Assessing the societal impact of the internet of things


If the technological rate of growth can be described as exponential, rather than linear, then the rate of buzzwords that accompanies these advances also feels… aggressive.The terms ‘mobilegeddon’, ‘blockchain’ and ‘quantum computing’ feel as though they’ve been around for centuries, rather than years. The core frustration and problem with these terms arises as a result of the technology hype cycle — there is a disconnect between the ‘bold promises’ new technologies make and their actual capabilities.

If the above terms can create some discreet eye-rolling, then the term Internet of Things can create some outright blanching in certain circles. Even though the dawn of the Internet of Things has been heralded as early as the late nineties, we are still yet to see its true impact.

Yet just because it hasn’t happened, it doesn’t mean it won’t. As Professor Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum states:

‘We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another. In its scale, scope, and complexity, the transformation will be unlike anything humankind has experienced before. We do not yet know just how it will unfold, but one thing is clear: the response to it must be integrated and comprehensive, involving all stakeholders of the global polity, from the public and private sectors to academia and civil society.’

And while a lot of the research on the Internet of Things has focused on its business applications, there hasn’t been a lot of discussion about the societal implications that these changes could bring.

Yet if technology continues to advance at the projected rate, then the focus of the discussion needs to shift from what the technology can do to how it will change our daily lives. If Dr Schwab’s predictions are true, it won’t just alter the way we interact with each other, it will inherently change our humanity.

The problem with assessing IoT’s impact on society

One of the issues with establishing IoT’s influence, is that the discussions have been a bit vague, because no one really knows how it all might play out.

However, the clue, according to a report published by The Chartered Institute for IT, might lie in problems and opportunities that have arisen from internet use. These issues will be amplified with the magnified connectivity that IoT will bring

IoT and privacy

For example, with the increase in private data available to businesses and governments, questions and concerns have already arisen about how data should be used.

In the future, the report on The Societal Impact of the Internet of Things projects that these discussions largely rest in the private individual’s hands: ‘Privacy and data protection will be tied to how people feel about giving away, trading, or enabling others to harvest information based on their behaviour.’

Yet at the moment, there is a disconnect between the negativity we feel about data, the rights we have and how we can ensure that we only share what we want to. Forbes has described this disconnect as The Achilles Heel of the Internet of Things  because ‘consumers don’t know what the Internet of Things is, but they do know they don’t want to share their data.’ A report released from the Altimeter group shows just how much we distrust what businesses and governments are doing with data:


As technology becomes more sophisticated, the issue of privacy is going to become greyer, not just in the information we feel comfortable sharing, but the way we ourselves interact with systems.

With the development of swarm intelligence, it could get to a point where we are plugged into the systems ourselves, which will not only challenge the notion of the autonomy of the individual, but it will radically challenge what it means to be human. The question that the future will answer won’t just be: where is the divide between machine and human? It will be: What is the divide be between individual consciousness’?

The shifting workforce

According to latest The World Economic Forum Future of Jobs Report, the focus on technology will mean that the jobs will go to those with the relevant skill-sets. With the rise of connected machines and artificial intelligence, jobs in the areas of professional services, manufacturing and retail could become highly automated.  As the founding director of the Center for Technology Innovation at Brookings, Darrell M. West states:

‘The rapid increase in emerging technologies suggests that they are having a substantial impact on the workforce. Many of the large tech firms have achieved broad economic scale without a large number of employees. For example, Derek Thompson writes that “Google is worth $370 billion but has only about 55,000 employees – less than a tenth the size of AT&T’s workforce in its heyday [in the 1960s]’

Yet, as with all technological innovations, there is also opportunity for industry growth. The report also outlined that the need for skilled labour in areas such as architecture, healthcare and sales, for the report predicts that as we head towards a future dominated by technology, the need for people who are adept communicators.

As such, the report recommends that educational institutions will have to become less siloed — that humanities and science (both streams forecasted to be very important in the future) will need to be amalgamated in order to have citizens that have intrinsic understanding of the systems that will be routine in their workplace, but also the ability to communicate difficult concepts easily. The breaking down of silos will lead to what The Digital Marketing Resource Centre, calls this The Network Effect, that in order for organisations to succeed, they are going to have to become ‘horizontal, agile and interoperable.’

When is the future?

Even though it feels like we’ve been talking about the Internet of Things for a very long time, the reality is that we are really just starting to get the barest glimpse of how it will transform our lives. In the next century we are going to experience changes that no generation in our history could have even imagined. So while the Internet of Things might feel like it’s old hat, we are actually at the dawn of a new era.

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