The Internet of … What ??!
Suzanne Simard discovered that “fungal threads link nearly every tree in a forest — even trees of different species. Carbon, water, nutrients, alarm signals and hormones can pass from tree to tree through these subterranean circuits."
“Resources tend to flow from the oldest and biggest trees to the youngest and smallest.”
Chemical alarm signals generated by one tree prepare nearby trees for danger. Seedlings severed from the forest’s underground lifelines are much more likely to die than their networked counterparts. And if a tree is on the brink of death, it sometimes bequeaths a substantial share of its carbon to its neighbors.” The Social Life of Forests, By Ferris Jabr, New York Times Magazine .
When I first read this article, I asked myself what would be an appropriate term to describe the situation? Is this a network of trees? Could one say that it is a kind of an “internet” of trees? Certainly, the complex environment does have some kind of a network or assembly of plants, but it could not be fully represented by a traditional simple word, “network”, or visually by a network diagram (containing only nodes and lines). Yes, the trees are connected but the connection is complex. Connections include sending and receiving signals, exchanging various resources (e.g., chemicals) while each plant (a tree or a fungal thread) has some degree of knowledge, self-perception, and ability to act. This ability of forests that have existed for millennia is quite different from the comparatively simple situation in some of my home Internet of Things networks…
Far from the Forest – My IoT Life at Home
Since I like to experiment (i.e., play) with technology, I have some camera sensors that are distributed around and inside my house. Each one of these cameras is positioned at a different location so it has its own area of view. The sensors are not directly connected to each other but rather, they send their signals to a central location - one sensor typically does not know what the other ones are doing. Moreover, unlike the situation with the social life of forests described above, the information coming out from the cameras around & inside my house is not synthesized or even fully understood in situ but rather sent to a central location and signals are sent to me through occasionally annoying series of beeps and messages. The synthesis of the information and its interpretation is done in my brain. Centrally. So, the sensors do not typically collaborate with one another directly by themselves.
Moving, But What?
On the other hand, these sensors could determine the motion of objects in their field of view. Most of the time, I get warnings that something is moving caused by a squirrel or even worse by a branch moving in the wind. These false alarms could sometimes have an effect similar to the one described in Aesop's Fables “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”… It would have been beneficial and practical if the cameras could identify the moving object – an animal, a person, certain people like the owner & family. It could get even worse. When the squirrel exits the coverage area of one camera and enters the coverage area of the next camera, I get another warning…
In spite of its weaknesses stated above, most of the time, I really enjoy having the IoT network outside and inside my house. Lights could be turned on and off remotely manually or through motion sensors. I get alerts when people enter my yard and I could even see when mail is being delivered and if the delivery person lays down the package by the door or as it happened before, tosses the package from a distance of 3 meters…
The Internet of Things
The situation around my home does not contradict the typical definition of the Internet of Things. According to the Wikipedia  “The Internet of things (IoT) describes the network of physical objects—'things’—that are embedded with sensors, software, and other technologies for the purpose of connecting and exchanging data with other devices and systems over the Internet.” This IoT definition does not say that the IoT has to measure or transmit something useful and it does not address the potential interference of the technology (of the connection and the data exchange) with the values measured or with our way of life. It also does not require the individual sensors to be cognizant of the meaning of their measurements and to perceive what other sensors are doing. To reduce the widespread existence of “dumb” networks that just generate and distribute data without adding value or even confuse users, maybe we need to modify the definition of IoT to include understanding and relevance – just “connecting and exchanging data” is not enough.
We should also realize that not all assemblies of objects and sensors are the same - the above-mentioned case of trees in the forest, for example, is quite different from the assemblies of sensors at my home. Thus, it could be misleading to use one term (e.g., network or Internet) to describe all of the possibilities of assemblies and objects. Using one word might imply that these objects and networks are the same or at least very similar. This might encourage oversimplified thinking and thus could affect our understanding of their capabilities and potential.
Trees, Sensors, and Now, Humans…
After thinking about the social life of forests and the IoT elements around my home, I was wondering if humans could “join this crowd” or, in other words, how about humans with embedded sensors? Before we have sensors widely implanted inside us and on our skin, or having an interface between the Internet with our brain waves, we have already the mobile phone that is typically with us most of the day (and in many cases during the night). The mobile phone is connected to the Internet and has a number of sensors in it. This has been an opportunity for humans to become more central in the Internet sphere. It calls for a radically new paradigm, that has been named the Internet of People (IoP), “where the humans and their personal devices are not seen merely as end-users of applications, but become active elements of the Internet” .
Including humans in this “mix” of devices and applications calls for an upgrade of the concept of the “Internet” or for using different terms to describe different kinds of “crowds” and interactions. Meeting somebody, for example, is much more complex than just bringing two sensors together to close proximity. It is the human connection that could evoke feelings, enabling the interchange of various signals (words, visual cues, and feelings) and create what is called human moments . Another example of the difference is the complexity of describing meetings and virtual meetings and what to do to make them effective [5,6].
The transition to a system where the human user is integrated with technology is not always straightforward. For example, most of us are working from home these days during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has prevented us from meeting our colleagues, relatives, and friends face-to-face but rather we meet remotely using the Zoom platform or other equivalents. These meeting environments are assemblies of technology (sensors, computing devices, Internet, etc.) and humans.
Humans are not like sensors or objects that one could simply transport them from place to place, aggregate them, and simply connect them. Humans sense each other and their perceptions and behavior are affected by their human and non-human environments.
In meetings, for example, especially in virtual meetings, it is important how one starts, conducts, and ends the meeting . It is also important that the audience participates in the meeting and that its members do not multi-task [5,6]. Another way for creating togetherness is to use specific interactive visuals and rituals as is described in . This has no simple parallel in the physical sensor world…
Asking Questions to Encourage Thinking Outside the Box
Using the same term (like the Internet of …) to describe vastly different types of assemblies might give us the wrong perception that they all behave the same. This is why when hearing the expression “The Internet of Things” or “The Internet of …”, it could be beneficial to ponder about it and ask ourselves questions like: “The Internet of What?!!” or even: “What Internet?!!”
- “The Social Life of Forests”, By Ferris Jabr, New York Times Magazine, https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/02/magazine/tree-communication-mycorrhiza.html
- Internet of Things https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Internet_of_things
- Marco Conti, Andrea Passarella, Sajal K.Das, "The Internet of People (IoP): A new wave in pervasive mobile computing”, Pervasive and Mobile Computing, Volume 41, October 2017, Pages 1-27
- Anne-Laure Fayard, John Weeks, and Mahwesh Khan, Designing the Hybrid Office - From workplace to “culture space", Harvard Business Review, March-April 2021 https://hbr.org/2021/03/designing-the-hybrid-office
- Steven G. Rogelberg, “The Surprising Science of Meetings: How To Lead Your Team To Peak Performance”, Oxford University Press, 2019.
- Karin M. Reed and Joseph A. Allen, "Suddenly Virtual: Making Remote Meetings Work”, Wiley, 2021.
- Ulrik Ramsing, BlueBehavior, "Rethinking rituals to create team togetherness”, Klaxoon webinar, led by Charles Kergaravat https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZP2_eDHRAxE
Nahum Gershon focuses on social media, the Internet of Things, strategic planning, visualization, combining creative expressions with technology and real-time information delivery, presentation & interaction (including storytelling) in mobile, wearable as well as traditional devices including how they could improve both organizational environments and our personal lives. He likes to play with ideas, words, and real devices. Nahum Gershon has served in many capacities at the IEEE over the years, in schmooz.org, and as a Senior Principal Scientist at the MITRE Corporation. Nahum is a well-known community organizer, mentor, and communicator and is quite socially oriented. He has a significant international & multicultural background (citizen of the world, speaking a number of languages) and is right and left brain enabled. He enjoys life!
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