Thursday, March 21, 2013

Humanities and the "Internet of Everything"

I begin with a video: a recent (released in December, 2012) advertisement by Cisco for their campaign titled "Tomorrow starts here" (60 seconds long).*

Here is my transcription of the video:
What if the next big thing isn't a thing at all? It's lots of things waking up, becoming part of the global phenomenon we call the "Internet of Everything." Trees will talk to networks, will talk to scientists about climate change. Cars will talk to road sensors, will talk to stoplights about traffic efficiency. The ambulance will talk to patient records, will talk to doctors about saving lives. It's going to be amazing, and exciting, and maybe, most remarkably, not that far away. The next big thing? We're going to wake the world up and watch with eyes wide as it gets to work. Cisco. Tomorrow starts here.
In addition to the video, Cisco has also established a website that emphasizes various aspects of their campaign. In one particular part of this website is a video in which Dave Evans, Cisco Chief Futurist, talks about how these major shifts are essentially beneficial at their roots. The video ends with Evans discussing how historians will look back and ask "How did Internet of Everything benefit humanity?"--and his response, as conclusion, is that "Nothing else matters."

On one level, it is intriguing that this type of hype for change as a benefit to humanity comes from a multinational corporation in the S&P 500 Index (though it is good advertising for this). On another level, the rhetoric here is much the same rhetoric that comes with looking to the Internet as a democratizing force, a globalized connector, a type of messiah for the secular world.

What is interesting about this rhetoric are the components that are pulled together in just one short minute. The most important factors for the development of this "Internet of Everything" are emphasized in the moments when the advertisement is at its most specific, in the center--in contrast to the abstraction that frames the comercial. We are prompted to see the issues of environmentalism, transportation efficiency (another network of human life), and human sustainability. These are the key stakes. This is the future according to Cisco.

Of course, I do wonder where the humanities are in all of this. Science is clearly king in this video; and it is also the focus in the various aspects of Cisco's website. I have few arguments to make here, but I do want to question the sort of secular messianic view of science inherent in all of this.

The ad does clearly play with a sense of aesthetic beauty, a sense of wonder, a sense of humanity beyond just scientific achievements. The images are telling for this: the video begins with a scene looking up at the stars, evocative of the ever-expanding universe, a network so often connotative of infinite possibilities. In a series of images that last for no more than a second each, we (as we are told of "lots of things waking up") are shown flashes of a sea-shell, blood cells, flowers, a highway network, various sites of human residence with lights turning on one at a time ("waking up"). The networks here are fascinating. Interspersed throughout the ad are humans at work, at school, standing in cities, several faces at the end to show the humanity inherent in this vision.

Glimpses of the arts are also found throughout the video more explicitly. At 0:13, we are shown part of a page of a printed book titled Schubert, by Walter Gualtério Armando (GoogleBooks snippet view here--found by a Google search). Another connection, albeit more of a stretch, is the language of binary shown at 0:18--a code that some digital humanists have pointed toward as a language in its own right deserving more study through linguistics. At 0:39, we have a glimpse of a rock band playing in what appears to be a garage. At various points in the ad, photographs are also incorporated, a natural connection to Walter Benjamin's reflections on "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction," and what the digital media age offers as extensions of his ideas.

Are sciences the only areas pushing us forward in the digital age? Clearly not. I think there is ample room for reminding ourselves of this. On Cisco's website, they talk about education, and we are told "With the world's knowledge one Internet connection away, students will be active designers of their learning experiences.... The deep, rapid and constant change in technology will transform the way we teach and learn." We all take part in this, but the infographic offered emphasizes medical education, not mentioning the ways in which liberal arts and humanities develop significant ways into understanding human rights for these globalized networks. Or what historical endeavors (not just history as a discipline, but all historicizing endeavors) offer for understanding and avoiding past problems in moments of globalizing change. But beyond cautionary tales and warning signs, humanities also provide us with other avenues, such as appreciation of those glimpses into books, languages, music, and photographs--all still important in the digital age. In this, we hold onto the ways that the Internet of Everything embraces those aspects, too.

* In no way do I endorse Cisco, but use this video only for a starting point for my discussion.

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