Internet of Things: Promises and Perils

Humanity is said to be making a great leap forward by connecting things through the internet. It is connecting humans to intelligent personal assistants like Siri, OK Google and Alexa. Living spaces are becoming digitally linked. The apps are linking consumer products and businesses as never before. The middle man between us and several things seems to be fast dying. Even the medical doctor may soon be replaced. Amazon has a store in California that almost gives the consumers a shoplifting experience where no one stands between the person and the things he/she wishes to buy from the store. The cofeX offers us an experience of a taste of the coming future where coffee is prepared and served by Robots and one can pay with a smile that connects one to his/her bank account. The future of travel is fast changing with drones already making their way into military operations and driverless cars, trucks and buses knocking at the doors of our society. These changes are going to influence the way we live, work and play. All at the loss of one’s intimate privacy. There are already legitimate concerns about the hacking of connected devices, surveillance and the loss of freedom and privacy. The disciplinary society, the mainstay of modernity identified by Michel Foucault is dying and Gilles Deleuze’s new societies of control are emerging everywhere.

The dazzling technological marvels are not without their perils. We seem to be actualizing Orwell’s 1984 and Zamyatin’s We. We may have machines upholding public order. But we will be living in machine-enabled totalitarian singularity. We are building a city of glass where we do have a hiding place under the sky. But there are potential freedoms. We have the freedom to check that we are not being followed or stalked by physical eyes and limbs. This we will do by accessing data from the satellite and from face-recognizing AI. In several ways, we have entered this field of surveillance and have installed several closed-circuit cembras to produce of web of security around our homes, business spaces and other public places. Some have even installed cameraphones and other more sophisticated technologies. But we also know that they do fail to capture the miscreants who also do their catching up with the growing technology. Crimes have not vanished. But there are several other benefits like the anxious parents can watch the moves of their child on the street that is a block away. Presently, we are living by trust rather than control. That is all changing. We live in the fast lane that is building societies of control and the society of trust is dying. We are rebooting our lives.

The city of control breathes its power through radio frequency identification tags (RFID). Objects, places and people are tagged and given unique numbers just like web addresses. We Indians have been tagged by our Adaar number. Foucault discerned the panopticon as surveillance technology and its impacts on us as individuals and communities. What we are facing today is a ‘banopticon’ of the control society where individuals may suddenly find themselves banned from public life through the freezing of their bank accounts, stoping of free movements by air, railways and road transport etc. This means with everything becoming public the notions of public and private have dissolved and in the name of security too much power is resting in the hands of a few. The banoptican will allow access to the rich and the powerful while ban entry points to the poor. This indicates the rich will have an entry where they please while the poor will have an entry where they are lucky. The banopticon can watch everything that we buy, everywhere we move by the tags embedded in our gadgets, in our clothes or even under our skins. These tags connect us wirelessly to the satellite systems that keep a record of our digital footprints endlessly. It appears that the police song, Every breathe you take has become our reality.

How are we to respond to the growing banopticon that is destroying the societies that we built on trust? The society of control is projected as a society of freedom. It offers us the freedom to enjoy what we like the most. But every breathe we take, every step we take …we are being watched. The eye of banopticon may help us recover lost things and persons. One may easily locate a lost laptop in a train or flight and arrange for its delivery to one’s door. It may make our lives more secure. But it is important to ask what will it means to politics, economics and religion. Will it put the politicians under a watch? Or will they belong to the elite who has access to everything. What about God and ethics? Will it make us more religious and ethical? Will the fear of surveillance and the power of banoptican drive us to God ? Foucault has told us that panopticon has increased self-policing rather than self-care. Banoption will accelerate self-policing. With the growth of the trust-deficit, we may see increasing visibility of religion. But the question is: is religion and faith establishment ready? The answer appears to be a resounding no. It appears that religion has a lot of catching up to do with these new developments. Religions have the great task to build trust decimals of our society. so far the adoption of the technology of society of control is avoidable. We can still resist it and not blindly sleepwalk into it. More positively, we have the challenge to build technologies of trust that voluntarily give up access to intimate and private information and guard basic human freedoms. This means access to private information has to be controlled through legal protocols and not left to the corporates, big data analytics and other corporates.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao