The Spiritual Implications of The Internet of Things
According to the Pew Research Center Internet Project in collaboration with Elon University's Imagining the Internet Center, we are entering the "Telemetric Age" where we create and share information about everything that we do through a web-connected Internet of Things (IoT). We summarized the report in Part 1 of this blog post. "The rise of embedded and wearable computing will bring the next revolution in digital technology," notes Janna Anderson, director of the Elon University Center. "Experts say that the upsides are enhanced health, convenience, productivity, safety, and vastly more useful information for people and organizations." This is expected to be widespread by 2025.
But there are downsides to this change in the way we do things in everyday life. The Pew Report states:
"The realities of this data-drenched world raise substantial concerns about privacy and people's abilities to control their own lives. If everyday activities are monitored and people are generating informational out puts, the level of profiling and targeting will grow and amplify social, economic, and political struggles."
Since this projected digital revolution involves decisions, ethics, human rights, and basic questions about diversity and social inequality, there are many spiritual implications to consider. We predict it also will impact such spiritual practices (from the Alphabet of Spiritual Literacy) as connections, diversity, openness, peace, silence, vision, and zeal. In our reading of the Pew Report and many other articles, we have identified some of the spiritual challenges that lie ahead.
The Internet of Things creates more social inequality.
Google Glass is a new toy for the rich and an example of how the digital divide operates right now. Many skeptics predict that the gap between IoT-haves and have-nots will keep growing in the future as high tech toys become smarter, more advanced, and more expensive. Any time some people are shut out of a cultural development, there is a spiritual issue of inequality.
Hackers will have a field day.
Security is one of the big concerns for the Internet of Things. All the interconnected devices will be a very attractive target to hackers. Safety apps will have to be developed to protect personal information from identity thieves and terrorists. It's a spiritual issue when people no longer control how the world knows them.
People may become addicted to the quantified self.
A major function of the Internet of Things will be self-monitoring. Already people are keeping track of their every step with fitness tracking apps; in the future embedded devices may continually collect information on heart rate, blood pressure, exposure to sunlight, and more. Will this become the digital age's equivalent of naval gazing, excessive focusing on your own state while ignoring the suffering and plight of others? Keeping track of every aspect of your day could become just another addiction, a distraction from focusing on who you are meant to be.
Our devices may replace our friends.
As we saw depicted in the movie Her, lonely people may substitute contact and conversation with devices for the companionship of humans and animals. Google's chief economist Hal Varian observed in an article on the Guardian.com: "We will talk to devices in essentially the same way we talk to other people. Yes, you will be permanently connected to the network via wearable devices. You will interact with these devices mostly by voice, as you would interact with another person." It's a spiritual issue when we get our feedback from indifferent machines rather than from family, friends, and spiritual companions.
Privacy could become extinct.
The personal information collected and connected via the IoT will be very attractive to companies wishing to sell us things based upon our proven interests. Our daily lives themselves will be commodicized and traded around among commercial interests. Will we able to control the promotional messages we constantly see and hear, or will that discretion also become extinct?
Privacy at work is also a big concern where managers will be able to use special devices to monitor the minute-by-minute activities of employees and then take steps to make them more productive. The Telemetric Age will also see a whole class of "watchers" and surveillance experts. These developments raise spiritual issues of freedom and human rights.
The glorification of high tech devices reveals our hubris.
A handful of tech and smartphone vendors are already at work on a mobile device that can serve as the matrix to control every other piece of technology in our lives: starting the car, clicking the lights on and off in our homes, making dinner, turning on our home entertainment center to tape a sports event for us, sending us a reminder to pick up bread at the store, and even reminding us via email that bread is not on our diet. It has been predicted that robots will soon be cleaning our houses and landscaping our gardens.
These applications of the IoT reflect a new kind of hubris. Spiritual teachers have long warned us about the dangers of pride in human accomplishment and its resulting conclusion that humans can replace God. Now we are proud that high tech can replace humans.
The most pernicious aspect of this glorification of high tech is that it further distances us from the people we love, the things we own, and the places where we live, work, and relax. Soon we will have lost the sense of touch except for clasping in our palm our digital devices.
We need new spiritual manners for the Telemetric Age.
It's coming, and while we cannot stop it, we can moderate its influence over our lives. We can use devices wisely to enhance our connections with others. We can use self-monitoring apps to help us maintain a discipline of spiritual practices. We can use time-saving and money-saving apps to free us up for face-to-face time with others. But we will also need to know when to take a Sabbath from the digital world, to disconnect and reconnect with our inner, undigitized self. Being true to our true selves is the spiritual challenge of every age.