“The Internet” is a generic descriptive term for a rather useful, if frustratingly imperfect, online experience. The “Internet of Things” takes this in an unhealthy direction, dehumanising the world as it digitises it. Let’s build an “Internet of Loving Kindness” instead.
The “Internet of Things”. What a ridiculous concept! Whoever bought a generic gift “Thing” for their spouse’s birthday? Hankered after a bland “Thing” in a ritzy boutique? Or found their true vocation devoted to expertise in mere “Things”? Who gives a damn about these wretched and silly “Things”! That’s not what life is all about!
We live in a culture that fetishises material mechanisms of digital devices, and often neglects the human aspects of technology. We also celebrate the head over the heart or gut: it’s “design thinking”, rather than “feeling” or “sensing”. We also tend to make a hero out of the producer (that designer, again), rather than the equally heroic efforts of users like parents, carers for the elderly, of those enduring natural disaster or violent conflict.
Why the Thingocratic thinking? We appear to live in a corporatist world, where corporations are uber-persons, ruling over mere persons. What is figural is the brand of the Thingmaker, and the fight to create the “invisible engines” that control the Things, since these direct our lives and manipulate our behaviours.
We live in awkward symbiosis with our technology: the Things are extensions of us giving us seductively desirable (but often dangerous) superpowers. Society rewards Thingmakers for the power they give us. The economy is dominated by their powerful owners. This involves a transformational change to the modern world, as the constraint to creating value moves from energy to information. Political control over resources and each other shifts accordingly.
This human-thing hybridisation also involves a shift from single-sided supply chains to multi-sided software platforms. These naturally concentrate power in a highly persistent way. I haven’t personally noticed any Austrian economists waking from the dead yet to redo their moral analyses of free markets. Is all this all really in our best interests? It’s an open question of debate.
Do you want to live in an “intelligent home” (devoid of feeling) in a “smart city” (lacking in morality) watched over by Things made by multinational companies accountable only to Wall St and the City of London?
For me, the idea of putting on a Facebook VR mask or living in a Google Pest, sorry, Nest home is the Thing equivalent of going scuba diving with a Marlboro aqualung. You inhale addictive services and exhale privacy. These “Things” alone are not going to inspire any schoolchild to greatness, or if they do then it risks them being diverted into sociopathic uses.
We’ve already lost our freedom to construct self-sovereign virtual personas. Most people don’t realise it, as they have no experience of anything other than corporate-conferred identity to enable adtech surveillance. We need to somehow raise our game, and use our collective imagination to aspire to something better than networked Thinghood.
What might be a more humanistic alternative to Thingdom Come? Maybe we could talk of an Internet of Experiences, or Sensations, or even mundane User Journeys. When we talk about “the Internet” in this way, it is a phenomenon that is far more than a collection of ISP services and telecoms transmission facilities.
“The Internet” is a vast socio-technical system, involving tens of millions of people in its delivery, and billions as users. It encompasses presentation systems (like the Web and apps), devices (smartphones and screens) and value exchange (mobile payments or person information brokers). If we wish to dream of a better Internet, we need to dream big and be radical in doing so.
It’s a bit of a trope to say that porn leads the way in all things and Things digital. You might (pun intended) see porn as the Venus star of the technosphere, as morning and evening is when its light tends to allure us most strongly. After all, the erotic is a core human drive without which we cannot reproduce as a species.
However, if we look up past Eros near the horizon, look right up above us, there is a pole star of human existence: loving kindness. We all know that’s what we want to experience, and millennia of moral philosophy teaches us that is the fixed point we need to navigate by. What might such an Internet of Loving Kindness be and do?
Nobody yet knows, but we can begin to explore the idea. The Greeks gave us some clues, by unpacking the nature of love into six types:
- Eros – sexual passion
- Philia – deep friendship
- Ludus – playful love
- Agape – unconditional love for everyone
- Pragma – longstanding love
- Philautia – love of the self
In the musical Avenue Q is the rather amusing and accurate song “The Internet is for porn”. Let’s decide that this is a feature, not a bug, so we’ve made a good start with Eros! Just we now need to fix the other five parts of love, and bolt on a bit of human kindness for good measure. I don’t know about you, but in my life self-love has been by far the hardest challenge. So the “Internet is for philautia”, too.
This means adopting a new intentional position with regards to digital technology, and in two ways: Empathetic by Design, and Ethical by Design. You can’t deliver Loving Kindness in any other way. These are necessary to rebalance the over-dependence on logical thinking with more relational and moral aspects.
For instance, a real “relational” database would have a concept of ”human” and data that is bio-sensed (like voice) as being different from data of a pure symbolic nature (like a flight reservation). The idea of a Guardian Avatar offers a new Web-like mediation of the metaverse, a system that protects our identities as they become increasingly virtual. An Internet of Loving Kindness would embed and embody the core relational principles of reciprocity, responsibility and respect.
We see the early foundations of this being technically formed with the “privacy by design” movement. This needs to be extended: performance by design, security by design, fairness by design, honesty by design, and many more. The job of mapping out this space has barely begun. So few have dared to open their eyes to the stars above as they lie the gutter of life, Oscar!
As everyday living feels like staring into a dystopian abyss, we urgently need an antidote to a cold and senseless Internet of Things. It becomes ever more vital to imagine a paradise, and describe where it might be found, so we might at least head in the right direction. Ignore any cynic who chastises you for naivety or lack of pragmatism!
An Internet of Loving Kindness is a beautiful alternative vision to the Internet of Things. We can all sense is as being heart-warming and desirable. It is something we can be proud of bequeathing to our grandchildren and beyond: a network of moral machines.
If you allow yourself to believe that an Internet of Loving Kindness is possible, then it will begin to happen.
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