Space, Place and Things — New Rules of Tenancy Within the Internet of Things

(cross-posted in part from the netpublics blog)

I’ve been thinking about the relationship between space and networked things as I write this report with Nicolas Nova for our workshop on objects that blog and I’ve realized (without too much surprise) that that workshop and my thinking about “place” and networked publics are pulling together, particularly in the context of the Internet of Things.

When the research cluster I am presently participating in — “netpublics” — presented its thinking on the role of place in the context of networked publics, I felt that it was important to consider how a world in which Things will alter the patterns of usage, movement and mobility with space. (I’ll capitalize Thing for now to distinguish between networked Internet of Things things and non-networked things, and so as to be succinct I’ll do an end-run around Heidegger, Kant and Latour.) And I’ll call the differentiated kind of movement and rules of occupancy within this different kind of place, motility, so as to emphasize what I think is a safe speculation: a world in which Things that co-occupy physical space are known (by the other occupants of that space) or assumed to have the ability to disseminate, record, and perhaps even put in context what happens in that space and circulate such within the network will change the patterns of use, the kinds of social practice that obtain, and the imaginary about that space. This kind of space and the rules of tenancy are different from space in which such “blogging” characteristics are not assumed about things.

The easiest analogy is to think about how patterns of usage and the “rules of tenancy” for occupying space are altered when that space contains surveillance technologies. (By rules, I mean both the unwritten as well as the more formalized in terms of law, as well as social policy.) The work of the R&D collective The Institute for Applied Autonomy is one of the better examples of really bringing to the fore the way surveillance technologies changes the way we think about, move through, and generally occupy space. Their project iSee takes DIY plotted locations of urban surveillance and, using Google Map-like techniques (way before Google Map-like techniques were formalized), creates new pedestrian paths so as to avoid as much surveillance exposure for those wishing to stay uncharted.

This to me is a great, perhaps even canonical example of the ways in which place, mobility, together with the capacity of networks is impacted. There is something more than just surveillance upon hapless occupants of physical space. In this example, there seems to be an important relationship as well between the Internet and mapping practices as well. The example is a very early one, in Internet years and Internet practices (pre-Google Maps, as I mentioned, and there really is no networked Thing, strictly speaking), but it anticipates in my mind a confluence of networks, Things and differentiated social practice as a result of blending these together.

I am speculating here that the introduction of the “Thing” that is networked in such a way as to circulate within both physical space and networked space will changes the ways in which we occupy space, deserves closer attention by the community of folks working on explicating as well as making this new kind of networked place.

So, what does it all mean? It means that the Internet of Things is less about RFID tags everywhere and more about a different kind of architecture, where boundaries and paths are shaped also by networked Things.

And what are the stakes? Assuming we care about changes in the rules of tenancy of place and are concerned about this kind of architecture, we may want to explicate these new rules so we can think through ways to create more habitable space.

Why do I blog this? Because I am trying to create what I think is an important connect-the-dots game between Internet of Things euphoria, Internet of Things dystopia and a pragmatic set of “design patterns” so that this stuff becomes legible to the “doers” — those who create the worlds in which we will be tenants (most likely the designers, engineers, policy and standards body folks and so on who are the architects and machinists of these worlds.)

My question about “place” How will a world of networked Things change our relationship to physical space? Can we lever the Internet of Things “meme” to design more habitable, sustainable World 2.0’s in this regards? Can we avoid the paranoia imaginaries or just plain deflating and moronic ad-sales-marketing usage scenarios of every Thing containing its own sales pitch and marketing promotion? What is a habitable World 2.0 when “pervasive” doesn’t mean that you can get online while riding a subway, but when it means extensive participation by the other co-occupants and companion species on the digital social network — Things. What are the “realistic” technology fictions of World 2.0? What’s the middle ground between the ad executives half-baked fantasies and the religious-paranoics Spychips alarmism? And why just the RFID? Please, why is the RFID the poster child of the Internet of Things? Is it because some dorkbotters inserted them subcutaneously and there will be more RFIDs than cockroaches in the world?

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