As much as we may pillory the idea of talking toasters and self-aware refrigerators, the idea that the Internet of Things (IoT) is all about us may be just as silly. At least, if Wired’s Bruce Sterling is to be believed. In his excellent essay, “The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things,” Sterling paints a dystopian IoT where we are harvested by mega-companies for our data.

If this sounds eerily similar to our online existence, that’s because it is. As Sterling argues, “The Internet of Things is basically a recognition by other power-players that the methods of the Big Five [Facebook, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Apple] have won, and that they should be emulated.”

Still want that toaster?

Internet of Things’ happy face

There are, of course, important and positive reasons to embrace IoT. For example, in an interview with Bosch’s Dirk Slama, Cloudera co-founder Mike Olson describes significant benefits that can come from IoT data:

“Data will transform virtually every field of human endeavor. So, in your lifetime and mine, we are going to cure meaningful cancers, because we are able to analyze genetic and environmental data in ways that we never could before. We will be able to watch the progression of the disease, its trajectory in the body. In production and distribution of clean water, in the production and distribution of energy, in agriculture — growing better crops, more densely to feed 9 billion instead of 7 billion people. In every endeavor, I believe that data is going to drive efficiency.”

With billions upon billions of sensors helping us to better monitor and analyze the world around us, many things will get better, and a lot of those benefits will accrue to companies living outside the Silicon Valley bubble.

The Economist’s Kenneth Cukier agrees, adding that “the accumulation of these huge amounts of data can be precisely applied to specific problems” to help companies solve seemingly intractable problems and thereby gain competitive advantage.

The dark side of the Internet of Things

The problem, however, is that with big data comes big responsibility, and that responsibility isn’t necessarily to you or me. Ultimately, the currency of IoT is data, which is why proliferation of things becomes so critical, as Sterling suggests:

“The Internet of Things is not about a talking refrigerator, because that is the old-fashioned consumer retail world of electrical white goods. It’s an archaic concept, like software bought in a plastic-wrapped box from a shelf. The genuine Internet of Things wants to invade that refrigerator, measure it, instrument it, monitor any interactions with it; it would cheerfully give away a fridge at cost.”

And why invade it? Because the refrigerator is a gateway to our data which, in turn, allows these companies to market and sell our data. It has become a cliche that “if you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.” In the world of IoT, this cliche becomes reality.

Sterling continues:

“[We are not] the hero of the [IoT] story. To the vacuum company, [we were] the ‘customer’ or ‘consumer.’ In the legacy internet days, [we were] the ‘user.’ In the Internet of Things, [we] lack those privileged positions, ‘user’ and ‘customer.’ An Internet of Things is not a consumer society. It’s a materialised network society. It’s like a Google or Facebook writ large on the landscape.

“Google and Facebook don’t have ‘users’ or ‘customers.’ Instead, they have participants under machine surveillance, whose activities are algorithmically combined within Big Data silos….[We] get fantastic services free of charge, and [we] respond mostly with drop-down menus and checkboxes, while generating data whose uses and values are invisible to [us]….”

In other words, IoT ushers in a new era of “digital-feudalism,” wherein “People… are like the woolly livestock of a feudal demesne, grazing under the watchful eye of barons in their hilltop Cloud Castles.”

How do I turn this thing off?

Whether for utopian or dystopian purposes, the IoT is no longer optional. There’s simply too much at stake — both positive and negative — for the IoT train to be stopped.

Given how poorly we’ve been guarding our privacy when it comes to free email and online storage, it’s doubtful that we’ll be much better when it comes to the sensor data that surrounds us. For example, how many people would disdain the offer of a subsidized car in exchange for the release of all our driving-related data? It’s far more likely that we’ll bleat our way into the Google corral.

There are very few times that I hope for government regulation, but IoT is an area where the government could do a lot of good by imposing standards for personal privacy. However, given how fast the industry changes and how slowly government wheels turn, I’m not holding my breath.