Web Squared and the Internet of Things
Tim O'Reilly and John Battelle recently wrote a provoking white paper for the forthcoming Web 2.0 summit in San Francisco. They expand on the idea of Web Squared being a successor to Web 2.0.
Web Squared is about the Internet becoming smarter as an exponentially increasing amount of content is being created and uploaded. O'Reilly and Battelle state that the Internet is:
…no longer a collection of static pages of HTML that describe something in the world. Increasingly, the Web is the world – everything and everyone in the world casts an “information shadow,” an aura of data which, when captured and processed intelligently, offers extraordinary opportunity and mind bending implications. Web Squared is our way of exploring this phenomenon and giving it a name.
The main idea here being that the Web can learn inferentially with a large enough body of data. The Web is thus beginning to understand things that we do not have to explicitly explain to it.
The exponential growth in the amount of uploaded data, and the ability of intelligent systems to learn is especially important within the context of the “Internet of Things.” The Internet of Things refers to the networking of everyday objects and things (e.g. coke cans, razor blades, toasters etc.). Much existing content in the Internet of Things has been created through coded RFid tags and IP addresses linked into an electronic product code (EPC) network.
A movement is underway to add any imaginable physical object into the Internet of Things. In Japan, for example, many cows have IP addresses embedded onto RFID chips implanted into their skin, enabling farmers to track each animal through the entire production and distribution process. In the words of journalist Sean Dodson, we are facing a future “where pretty much everything is online,” or according to O'Reilly and Battelle, “the web is now the world.”
Moving back to O'Reilly and Battelle’s white paper, one of the most interesting parts of the essay is the argument that while it initially makes sense to assume that for the Internet of Things to work, every object needs to have a unique identifier (through a combination of cheap RFID and IP addresses), what Web 2.0/Web Squared tells us is that it is not necessary to physically tag every single physical thing.
…we’ll get to the Internet of Things via a hodgepodge of sensor data contributing, bottom-up, to machine-learning applications that gradually make more and more sense of the data that is handed to them. A bottle of wine on your supermarket shelf (or any other object) needn’t have an RFID tag to join the “Internet of Things,” it simply needs you to take a picture of its label. Your mobile phone, image recognition, search, and the sentient web will do the rest. We don’t have to wait until each item in the supermarket has a unique machine-readable ID. Instead, we can make do with bar codes, tags on photos, and other “hacks” that are simply ways of brute-forcing identity out of reality.
So, Web Squared will help to bring about a true Internet of Things: a world where very little can exist outside the network. Myriad frightening surveillance and privacy issues are imaginable, but these have been discussed extensively elsewhere. Putting these issues to the side for the moment, I also see one important (potential) positive outcome of the Internet of Things: an issue that myself and my co-author (Havard Haarstad) will discuss in our paper at the 2009 Royal Geographical Society meeting.
If all things become networked, then all steps in the prodiction, distribution, and transformation of all things become potentially visible. This, in turn, implies a new form of globalisation: we have already experienced a globalisation of things, but we could potentially witness a globalisation of information about things. Poor production practices (e.g. environmental harm, child labour, racial/gender/sexual discrimination) can no longer be hidden behind the veils of distance. Consumers of things would be able to base their purchasing decisions on a combination of their personal policital, cultural, religious, and ethical positionalities and a relatively accurate base of information. Purchasing decisions, of course, quickly influence production practices. If consumers no longer have any interest in buying Nike shoes produced in Indonesian sweatshops (no matter how inexpensive they are), Nike will ultimately stop producing shoes in Indonesian sweatshops. I firmly believe that many of the harmful and poor production practices taking place in the world today only exist because they are essentially hidden from most of us. We rely on highly controlled information (advertising, product packaging etc.) instead of open and networked information.
This vision of the Internet of Things naturally relies on an abscence of controls on flows of information. It is all to easy to imagine an Internet of Things in which information is controlled, restricted, and censored by companies and governments that have no interest in a new form of globalisation being brought into being.
As stated above, these issues will all be discussed in more detail in a forthcoming paper, which I will upload here as soon as it is publication-ready.