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IoT, Sensors, and All Things Digital: Can We Handle It All?

Feature Article | August 31, 2016 by Kai Goerlich

It seems we are all part of a big experiment. We’re testing our data-driven consciousness and determining how much information we can digest and at what speed.

And if we continue at our current pace, we will soon see sensors and ambient computing infuse our personal and professional lives with a myriad of interactive things. Even items such as coffee mugs may be connected.

In such a digital-driven, hyperconnected world, our perceptions will heavily depend on virtual experiences and our biological view. To get a sense of where we are heading, I had the pleasure of sitting down with Dr. Yvonne Förster, professor of philosophy of culture at Leuphana University in Germany, to get her perspective.

Q: The speed of digital change is just incredible. It’s hard to imagine that we will always be able to keep up. Will humans find a way to cope with the speed of digital change?

A: Without a doubt, algorithms are faster than our conscious thinking. And although our physical reflexes and our intuition are quite fast, they are still slower than the latest computers available right now. From this perspective, we face many challenges.

Much of our future experiences in a digitized world will be powered by technological devices that operate on micro-timescales. The Internet of Things is a term that describes technologically permeated lifeworlds comprising billions of sensors and highly interconnected devices, which measure – or more precisely, sense – various activities in their environment. The interesting question is not so much about coping, but the perspectives and possible futures of human life itself. How will we evolve while changing our lifeworld?

If we cannot operate at the speed of computers, will we experience disruptions between more direct, data-induced experiences?

Not necessarily. Disruptions are exactly what modern technology tries to avoid. Smooth operation and flow are ideal in technology and design, allowing applications to be invisible and creating self-learning systems.

Understanding how technology influences our perception today is a subject of aesthetic research. Media artists try the impossible: Make the invisible visible or render the nonexperiential rhythm and speed of algorithms experiential. It would be naïve to think that the exponential growth in exposure to technological devices would leave people unchanged.

Evolution goes on in culture. And nowadays, we are not just passively shaped by adaptive behavior; we can also actively alter our bodies and minds. New digitized environments and our own wish to extend human life will be fundamental forces in the game of evolution, which we should carefully reflect on.

Will we still experience our environment without additional interactions? Will nature become a dull world to us?

I don’t think so. The world will be a fascinating place in the next few decades when it comes to technological development. It doesn’t necessarily mean that every device will remove us from our environments like the dystopian world portrayed in movies such as The Matrix or Surrogates. But, we also shouldn’t forget that our experiences in nature and everything else are always mediated by cultural concepts, attitudes, and technological devices.

Just think of the perception of time, which has been interceded through watches of all kinds for centuries now. Some would even hold that human culture is essentially rooted in technology from its very beginning. Still, as long as we preserve nature, our world will never be a dull place. There are just new perspectives to discover.

How will wearables and sensors help us achieve new perspectives?

The interesting question here is: How will our lifeworld and behavior change when sensors are present everywhere? With the omnipresence of sensors and devices that sense locations and other types of human agency, we find ourselves in an environment that is not only tracked by living beings, but also by highly interconnected technological devices. You could even one day say that walls, streets, or cars have eyes in the most literal sense possible.

Sensing is not a concept only about living organisms anymore. Rather, it’s a ubiquitous property of our lifeworld. This will deeply change how we act and interact with each other – but more important, it will transform how we engage with objects. Our lifeworld is altered by the Internet of Things as objects sense and communicate among themselves. The impact of this technological development has yet to be estimated and described.

Förster: Our lifeworld is altered by the Internet of Things as objects sense and communicate among themselves

Will everyone become digitized?

If we define digitization as a significant part of everyday life that is connected to digital technology, then we are already digitized. However, if we mean that technology will invade our bodies and turn us into cyborgs that are physically connected to the Internet, this is already becoming a reality in laboratories. This idea is strongly connected to enhancing the human body and mind. Still, most people remain skeptical when it comes to technology invading the body.

We can think of a third alternative of digitization: The co-evolution of humans and technology. When our world is deeply permeated by technology, it will present different and new opportunities to humans. We can develop new ways of behavior, creativity, and thinking. Also, we will need to engage with technology and actively reflect on its use.

This approach calls for an understanding of technology as a precondition for handling such innovation critically and creatively. We see these kinds of engagement emerging from artistic and scientific practice. Jennifer Gabrys, for example, works with sensor technology used by citizens in different environments, such as fracking areas, to better understand and build awareness around changing environmental conditions by using do-it-yourself technology.

Will we have a choice in what we do – or do not – want to know?

Yes, we certainly have a choice. As biological beings, we are adaptive. The presence of technology is evolving – and will continue to change – our perception and behavior. If we don’t reflect on that process, we will remain passive and eventually feel outrun by technology.

Still, technology is our making, even though it is not entirely predictable and manageable. Given that technology functions according to emerging patterns of artificial intelligence, we should be prepared to engage in new processes of understanding and agency in computed environments.

Will digitization change the way I experience my body?

The playful element of digitization will change the way we learn as well as the knowledge space of what can be known. It’s not just transformation of the thinking process or the quality of decisions, but an evolution of the body as well. In gaming, for example, we use evolutionary, yet old and hard-wired, behaviors such as flight-or-fight reflexes. This means digital gaming is less about our culturally and highly rated reflection, but more on gut feeling and our intuitive mode of acting. But, it might also bring about completely new patterns of behavior and action or reaction.

Another aspect of bodily experiences in times of digitization is the measurement of movement and live data such as heartbeat, blood pressure, and more. This is accompanied by an objectification of a bodily experience. We tend to perceive ourselves as numbers, such as the number of steps we have walked or the calories we have eaten. This might be problematic because it can distract us from our actual bodily state, which is not tantamount to a number or chart appearing on a screen.

The flipside of this is the issue of Big Data and control. Where does this information go, and who uses it? Will your insurance company be interested what your everyday habits are? This seems very likely and should be observed carefully.

How will we experience the world in the future? Will it be in the form of data streams?

The world around us is getting sense-driven; it will have eyes and ears. I am waiting for the day when my refrigerator starts arguing with me when I grab a piece of steak instead of a salad. But more interesting is the question of what happens when information goes beyond being presented as text, video, or speech to include body temperature, heart rate, and the pitch of our voice. What kind of knowledge will be generated out of this data?

In the movieEx Machina, such information leads to the first self-conscious android named AVA. But, I am sure that we will not perceive data streams. Data by itself has no value as long as it is not interpreted. Also, our brains are not an information-processing organ. It generates information only through sense-making activities.

Life never deals with raw data. Movement and perception are to be understood as relational activities, which bring about meaningful structures such as me as an individual and you as another person. Similarly, we will conceive technology as part of our environment and, therefore, part of a sense-making process that extends beyond human perception.

If data could be experienced directly one day, where is the border that separates us from it?

Current technologies, such as augmented reality and Google glasses, will not change very much. Even if the physical and virtual worlds merge, these technologies will not interfere with our sense of self. The sense of self is already a stretchy category since cultural practices can alter it profoundly. Mediation techniques, for example, can broaden our ability to be compassionate and make the self subside in meditation and agency.

Another interesting development is the use of invasive techniques that substitute or change our perceptual and cognitive abilities. An example is Neil Harbisson, who can hear colors, or Enno Park, who is using a hearing aid with a speech processor that transfers sounds into digital signals that are sent directly to the brain.

Merging human bodies and technology can create new forms of sensing and acting. Even the ontological gap between what is human and what is technology might become blurred. But this is old news. The self has – and never had – any fixed limitations. We become what we are by interacting with each other and our environment. And we are always evolving; no self is ever complete. The moment you meet another person, you undergo a change. This is why we should not be afraid of losing ourselves in the future.

Will we co-evolve with machines, rather than creating a world similar to The Terminator?

Certainly the merging of humans and machines is an interesting idea as it promises to overcome human limitations. It’s part of our human nature to adapt, and I have the impression that we are entering an era of a new form of cultural evolution that combines biological, technological, and cultural practices.

The most important lesson we will learn is that technology will develop in unforeseen, not programmable, ways. This might destroy the myth of the human as a rational being who can understand and predict the reasons and consequences of an action. Humanity is a very creative species, but we have a hard time understanding complex and nonlinear processes. These processes have become ubiquitous since the Internet became our second nature and stock markets are partly controlled by algorithms.

Complex processes also lie at the core of life. The best example is our own brain whose inner workings are highly complex and nonlinear. Still, we lack the cognitive abilities to understand them. This is why we should experiment and reflect on the possibilities of a life form that engages with technology as a complex process and cannot be simply controlled and predicted. Issues of data privacy, information ownership, and governance need to be discussed in light of ecological entanglement with technology.

Förster: We should experiment and reflect on the possibilities of a life form that engages with technology

For more on this topic, see Live Business: The Importance of the Internet of Things.

Kai Goerlich is the Idea Director of Thought Leadership at SAP.

This story originally appeared on The Digitalist Magazine as part of the 10 Weeks of Live Business series.

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