Blog 12: On the Internet of Things

Blog 12: On the Internet of Things

We wrapped up Richard Toye’s book last week and enter into a text this week, The Internet of Things, by Samuel Greengard. So far in this course, we have covered the history and development of the internet, including understanding its materiality, and the foundational principles of rhetoric, which we use to analyze the design and uses of various digital technologies.

In this new unit, we are yet again diving into something that we are not very familiar with. The Internet of Things, IoT in short, has been a buzzword for the past few years but each time I discuss it with my students and friends, they seem to think that it means searching about things on the internet. That’s far from what the IoT is. IoT is not really a thing at all. It is a concept whereby everyday objects and digital technologies connect and communicate with each other to create an ecosystem. This ecosystem is, supposed, supposed to minimize human input and interference in data collection and analysis, as well as automation of technology reaction based on the data mined.


In other words, IoT aims to provide a seamless interaction experience between humans and technologies, such that the labor in using technology is removed and replaced with automation and machine learning. It is, however, not to take human entirely out of the picture; it is to create an ecology where human is served by technologies, instead of otherwise.

To achieve that kind of ecology, we now have smart AI (artificial intelligence) agents or assistants that would help mediate us with the technologies we use. Examples include  Amazon Echo (Alexa) and Google Home. These AI agents serve as the coordinators. Like personal assistants, human users speak to these AI agents directly without needing to tend to the individual technologies at homes or workplaces.

Among the questions of interest to rhetoricians, regarding these AI intermediary and the IoT ecology, is agency in nonhuman and inanimate objects. For decades rhetoricians have studied and theorized human agency (such as control, motivation, authority, authorship, etc.); the shift to considering nonhuman agency means understanding how machines “learn” to make decisions and develop a sense of power/control. How do Alexa and Google Home “decide” to turn on/off certain devices given particular circumstances? How would they handle an ethical dilemma similar to the Trolley Problem (see video below)?

We are at the brink of a new technological society– one that we must include our machines in the process of education and civic development. What I am thinking about here is beyond a utopian or dystopian narrative, or technological determinism. I am concerned about the ways we interact with machines and treat them as counterparts of our lives. There’s much to talk about in the next few weeks in the unit.

For discussions:

  • What are the key concerns for technical communicators and writers when it comes to the internet of things?
  • What kind of literacies do we need to develop given the growth of machine agency and automation?

Greengard, Samuel. The internet of things. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. [Introduction, Chapter 1 & Chapter 2]


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