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The Internet of Things: Wholism and Evolution

Geschreven door Ben van Lier - 16 januari 2015

Ben van Lier
The Chief Scientific Adviser of the UK Government states in a recently published report that: “We are on the verge of an extraordinary revolution in which the digital world becomes completely embedded throughout the manufactured and engineered products on which advanced societies depend [1].

Several harbingers of this revolution could be found at the CES 2015 trade show in Las Vegas where 'new devices for smartening up your home are plentiful. We’ve seen kitchen appliances, lighting systems, and electrical conduits that are designed to be safer, to consume less power, and to be controlled via mobile apps' [2]. One of the manufacturers on hand predicted that within two to five years, all his products will be able to be connected to networks in which they can communicate and interact. This development will be made possible through the combination of three elements: 'processing power, sensors, and internet connectivity' [3]. Based on these elements, relatively traditional objects from our daily lives may also transform into cyber-physical systems. This transformation has inevitable consequences for the way in which we as people or organizations perceive our realities and act within them.

Whether it’s about ‘smart’ televisions or aircraft engines, the transformation to cyber-physical systems will affect people, organizations and society as a whole. The revolution which has been launched by cyber-physical systems resides not so much in the actual form of expression of the object, but in the possibilities for network connection and being able to exchange and share information in them between people, organizations and other objects. In its current form the smart television as a device is (still) not any different from a traditional television, but it makes it possible irrespective of time or place, to view personalized content, to communicate about and with it, and to interact. This merges people, technology and content into one combined socio-technical system. For the producer of the device or the content the smart television also makes it possible, again irrespective of time or place, to collect information on the use of the television or content within a specific context. The collected information can be used to improve new devices or content, or to assist the user in using the device or content. The remotely-collected information about the current technical status of the television or the quality of the delivered content can also be used by the producer to immediately observe any possible shortcomings. Or to prevent any technical problems remotely, or to resolve them quickly and adequately. Whether it involves televisions, cars, medical implants, power plant turbines or aircraft engines, in principle they are all equal in their transformation into cyber-physical systems. They also offer the same new possibilities, specifically being able to connect in networks and to exchange and share information within them. New capacities of cyber-physical systems will thus no longer be limited to their existing physical possibilities, but can be expanded with new abilities to process and communicate information. The new capacities will be enabled by algorithms and software enabling these systems to communicate and interact with their environments and the people, organizations and other objects present within them. New socio-technical systems independent of time or place will be made up randomly as a whole from cyber-physical systems, algorithms, software, people and organizations, and can perhaps best be typified by the historic statement from medieval philosopher Cusanus: 'Ex omnibus partibus relucet totum' (Each part reflects the whole).

Socio-technical whole

The new socio-technical whole is not something which exists by itself, or which creates itself, or which is separate from the underlying elements. According to Smuts [4] it can best be typified as 'a synthesis or structure of parts in which the synthesis becomes ever closer so as materially to affect the character of the functions or activities which become correspondingly more unified (or holistic).' It is the individual parts or components in their underlying synthesis arising from connections, communications and interactions which will create and evolve development of this new socio-technical whole. The scope of this new whole can acquire dizzying forms. For example, a potential seven billion people could be connected with a potential 50 billion objects in networks in which they communicate, interact, produce and create information in randomly-composed coalitions independent of time or place.

Holistic approach

The evolution toward such a new worldwide socio-technical whole comprising cyber-physical systems, algorithms, software, people and organizations raises the question as to whether people, with their existing knowledge and perspectives, will ultimately be able to deal with these developments adequately. Perhaps this revolution and transformation actually demands a more holistic approach because, as Bertalanffy [5] has already suggested – 'You cannot sum up the behavior of the whole from the isolated parts, and you have to take into account the relations between the various subordinate systems which are super-ordinated to them in order to understand the behavior of the parts.' In this transformation we can no longer rely on our existing knowledge of, and experience with, the operation of traditional objects and the time- and place-dependent models from which we view their behavior and possibilities for people, organization and society. As people we also need to transform into a thought and behavioral method in which interconnections in networks – and the information which is shared and exchanged within them – becomes central. This transformation will usher in a new phase in the evolution of man, to a phase where interconnected technology and technological applications will become an integral and obvious part of our social and working environments, suggests Gell-Mann [6]: 'The earthly systems, all of which have some connection with life, range from the prebiotic chemical reactions that first produced living things, through biological evolution and the cultural evolution of humanity, all the way to computers equipped with appropriate hardware or software and to possible future developments treated in science fiction, such as composite human beings formed by wiring people’s brains together'.

In this new phase of our evolution, the unprecedented number of connections, the information which is exchanged and shared and the interactions between a diversity of actors arising from them, means we will need to learn to accept that complexity is a given in the new socio-technical system. We will need to learn to cope with this complexity, and with the elements arising from it such as uncertainty, unpredictability and unmanageability. And not forgetting, the certainty that this complexity will create new and unexpected characteristics which in turn will yield new and unexpected questions.

Ben van Lier works at Centric as Director Strategy & Innovation and, in that function, is involved in research and analysis of developments in the areas of overlap between organisation and technology within the various market segments.

[1] The Internet of Things: making the most of the Second Digital Revolution. A report by the UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser. December 2014, pp. 11
[2] Wired, Gadget Lab Staff 01.05.15 | http://www.wired.com/2015/01/ces-gallery-day-2/
[3] http://www.businessinsider.com/samsung-bk-yoon-keynote-2015-1?IR=T 9.41
[4] J.C. Smuts 1926 Holism and Evolution pp. 118
[5] Bertalanffy v. L., General System Theory. Foundation, Development Application. (1969) Georg Braziller, New York, ISBN 0807604534 pp. 68)
[6] Gell-Mann M., (2014) The jaguar and the Quark. ABACUS ISBN 0349106495 pp. 369

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