Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up
Philip N. Howard
Yale University Press
The Internet of Things may set us free, or lock us up, but Pax Technica won’t give much insight into how either eventuality will occur, mostly because it seems like the author isn’t particularly clear on what the Internet of Things actually is.
Despite defining it in the first chapter of his book as
“the rapidly growing network of everyday objects that have been equipped with sensors , small power supplies and internet addresses….But a whole host of other products are now being connected…including cars, refrigerators and thermostats.”1
Which is a good approximation of the accepted definition of the Internet of Things. However, Philip N. Howard doesn’t actually discuss the impact of putting previously unthinking and certainly uncommunicative devices online. Instead, the majority of the book focuses on the disruptive nature of mobile technologies and social media.
Howard goes to great lengths to illustrate both the positive and negative nature of this disruption, taking us on an unwieldy tour of rebellion and uprising, dictatorships and criminal enterprise. And, we are right there with him, technology is disruptive, that disruption does have both positive and negative ramifications – and often the positive and the negative depends on who is beholding the disruption. But, your blender didn’t contribute to Arab Spring and nor did the GPS in your car. So, seriously, get to the point. Otherwise, you’re writing an entirely different book.
And there lies the problem. Pax Technica is an interesting book, it just isn’t the book indicated on the jacket or in the introduction. It is a good explanation of the political uses of the existing internet and mobile networks. The book discusses civic-minded uses of digital technology in unusual places. One striking example: creating accurate maps of Haiti after their horrific earthquake to facilitate aid workers in finding those in need. Howard discusses the dilemma of dictators when deciding how to mediate their constituents access to the digital world. He explores the implications of China’s explicitly different protocols and national intranet and what that could mean if Chinese technology is exported to other authoritarian regimes. He builds upon this foundation to argue compellingly that we live in an era where “networked devices…support a political order that envelops many countries and the new rules last longer than any particular…political leader.”2 The comparison made is to the roads of the Romans or the sea-faring might of the British empire. And, this is an argument that is well supported by the evidence that Howard presents.
My concern is that Howard gives only the briefest, and tantalizing glimpses, into the issues that we may be facing with advent of the Internet of Things. And I really do mean briefest, Howard devotes a couple of pages to existing issues with so-called smart televisions collecting data on their users, and the use of pod coffeemakers to increase the path-dependency of our consumer choices, but his argument is essentially, the traditional internet and newer mobile phone networks have had significant ramifications for our socio-economic and political lives, and so too will this forthcoming shadow internet made up of previously solitary devices. In the seventh chapter the author gives sensible recommendations for how we should handle this impending disruption, but there is no real attempt to illustrate what that disruption may look like.
Overall, as an exploration of this new age where technology is being used to draw boundaries, either implicitly or explicitly, and the disruption these technologies can wreak, both positive and negative, Howard’s sweeping narrative is very convincing. But, this book will not provide insight into how an Internet of Things will either set us free or lock us up.