The Human Internet

The promises of new technologies and new ways of using technology seem to matter little in their practical application. Where the much-vaunted Web 2.0 promised to deliver human interaction and collaboration that earlier uses of internet technology did not, we instead got Twitter bots, Facebook privacy hoaxes and cats – lots and lots of cats.

According to GE, the ‘industrial internet’ is expected to deliver productivity and savings to businesses of $US10-15 trillion. GE coined the term ‘industrial internet’ in their recent vision paper [PDF]. For them, this newest incarnation of the internet it is an extension of the industrial age, the post-script to the industrial revolution. It is best thought of as a network of objects rather than computers. Everything from pens and fridges to busses and house electricity meters will be connected to this internet to create efficiencies and innovations from here to eternity and beyond.

Elsewhere, the same concept has been termed the internet of things. But for GE, the idea is not a loose collection of ‘things’ connecting randomly and anonymously to the internet. The industrial internet instead becomes a neat way of collecting and aggregating valuable data. In this vision, humans are just another node in the network, rather than it’s main users, innovators, designers and creators. No longer is the internet subject to the wants and wills of humans because it can now operate autonomously to combine the “power of physics based analytics, predictive algorithms, automation and deep domain expertise” (p3).

Unfortunately for this vision, humans have a way of re-inserting themselves into environments of all sorts – virtual and otherwise. Even ahead of the advent (or at least description) of web 2.0 and the social web, the internet has largely been about human interaction. I call this the human internet, and I separate it out from interaction between humans and programs or algorithms (like search engines), even though those programs are human-created. Usenet and person-to-person emails are both part of the human internet, as are the social networking sites that tend to be referred to as the social web.

Of course, the internet is human-designed and so all human-internet interactions are human oriented, but there is often no discernable humanity at one end of many of the interactions. Even when humans interact with social networking sites, they are responding to the program and interface, rather than directly to other humans. By its nature, the internet is mediated. But that doesn’t discount the existence of the human internet.

Actions by hacktivism and slacktivism groups have largely contested moves toward the corporatisation and over-governance of the internet until now, and will be another force against the industrial internet. They tend to react strongly to moves to adjust the influence of human agency in the internet’s great balancing equations. The internet of things may yet come to be, but I suspect the roll out of GE’s industrial internet may face stronger hurdles than the vision paper acknowledges, not least of which will be the very human internet it seeks to augment.

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