Posts Tagged 'Internet of things'

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Precogs don’t have an easy time of it in Philip K Dick novels. Their awareness of the future is inevitably bound with the tragic realisation that they can’t do a thing to change it. Take the protagonist in The World That Jones Made. He has the miraculous ability to see one year into the future, but this ultimately leads to the bleak reality of living the last year of life with his own assassination sprinting down the timeline towards him. Thankfully, precognition isn’t something that has come to pass in the real world, but a disturbing level of PKDickian premonitions are still manifesting.

Previously, here on Drozbot, we’ve touched upon the burgeoning Internet of Things, and how this is analogous to many of the computerised devices in PKD’s universes. Admittedly, the semi-sentient status of his machines is a far reach from your fridge reordering milk, but there’s an ambivalence to them that highlights a healthy distrust. Giving too much control, or too much data, to the machines, the marketers and the government, is unwise.

Another device that appears repeatedly across many of the author’s stories is the Johnny Cab. Self-driving vehicles that, once again, tend to exhibit more humanity than some of their human passengers. Google’s driverless vehicles seem a far shout from this proposed future, but the convenience they offer remains part of a larger data system over which the end user will have little or no control. Again, technological advancement tempered by nervous unease.

Perhaps our machine overlords will be benevolent, much like the sentient, military killing machines in The Defenders who keep humans locked in their own bunkers for the benefit of the planet. Again, look to the fighter drones on any contemporary battlefield and PKD’s foresight seems even more incredible, formulating his ideas as he was in 1953. In this short story, as in The Simulacrua and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, another repeated trope appears, that of the robot being indistinguishable from its human counterparts. It’s an obsession that seems to have hooked Japan more than any other nation and, as a result, hardly a month goes by without another uncanny android being revealed.

Finally we come to A Scanner Darkly and the state sanctioned surveillance culture it presents. Of all PKD’s Sci-Fi futures, I find this one the most chilling. While scatter suits are the preserve of the military attempting to cloak large vehicles, the idea of our reality being obscured or even falsified by those in power (state, god or even reality itself) is a powerful one. Look into the black lenses of omnipresent CCTV cameras, especially those that resemble the prior civic forms of street lamps, and Dick’s informant culture seems just one sleepwalking step away.

Collectively, all this tech adds up to a predictive chicken and egg scenario. Is the future being mapped out as the influence of PKD’s ideas resonates with us, or was Phil simply a procog who could literally see the shape of things to come. There is evidence for the latter in that he wrote of foreseeing his own demise, slumped face down between a sofa and a coffee table. The stroke that led to his hospitalisation and subsequent death did indeed floor him in just such a position. A tragic procog then perhaps, but one reminding us to always be mindful of the futures we imagine for ourselves.

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Weirdly, it seems as if one of my pet fascinations and one of my web-based bugbears are set to merge.

On the one hand, impressions around the ‘internet of things’ purport a brave new future where all kinds of domestic appliances take on fresh and useful lives in cyberspace. Fridges which transmit their contents to your mobile while you’re at the shops, watches that record biological feedback for health checks and toothbrushes offering instant discounts on oral hygiene products if teeth are sufficiently scrubbed.

On the other hand, we encounter the ongoing battle for freedom within said web – a fight currently being waged by organisations like Fight for the Future against the cash-driven lobbying of America’s cable companies and their influence on the policies of the Federal Communications Commission.

As ever, science fiction has already navigated the more cautionary scenarios across this emerging landscape. Personally, Joe Chip arguing with the door of his apartment in Philip K Dick’s Ubik – wonderfully illustrated by Matt Taylor above – has always been a touchstone. A potentially dark and (excuse the pun) unhinged future where devices demand payment simply to function. The scene was the well-spring for my own ‘death by furniture’ piece, Delivery, and yet one that simultaneously feels prophetic and no longer that outlandish today.

In other SF quarters, Bruce Sterling has just published his new essay called The Epic Struggle of the Internet of Things where he explores digital commerce and governance desperately moving to monetise and control the internet. Meanwhile, Wired has extrapolated the idea of the fully integrated house being attacked by so-called ‘script kiddies’ in a domestic take on the now familiar disrupted denial of service (DDOS).

Finally, for aficionados of dystopia, similar worse case scenarios can be found in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 (1953) – consider Mildred’s obsession with household electronics – and J G Ballard’s Subliminal Man (1961) where shopping frenzies are driven by blip-verts flashed at unsuspecting consumers via road signs.

Still think the internet of things is a cool and radical new horizon for technology? Pause and think again about who will profit from and who will control this new wave of consumerism.

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Hitch Hikers

Webbytings, or the ‘Internet of Things’ to coin the official moniker, have been in the news of late. Possibly the product of a capitalist realisation that with the Net making stuff redundant – CDs, films, books, entertainment in general – economies are in need of more, new, exciting… stuff! Which is the virtual gift horse with perfectly rendered teeth for anyone interested in extrapolating ideas. While technophile sites like Boing Boing offer open source access to nested thermostats, a deeper, sometimes darker side to house-bound tech undermines the foundations.

Philip K Dick’s ongoing narrative of smart stuff displaying all the capriciousness of humanity is an obvious blueprint for a slew of domestic tales. Just think about Joe Chip’s argument with his apartment door in Ubik, or the petulant air car in The Game Players of Titan, the psychoanalytical insights of the Johnny cab in Now Wait for Last Year or a myriad other examples. Play this along the SF timeline and you swiftly reach all the inept robotics of Douglas Adams’ Sirius Cybernetic Corporation. Nudge a bit further and we’re in the populist realms of The Simpsons and Ultrahouse 3000.

The more sinister side to smart houses – as voiced by Pierce Brosnan above – tends to lean towards an evil and controlling AI – Demon Seed played out in the homestead as seen in ARI by Arthur Choupin. But while machine intelligence remains elusive, the darker side of human nature – i.e. insidious hacking – is a plausible and depressing possibility.

A man’s house is his castle? Perhaps , “a person’s abode is their secure data enclave” will soon be more apt.

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