Cover Page

Digital Media and Society Series

Nancy Baym, Personal Connections in the Digital Age, 2nd edition
Mercedes Bunz and Graham Meikle, The Internet of Things
Jean Burgess and Joshua Green, YouTube
Mark Deuze, Media Work
Andrew Dubber, Radio in the Digital Age
Charles Ess, Digital Media Ethics, 2nd edition
Jordan Frith, Smartphones as Locative Media
Alexander Halavais, Search Engine Society, 2nd edition
Martin Hand, Ubiquitous Photography
Robert Hassan, The Information Society
Tim Jordan, Hacking
Graeme Kirkpatrick, Computer Games and the Social Imaginary
Leah A. Lievrouw, Alternative and Activist New Media
Rich Ling and Jonathan Donner, Mobile Communication
Donald Matheson and Stuart Allan, Digital War Reporting
Dhiraj Murthy, Twitter, 2nd edition
Zizi A. Papacharissi, A Private Sphere: Democracy in a Digital Age
Jill Walker Rettberg, Blogging, 2nd edition
Patrik Wikström, The Music Industry, 2nd edition

The Internet of Things

Mercedes Bunz and Graham Meikle



Mercedes thanks the lights for their amusing dialogues, Roomba for helping with the housework, and Toby for accepting that he has lost control of the home.

Graham thanks his connected home network – Lola, Rosie and Fin.


What is the internet of things? The internet of things describes the many uses and processes that result from giving a network address to a thing and fitting it with sensors. These conjunctures of sensors, things and networks have become an increasingly important part of internet experiences. When we equip the things around us with sensors and connect them to networks, they gain new capabilities – in this book we call these skills. By skills, we mean a particular ability that things did not have before – such as seeing, speaking to, or tracking people. We study and evaluate these skills chapter by chapter. In particular, we explore the shifts that come with the new dimensions of communication that are enabled by the internet of things.

There’s a good chance that the reader is familiar with some internet of things devices in their own daily life. Many such devices are designed for a specific use and are given a single skill – they might turn on your lights or help you count your daily steps, for instance. Others, such as the increasingly connected car, are filled with multiple sensors and network connections. And then there are the internet of things devices known as smartphones. One way of looking at smartphones is that they are general-purpose computers that can simulate many other kinds of devices – so you can use one as a piano, as a TV or as a book. To support those functions, they contain a lot of sensors. Sensors are components of a device or system that detect and communicate changes in their environment. And sensors are a crucial part of the internet of things.

But the internet of things is not just about networked sensors being fitted to things. It is also about how those things gain new skills that are expressed in new forms of communication. These new forms have been created by new interfaces, such as the conversational technology of a virtual assistant like Siri or Alexa. Such interfaces have become more pervasive as computing power, as cloud storage and management capacity, and as the potential to deploy algorithms in data processing, have all become both greater and cheaper. As we go through the book, we explore how both physical things, like smartphones, cars or human bodies, and virtual things, like chatbots or virtual assistants, have been incorporated into sensing networks.

Chapter 1, First things, explores sensors and networks as the two fundamental elements of the internet of things, creating a communication environment that we call sensing networks. Sensing networks of connected things are systems for making sense – the internet of things mediates what has not been mediated before. It is a misapprehension that the internet of things is just about connecting domestic appliances to the web. Instead of following this Fridge Fallacy, we show that the internet of things introduces services that disconnect the user further from a product; this fundamentally changes questions of agency. A prominent example for this is Error 53, the software bug that automatically bricked the thing genuinely precious to all of us: the smartphone. The smartphone, today used less as a phone and more as a networked computer, comes with an expanding range of sensors that have turned the device into a different kind of thing. Not just because it becomes able to sense, but also because it stays connected to the manufacturer, thereby overwriting the assumed sole ownership of the user. This chapter looks into the technical and conceptual aspects of sensors and networks as well as into the new dimensions they introduce.

Chapter 2, Addressing things, explores the ways in which things can be enabled to sense their locations through systems such as RFID, iBeacon or GPS. The thing that knows where it is, and where it is going, is a thing that enables new grids of surveillance and monitoring. Location can also affect how things work – a network address can make a thing function only within specific geographical borders, as in the similar way that our IP addresses today define what part of the World Wide Web we see. And if giving a network address to everything can mean that anyone can find it, this raises critical questions of security and privacy as hackers scan networks for vulnerable devices to be exploited. But the power of address can also have a utopian potential: locating and addressing a thing in space could also open up options for very different, post-capitalist models of property ownership and common use.

Chapter 3, Speaking things, explores the capacities of conversational technology. From the lukewarm jokes of Amazon’s Alexa, to the nagging commands of a self-service checkout, conversations with digital technology have become normal. We talk to our phones and our phones talk back. Our cars direct us to our destinations in their out-loud voices. Conversational technology has become a daily interface for many networked things. This chapter looks at how language affects our relationships with technology, from the malfunctioning supermarket checkouts that lead people to steal, to the nomadic adventures of people who put too much trust in their car’s navigation systems. It explores how some of the earliest visions of computing find contemporary expression in the networking of objects with which we can speak – such as chatbots – and how this brings with it complex combinations of agency, algorithms and anthropomorphism.

Chapter 4, Seeing things, explores the new capacities of connected things to see the world around them. Assisted by sensors such as lasers, radar or cameras, things have first learned to auto-focus, then to identify what is in a picture, and then to self-drive a car. Informed by the technology of neural networks, they have been equipped with the skill to interpret information, thereby giving it meaning, although not always the correct one – they may mistake a baby playing with a toothbrush for a young boy holding a baseball bat, or fail to recognize a black person in an image. This chapter explores how sight imbues connected things with a new agency, for which programming must be held accountable in the future.

Chapter 5, Tracking things, explores the use of connected sensors to monitor, measure and quantify the individual’s health. Health-tracking devices such as the Fitbit, health-monitoring apps designed to work with major platforms such as Android, and the increasing integration of health technologies and tracking sensors into smartphones are driving changes in the ways that many people look after themselves. The personal, the intimate and the pathological are now all mediated with others. One’s daily activities and routines, diet and exercise habits, locations and movements, sleeping patterns and sexual activity, intake of caffeine or sugar, of alcohol or nicotine, of proscribed substances or prescribed medication – these all become knowable information to audiences that may not always be recognized or expected. Such detailed information has not been mediated until now. As the biological and the technological converge in those new networked systems, they redraw distinctions between public and private information, bringing new kinds of concerns about surveillance and security.

Addressing, speaking, seeing, tracking – these capabilities built into networked objects show that the internet of things has already become much more than just a simple internet-connected device. Instead, new and different uses of networked digital media, and new and different experiences, have been introduced for both public and personal communication. To examine those aspects, we draw upon a range of theoretical and philosophical perspectives on technology and communication. We use the methods of historical analysis, to study how change occurs in society, combined with Critical Discourse Analysis (Fairclough 2003, Machin & Mayr 2012, Hansen & Machin 2013, Wodak 2013) – the latter most explicitly in chapter 4 and chapter 5. By examining word choices and patterns, organization and assumptions, as well as the use of image and design, we look at what contributes to the meanings of texts about the internet of things that have been written by companies at its heart. Viewing language as a form of social practice, we look at texts produced by firms involved in the internet of things such as Fitbit, Tesla or Google, and study how they suggest meanings for their new inventions, and how they introduce certain ideas of agency and power into our discourse.

In using both methods, we aim to explore the specific social and political qualities of the internet of things, and to get a deeper understanding of the newly acquired skills of things from the perspective of communication. We focus on the corporate applications of these skills, and with them the new roles that users have been given. And we aim to show that this is a topic that media and communication scholars need to take seriously. Other work that addresses the internet of things is often business-focused (such as Greengard 2015) or uncritically enthusiastic about the economic possibilities of sensing networks. Further contributions come from very different fields, addressing technical security (Dhanjani 2015), politics (Howard 2015) or design aspects (Sterling 2005, Rose 2014). This book, in comparison, emphasizes communication. We explore the specifics of sensing networks and their communicative capacities, in order to better understand the social dimensions of the internet of things.

The book emphasizes throughout that the internet of things is built on already familiar technologies, which have been developed further. To describe its development, we often use examples that have attracted some media attention and that readers may recognize. In a disruptive environment such as digital technology, it is only natural that some of those examples will soon be out of date. But those examples should be distinguished from the concepts that they illustrate. Those concepts describe more fundamental shifts within the field of communication, such as those caused by recording devices and sensing networks, by conversational technology or algorithmic sight.

Of course, the internet of things is an industrial formation, and is bound up in part with questions of automation, manufacturing, agriculture, retail and transportation (Government Office for Science [UK] 2014). It also extends well into economic sectors once considered knowledge or creative industries. In their book about the future of work, Robert McChesney and John Nichols survey the internet of things and the claims for its economic potential. They adduce claims such as that of Cisco Systems that the internet of things will generate savings and revenues of $14 trillion by the year 2022, and conclude by warning: ‘A large share of these savings will come by eliminating jobs’ (2016: 94). Others, like Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams (2015), demand to read the same recent high-tech developments as a step towards a post-capitalist economy capable of achieving a utopian world without work, for which we should get organized. To those authors, the rapid automation of logistics such as the internet of things turns into the possibility of a globally interconnected system that could be used as a post-work platform (2015: 178).

Our aim with this book, however, is to develop an account of the internet of things from a different perspective – the perspective of communication and media. So this book, above all, approaches the internet of things as a matter of communication and meanings. Technological systems embody ideas about the ways in which we organize ourselves and each other, and they also provide the means for us to make meanings about that social organization. Understood in this way, a book about the internet of things is also a book about its human usage. Through looking at the capabilities of sensing networks, this is a book about the human dimensions of technology and about the technological dimensions of the human.