The Internet of Things: Actor-Network Theory Finally Goes Mainstream

April 2014  |  Status: First Draft

In his insightful summary of the trend that is increasingly being referred to as the “Internet of Things” (IOT), and in his recommendation for approaching it, Tim O’Reilly calls for a fundemantal reconsideration of our relationship with the things around us.

My point is that when you think about the Internet of Things, you should be thinking about the complex system of interaction between humans and things, and asking yourself how sensors, cloud intelligence, and actuators (which may be other humans for now) make it possible to do things differently. It is that creativity in finding the difference that will lead to the breakthrough applications for the Internet of Things and Humans.

This call for action reminds me of a crazy theory I once heard about…

About 30 years ago, two French sociologists named Michel Callon and Bruno Latour developed a method called Actor-Network Theory (ANT). It tries to explain social phenomena in terms of how “actors” — both humans and nonhumans — interact in networks.

ANT is a popular approach among sociologists who study scientific and technological developments, but it’s also highly controversial because it sees nonhuman things as being just as integral to the network as humans are. Instead of humans using phones to produce various social phenomena, for example, humans and phones act together according to ANT — as if phones had a volition of their own. Critics of ANT argue that this is nonsense. Proponents of ANT reply that you don’t need to have your own will in order to participate meaningfully in a social network.

For most of human history, it seemed that people simply used things to get what they want. The things in question were too simple, often no more than a chunk of rock. Surely the interaction between ancient populations was much more interesting than their interaction with rocks? But even in the stone age, those simple tools had a tremendous effect on the fate of the humans who wielded them, so it’s often useful for historians and anthropologists to ask how things interacted with people, instead of just asking how people used them in their interaction with one another. It’s a useful change of perspectives, a different algorithm perhaps, that yields interesting theorerical insights.

But now it seems like ANT might be more than a novelty method. It could actually be a substantially better perspective than the traditional alternatives.

More and more “things” are becoming smart. They are no longer being unilaterally used by us; they use us too, and are in turn used by others. They get a life of their own and adapt to completely unforseen uses. They are reused and abused; in turn, they reuse and abuse the information we feed them. As long as you have an IP address, it doesn’t matter whether you have a brain or a CPU. You exchange information as equals, you process them, and you propagate your results to the rest of the network.

Perhaps the fundamental relationship between us and our tools hasn’t changed at all. But if so, the emergence of the Internet of Things and Humans makes it much easier for us to recognize that we never really unilaterally used anything after all. Nothing in nature unilaterally uses anything else. It’s always a two-way interaction, whether it’s between a Neanderthal and his rock or between you and your self-driving car.

All French sociologists are crazy, but some of them are geniuses.