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Pax Technica: How the Internet of Things May Set Us Free or Lock Us Up Hardcover – April 28, 2015
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"Pax Technica" presents another possibility: perhaps this expansive and seemingly intrusive network of "things" will liberate us? Though not oblivious to the obvious challenges, it even predicts that the IOT may become the "most effective mass surveillance infrastructure ever built." The title obviously evokes analogous epochs such as the "Pax Romana," "Pax Brittanica" and the, some claim, recently waning "Pax Americana." Similar to these eras, the book argues that the IOT could bring about a similar kind of stability that keeps corruption in check and provides global citizens, no longer necessarily tied to a particular government or country, with a bigger and more transparent view of their world than ever before. This positive vision uses voluminous, almost overwhelming, examples of this promise. The technology-driven Arab Spring uprisings in Egypt, Tunsia and Iran still resonate as well as the controversial Wikileaks exposures and philanthropic internet responses to recent tragedies such as the 2010 Haitian earthquake. The IOT might also dampen the current growing trends in cyberwar and bot proliferation by advocating "cyberdeterrence" (a kind of digital social contract of "you don't hack me, I won't hack you"). Not only that, unscrupulous governments, organizations or individuals may have a hard time finding a place to hide their activities if the IOT pervades and sees all like some benevolent eye of Sauron. The book argues that the IOT could even create new forms of self-governance outside of traditional state-based paradigms and produce a new kinds of freedom especially for those living under authoritarian regimes.
Though some of this sounds undeniably cyberutopian, the book also explores the downsides of the IOT and threats to the "Pax Technica." It discusses new directions the Chinese government has taken in censorship and control over digital content, including the building of its own internet infrastructure - sometimes called "The Great Firewall of China." It seems to aim its heaviest surveillance against interactions involving face to face meetings or public protests. It also ships this inevitably slower technology elsewhere in the world, particularly to Africa, which remains one of the globe's largest unexplored and unconquered digital territories. As social control corresponds more and more with control of digital content dispersal, the IOT may find itself a mass conduit of directed and diffuse propaganda. Technologies used by political activists may also be used against them as events in Ukraine demonstrated. The IOT could amplify this. Some devices may also invade personal lives more than others. Warnings have already circulated about placing "smart TVs" in intimate settings such as bedrooms as their embedded cameras and microphones may transmit data even when turned off. Not to mention the future possibility that an absence of internet activity in a locale may arouse suspicion. Detecting a lack of digital activity apparently helped officials locate Osama Bin Laden's hiding place (arguably this point could be categorized as both positive and negative). Bots also impersonate people, sometimes with stunning authenticity especially over limited platforms like Twitter. The book claims that one fifth of followers of Canadian politicians during a recent election were actually bots and that multitudes of Twitter users are indeed mere bots. As AI continues to undermine the Turing test people may find themselves interacting more and more with virtual online "beings." A host of challenges, many more listed in the book, exist.
Throughout, "Pax Technica" maintains a rather ambiguous definition of the IOT. Sometimes referred to in the future tense and sometimes in the present tense, the book never really decides what the IOT actually is or will be. Though expected in a work infused with a certain amount of futurism, those new to the IOT concept may finish the book not really knowing what this potentially ominous "network of things" really comprises. But does anyone really know? One thing the last half century or so has demonstrated is that technology remains difficult, if not impossible, to predict. For example, the book makes the prediction that "hacktavists" will continue to stay ahead of governmental technology. Maybe. Overall, the book feels somewhat repetitive as examples recur, especially the "Pax" analogies which reappear almost ad nauseum. Its information swells to an almost incomprehensible level, sometimes making the arguments difficult to track. Relief appears with the "5 premises" and "5 consequences" chapters which provide a more concise adumbration of the main points. But the majority of the positive arguments seem to rest on people having a say in the building of the IOT for it to have the transparent, liberating effect emphasized throughout. Though correct, just how people have a say in this doesn't receive much attention. Some may fall back on market dynamics, but, similar to small televisions, will non-networked devices one day become almost unavailable? The book never directly mentions activism as a way to "have a say," but that route also poses numerous challenges. So, as the IOT slowly builds itself under our very feet, how do people have a say in its construction and implementation? One great piece of advice the book offers is for people to become more technically aware. Don't just consume digital products, understand what they do and the network upon which they transmit information. Regardless of the near silence on how we bring about a liberating IOT, "Pax Technica" nonetheless remains a good read throughout and presents a number of intriguing and important examples of how technology shapes our lives and the sometimes surprising effects it can produce. We can definitely hope for a "Pax Technica" as described in this book, but the reality of tradeoffs will likely dominate as usual. Some things to some people will seem better. The same things to other people will seem worse. Given the incomprehensible polymorphicity of experience and perspective sometimes the overall effect of change and "progress" seems impossible to quantify. We can really only be confident that things will change.