Interview with Rob van Kranenburg: The Internet of Things

by deborah on 02/18/2009

I’ve met Rob van Kranenburg at the end of November 2008 in Zagreb at the conference Intercultural Dialogue and Digital Culture… Hence, it was precious to talk with him about our digital future…

rob1.jpgPhoto: lomodeedee (cc)

Rob van Kranenburg works as Head of Programme at Waag Society in Amsterdam. He is plugged into negotiability strategies of new technologies, predominantly Ubicomp and RFID (radio frequency identification), the relationship between the formal and informal in cultural and economic policy; and the requirements for a sustainable cultural economy.

Kranenburg graduated cum laude in Literary Theory at Tilburg University (Nl). He worked as programmer on media educationa and teacher-coordinator of the new media program on the Film and Television Studies Department at the University of Amsterdam. He also mentored a postgraduate course in performance, theatre and the arts at APT, Arts Performance Theatricality.

Because over the last few weeks, Wikipedia had been very often discussed in the context of editorial quality: whether it is or isn’t a referral place for finding the relevant information; I’m going to use here exactly the wiki entry that says that the internet of things ‘refers to, usually wireless and self-configuring, wireless network between objects, such as household appliances.’

rob2.jpgPhoto: Midnightcomm from Wikimedia Commons

‘The idea is as simple as its application is difficult. If all cans, books, shoes or parts of cars are equipped with minuscule identifying devices, daily life on our planet would undergo a transformation. Things like running out of stock or wasted products will no longer exist as we will know exactly what is being consumed on the other side of the globe. Theft will be a thing of the past as we will know where a product is at all times. The same applies to parcels lost in the post.’

‘If all objects of daily life, from yogurt to an airplane, are equipped with radio tags, they can be identified and managed by computers in the same way humans can.‘

Hi Rob! Could you tell me a little bit about concepts such as the internet of things, web 3.0, ubiquitous computing, smart applications, ambient intelligence, tagging, human beings as data, RFID…

Rob: People are very predictable. So, we basically do the same things every day; and if we don’t do it, it’s very strange. If something happens we call it coincident, we call it bad luck. But basically, we expect that everything goes the way we want to do it; and the way we want to do is basically according to our habits and they are very very strict. Therefore, you only have to know little bit about somebody to be able to sort of predict what they will do, or what they will not do. That in itself is not wrong, but in a way it sort of takes us back or takes us further away from being human.

Yeah, that’s of course very very strange line, because nobody knows what is to be like human, but I think we know instinctively. That’s also why people do not relate to with the latest robot Hiroshi guy – because it’s too much like human. And than we feel that something is wrong, when we relate to things that are fake we know when things are not real. We sense that people have good intentions or not, in certain ways. So, this is not a given situation, cause we have changed from lot’s of things, if we have to believe to evolutionary theory – we have come from fish, so we will change and that’s OK.

create.jpgCreate Yourself a New Life by lomodeedee (cc)

What would that mean in historical sense? What has the cultural history shown us?

Rob: If we change, than I think in the past centuries it was quite logical that there were only few people that would be able to say that we’re going to change like this or we’re going to change like that, because they had power and; I think also even a hundred years ago or fifty years ago, most people in Europe were pretty poor. If we go back three hundred, four hundred years ago, I think in Croatia, Holland, Belgium, France we would have a few kings, a few aristocratic people. If we would be lucky, we would be working in the fields, dying of some disease and that would be life to 77% of people.

So, at that time nobody was asking the poor dying people: What do you think? How should we change? What should we do about society? Because why should you ask these poor people?! Basically, what has happened in Europe is that in the past decades and centuries we stole so much money from the rest of the world that we were able to give to everybody… basically, everybody, of course, there is 16% poverty in Europe in all countries, still. But it’s 80% of people, while 85% of the people have a home, have a house, they have heating, they have food, they have like everything and so.

If these changes are going to be made then you have to ask lot of people, you have to ask these 85% of the people; and they don’t understand everything. So, you have to explain it to them. And this is the big thing that is going on now; this move towards this internet of things, towards this Web 3.0, towards this huge connectivity, towards all these RFID chips and tags being sort of like everywhere.

rob3.jpgIllustration taken from quantumcinema (c)

How would you explain it to these 85% of people? Because you need a sort of guides to show them that technology is not something bad… but also to explain that somebody can misuse it… and their trust…

Rob: It’s not debated by the 85% of the people, but it’s only debated by industry, logistics and by the retail – it’s not their fault. They are not bad people, or something. For them, it is just a simple logical upgrade from the bar code to something that’s more sufficient. And we have to explain to them that it’s not just that. The moment that you digitally put a tag on everything, then you create a kind of third entity that is completely unpredictable, but that also must be created with love and human emotions like they are there.

If you are making babies, if you want children, you want to have them with all the human range of emotions which are good or bad. At the moment this entity is being created only for notions of control and fear. So, it’s being created because than there would be less theft, there would be less counterfeit, there would be less fake things. It’s wonderful to use it for control and efficiency. And it can also be to track and trace people in combination with other technologies.

rob4.jpgAudio Ballerinas by Benoit Maubrey (c)

Could you explain deeper in which sense tracing the people?

Rob: Yes, in a way that it’s used now. Yes, and it takes away ubiquity, it takes away the moment when you do not know, it takes away poetry, it takes away older things that we need to confront new situations or something. There is very little boredom anymore in the world. Kids do not bore themselves anymore. I used to be quite bored, and that was really good.

So, if you take away boredom, if you take away the ubiquity in the relationship of things, if everything is clear, if you have a reader on your mobile phone and you can read out everything and it gives you a kind of thing back, than this could only be through huge loss of data, a huge loss of how humans relate to these things, sort of like in data. It would be the same as if you take away the smell and the texture; and you just have a picture of the rose. And if younger generations grow up with the picture of the rose thinking that that is a rose, then for me, for my generation that’s a loss. For them it’s not, it can be a different world.

Therefore, I’m not saying a sort of: that’s’ good or bad. In a way deep down I believe it’s not good, because it’s too easy. It’s too easy kind of technology, and it will try to eliminate all the things and all the people. I’m quite crazy in that respect and I relate to all my fellow crazy people; and I think there is a quite good use for people who do not think in the normal sort of way. And what is now normal it’s becoming, yeah… it’s becoming very easy now to become abnormal. It’s has become too easy for people to say: you are not normal or this is not normal…

rob5.jpgCity-to-City Connections by Chris Harrison (c)

Yeah, it’s too easy, indeed…

Rob: It’s too easy. So, I don’t think that designers or artists should help this, or whether should they. But it’s very difficult of course. This also needs a certain responsibilities. If you think that you want to change the world or something, you have to provide it for all the people who are in that world. So, if you want to do something radical, then we can do something radical with ten or hundred friends. That’s cool. Then you do something radical. That’s nice.

But if it doesn’t lead to anything, then it maybe isn’t so good. In a sense it could be like in the thirties when some people where sort of sensing that some fascism is coming, they knew it. But, they didn’t tell anything, German called it der Innere Emigration. They went into their own spaces and kept silent, because they realised: what can I do?! I can go and shout here at the crossroads: Bad times are coming? I can go and shout there: Look at all that stuff, that RFID, all this data thing is coming! And you have to think: what can I do? What good will it do for them?

What will happen?

Rob: So, what will probably happen is that this world goes through, and in ten or fifteen years than everything will be tagged. And there will be a small minority of people who want to affect this and they will carry RFID blockers or RFID guardian that Melanie Rieback is making, which is now still legal to buy; but maybe illegal in a few years. Because, most people want a simple and not so troubled life, and they want convenience and they worry about their kids and they worry about their job; and they have got no time. If you can offer them a twenty minutes per day by saying: Look! All the stores have RFID, you just go in or go out and you pay. That saves me a lot of time. Then most people will say, yes! Let’s do it.

Because, I can have a lots of ideas about how the world should be, but if I have no good alternative to majority of people living at this moment, who do not care about democracy, who do not care about the state, who think: I’m not doing anything wrong, so you can know anything about me. Um, I can tell them: Look, maybe in five years, what you do know, maybe will be wrong. So, you might as well think about it. But, they don’t care. They’ve got other things to worry about.

rob6.jpgThe Blu Jacket by Lunar Design (c)

But it will also turn into situation sort of ‘it’s for your safety, but our business as usual’…

Rob: So, it’s a very difficult situation in which you know that 80% of people will like this technology, it would be sold to them as convenient. They will get profits also for it, because they will get good advertisements, very specifically targeted to them. There will be money in it, because the industry is not bad in itself. I mean, they just want to make money, they are not crazy. They don’t want to ruin their market, and the market is us, human beings. So, if they do too stupid things, then it’s a trouble for them as well. But it’s just me and the few other people who worry about the bigger picture.

In all times, of course, there were people who were worried about the bigger picture, and sometimes they would listen to, but that was very very rare; when there was a huge convergence of problems and than just for one reason or another, somebody who would sense a little bit more. I’m not saying that it’s only me; it’s a thousand of other people; this is just like lots of people who sense this things. But, sometimes they would be in the right place at the right time, and sometimes not. Yeah, even than you don’t know what is good or what’s not good.

So, it’s not only anymore based on scientists and technology geeks, but to much wider scale of participants and ‘players’…

Rob: All I know is that I think that it’s going too fast and it’s going too quickly. We have to have some really really good common sense in all these new technologies. And we can not leave it anymore to the scientists, to the research labs because they still think they can develop things out of societal context. And that’s quite crazy, because in the heart of society… Yeah, I would really rather to have a kind of moratorium on research for the past ten years and so. And then to say: Look, we are not going to develop anything anymore; we can look what we have and how we can use this better, how we can recycle a lot of stuff. Because it’s going so fast that it’s feeding the idea that you can control things.

rob7.jpgPhoto taken from: purse lip square jaw

The word ‘control’ (which makes me scarred from all aspects, good or bad) seems to wriggle here…

Rob: People can not control anything. So, that’s why we are scarred and we want to control things and we’ve built all that stuff. But now, yeah, we are building so much stuff that makes us more worried. My girlfriend didn’t used to have mobile phone and we were quite OK; and now when I text her, when she doesn’t takes back in ten minutes I get completely upset. Because I think something is wrong, because I worry all the time. When I didn’t have the technology to express my worries with, I was much happier.

Much calmer…

Rob: Yeah, much calmer! And now, all that stuff just makes me nervous. So, this is just me, now this has become the whole society. The whole society is becoming more nervous because of all these gadgets. But, we are very simple people and we can not control even things that happen around us. Now anything can happen. So, we get so many data that we overload and than we want to bring that out. We blog it there, you have friends there, you put it there and put it out there. And if you don’t have good networks to put it out, when you think that you have done something by just putting it out, that means you have done nothing but just putting out some stuff. But, then you thing you have done something by telling somebody, than… yeah, if we have these outputs, than sort of it’s OK. But when these outputs fall away than the outlets sort of fall away and everything becomes much more difficult.

rob8.jpgNet Map by Eva Schiffer (c)

Yeah. For instance, I have dozen accounts opened on many social networks and services, but lately I’m coming back to the essential tool, and that’s my blog. I enjoy blogging… Because I’ve felt fragmented; I decided to go back to the basics…. This fragmentation can be used to manipulate people, cuz we are confused and anybody can control us…

Rob: Yes! This is also a bit problematic for any kind of political change. We have so many moments when we think that we actually do something, but we don’t actually do something. All this energy goes to this virtual world.

Tnx a lot, Rob!

p.s. Rob‘s book ‘The Internet of Things: A critique of ambient technology and the all-seeing network of RFID’ was published last year by the Institute of Network Cultures and it’s downloadable for free here: www.networkcultures.org