- The Internet of Things
What does the Internet mean for political systems, and for human freedom? During the 1990s and early 2000s, many social scientists equated the Internet’s spread with the supposed triumph of liberal democracy. Today, however, scholars share a much gloomier view of the Internet’s potential to act as a force for liberation. The same networking technologies that bring us convenience and efficiency can also be used to track us and spy on us. Indeed, skepticism about them has increased greatly in the wake of disclosures made by former U.S. National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden regarding that agency’s vast surveillance network and its reliance on willing Internet and telecommunications companies to share data on citizens and noncitizens alike.
Philip Howard explores the impact of the evolving global digital network on governance worldwide and on the geopolitical balance of power. He is interested in how the ever-expanding web of Internet-connected devices—known as the “Internet of Things” (IoT) and including everything from jet engines to coffee machines—will affect information flows and resource allocation. and. As devices that connect to the Internet (such as cars, thermostats, watches, and a plethora of other everyday items) proliferate, so too does the vast amount of data that they create and collect. This information is a boon in many ways because it can be used to improve efficiency, but there are grave potential risks too. An Internet-connected heart pacemaker is a plus for health care, but it can leave a [End Page 176] patient exposed to the theft of personal data or even threats to personal safety. And while just which technologies fall into the IoT is still cloudy, Howard thinks that it is not too soon to ask how the Internet will evolve and what that might mean for society. In spite of the perils of networked societies, Howard envisions a rosier future in which technology on the whole improves social conditions and strengthens democracy.
A sociologist by training with a background that includes economics and political science, Howard examines new technologies (building automation, environmental monitoring, political bots, and the like) as well as more established Internet phenomena such as social media and crowdsourcing. He then asks how these might work on a larger scale in the future. While more concrete examples of IoT functionalities would have improved this book, it still does a service by drawing attention to the IoT’s sociopolitical effects rather than merely asking what it will mean for the economy, as most previous studies have done.
At the core of the book is Howard’s argument that we are at the dawn of a “Pax Technica” in which common technological standards and an international network of devices will produce global political stability. While Pax Americana and Pax Britannica before it rested on hegemonic military power, Howard expects this Pax Technica to emerge from shared dependence on a global, interconnected technological platform that operates outside the jurisdiction of any single nation-state. Stability, rather than coming from a traditional empire, will emanate from an “empire of connected devices.” Private corporations, the source of so much Internet technology, will also be central to the maintenance of stability.
Howard defines Pax Technica as “a political, economic, and cultural arrangement of social institutions and networked devices in which government and industry are tightly bound in mutual defense pacts, design collaborations, standards setting, and data mining” (pp. 145–46). In his view, it will add up to a global alliance between state and capital that will help to make the world more peaceful. Howard does not argue that Pax Technica will result in an era of complete peace, but rather that the global network will generate an environment in which technology triumphs over ideology and therefore diminishes large-scale conflicts.
Howard’s emphasis on the stabilizing influence of a globe-spanning technological superstructure discounts the degree to which technologies are themselves politically embedded. For example, the adoption of TCP/IP protocol, which is the...