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Month: June 2011

Do objects dream of an internet of things? [abstract]

I will be presenting a paper at the upcoming International Association for Media and Communication Research (IAMCR) conference in Istanbul which is under the general theme of Cities, Creativity, Connectivity.

Below is the abstract for my paper titled:

Do objects dream of an internet of things: re-locating the social in ambient socio-digital systems

This paper engages the notion of an internet of things and its implications for conceptualisations of the social, as exemplified by issues such as network identity, privacy, and surveillance. The internet of things can be roughly defined as object networks linking physical and virtual objects into an assemblage with ambient data-capture capabilities. The metamorphosis of the human-centred internet into an internet of things entails the emergence of socio-digital assemblages, with ambient connectivity ‘gelling’ the practices of humans and nonhumans into an augmented, hybrid space. This hybrid space offers two sets of problems – from the perspective of its human users it questions fundamental notions of privacy and identity, while from the perspective of objects it demands for a yet-to-be developed taxonomy of hitherto black-boxed data.

The paper argues that this problematic is fundamentally a function of a social projection ill-equipped to manoeuvre in hybrid space, and suggests an examination of mobile socio-digital assemblages with a conceptual apparatus borrowed from actor-network theory (ANT) and the work of Gabriel Tarde. Key to this reasoning is the specific delineation of the social emerging from these approaches. For ANT, distinctions between entities appear as an effect of the relations between them, while for Tarde the elementary social fact consists of the forms of relations through which difference is produced. The main strength of this conceptual apparatus lies in its capacity to encounter the hybrid complexity of socio-digital assemblages without assigning a priori subject-object relationalities – spatial relations are performed simultaneously with the construction of (hybrid) objects. The paper’s argument is illustrated with case-studies of the internet of things.

The paper suggests that while the internet of things profoundly undermines human-centric projections of network sociality, it also makes the semantics of circulating objects readable for, and visible to, humans. As projects such as talesofthings, itizen, and pachube already demonstrate, making object-semantics explicit and mobile renders their human interlocutors in a hitherto unknown terrain. The enfolding of objects into socio-digital assemblages portends a rearrangement of the rules of occupancy and patterns of mobility within the physical world, because when objects are enrolled as explicit actors their circulations become explicit too.

Examining this research problematic can provide a theoretical understanding of the arguably fundamental shifts in sociality and subjectivity entailed by the proliferation of ambient socio-digital assemblages. Such an understanding is crucial if we are to formulate a stable and coherent approach to the challenges posed by an internet of things.