unconnected” people, processes, data and things. That, they said, will give us holistic insight into the means of production and the preferences of consumers in ways we only could have dreamed about a decade ago.

As a means to demonstrate the concept, Grubb used the production of a can of cola as an example of how the Internet of Everything gives us the capability to seamlessly transition from analyzing minute details to viewing the macro soup-to-nuts processes of pop making (I’m from Minnesota, so “soda” is “pop”). We’re talking about anything from growing the corn to making high fructose corn syrup, to manufacturing and packaging the product for retail operations. Apparently, you can even gain key insights into the consumer experience of drinking the stuff. Now how cool is that?

However, something Grubb said really bugged me: “The Internet of Everything is being driven by Moore’s Law.”

What an odd thing to say. I would think that, at the end of the day, we’d rather have the human condition driving the Internet of Everything.

Are we really at a point where we are so focused on leveraging technology to increase the efficiencies of production and consumption that we have no room to question whether what is being produced actually is valuable or needed? In the specific case of cola production, it’s no secret that our nation has an extreme obesity problem as well as some significant issues when it comes to soil erosion and water resource depletion.

Why would we want to make the cola production process — which contributes to these deleterious phenomena — more efficient? Given what we know about systems theory and positive feedback loops, wouldn’t that only exacerbate these ill effects?

Now, I’m no Luddite and I’m not an anti-corporatist (and I’m sure as hell no poster child for sustainability — yet). But I am concerned that we, as producers and consumers, continue to mindlessly ride the wake of Moore’s Law, heading to parts unknown through the development of technology for technology’s sake alone, all the while forgetting that the human condition needs to be the core driver for our technological and commercial advancements. In the introduction to his “Man or Matter” (1958 revised edition to the 1950 original), Ernst Lehr pondered this very issue and, in the process, cut to the core question:

How, in an age when the logic of science was supreme, was it possible that a great part of mankind, including those peoples to whom science had owed its origin and never-ceasing expansion, could act in so completely unscientific a way? ... I was forced to the conclusion that human thinking, at any rate in its modern form, was either powerless to govern human actions, or at least unable to direct them towards right ends. In fact, where scientific thinking had done most to change the practical relations of human life, as in the mechanization of economic production, conditions had arisen which made it more difficult, not less, for men to live in a way worthy of man.

In the context of the Internet of Everything, how are we to ensure that it will help us “live in a way worthy of man"? I’m pretty sure the answer won’t be found in hyper-efficient pop production.

Perhaps the answer is in Russell Ackoff’s Knowledge Pyramid (the base being data followed by information followed by knowledge, all of which resides beneath wisdom — the "DIKW" model). It seems to me we can’t afford to stop climbing the DIKW pyramid at the knowledge level, where technology resides. We need to ascend to the level of wisdom: to “think anew” and discover a philosophy (philo=love; sophos=wisdom — a love of wisdom) to inform the exponential growth of our technology (techno =skill; logos=knowledge — our skill of knowledge).

This is where sustainability comes in. Sustainability possesses the innate wisdom needed to inform our actions going forward. As David Orr so masterfully puts it, “It makes far better sense to reshape ourselves to fit a finite planet than to attempt to reshape the planet to fit our infinite wants.” Pretty wise words, indeed. But if sustainability is to become the wisdom, the organizing logic, for our collective future, I don’t think it should be strictly framed as an environmental “green” issue or a fundamental choice between the current human condition and the future condition of Mother Earth. This approach is failing.

Our reality is that the mainstream American audience, with all its accompanying biases and varying self-interests, tunes out the binary “either it’s the Anthropocene us or it’s the planet” message of the environmental movement simply because our culture is truly a culture of homo economicusJust as Adam Smith described in “The Wealth of Nations,” we generally are self-interested beings, seeking to consume the most at the least cost and to produce the most for the most profit, and we have a tough time considering externalities in time and space beyond our current condition. The “Anthropocene us” always will win out. 

But I find it useful to remember that Adam Smith’s view of man wasn’t limited to his notion of homo economicus. Before he wrote “The Wealth of Nations,” he wrote another book, “The Theory of Moral Sentiments,” in which he fundamentally, although not overtly, established the case for homo reciprocans (reciprocal man), where man essentially exists to improve society (and his/her environment) and is motivated by a desire to engage collectively with fellow citizens.

We, the sustainability crowd, need to show how sustainability can be the converging path of homo economicus and homo reciprocans. If we want to have real impact, our voice has to be a humanist voice: a voice that clearly and functionally articulates how sustainability can be the organizing logic for our 21st century reality; a voice that will deliver both prosperity and security, where immediate self-interests (personal well-being) align with long-term interests (generational and environmental well-being).

Our task is to translate the ethereal and conceptual into real, pragmatic, actionable tools that homo economicus can use for homo reciprocans purposes. To this point, we simply don’t need an Internet of Everything because, quite frankly, all the things we have today aren’t necessarily worth keeping, let alone worth connecting.

But if we accept sustainability as our economic, political and human default setting, perhaps its logic will help us discern what is truly valuable so we can create the “Internet of Right Things” that connects processes, resources, products and humans in a way that sustains, not devours, our path to a prosperous and secure future.

To me, that would be part of living “in a way worthy of man.” It would also be worthy of our kids and grandkids.

The author proposes a grand strategy for the United States at VERGE SF 2013 in the video above. Top image of soda cans by somchai rakin via Shutterstock