When Things Shape Values (2/3): Hardware Components and Energy Power in the Internet of Things

This blog post has been written by Sebastian Lehuede. I am very grateful to Funda Ustek-Spilda for her thoughtful suggestions and edition.

The post is the second of a three-part series looking at the ethical stakes of different technical elements that make up the Internet of Things (IoT). While in the first post I discussed data and network architectures, here I look at hardware components and electric power. In addition, I associated these components with discussions about flexibility and the ethical framing of technical solutions. In the upcoming blog post I will focus on maintenance, repair and interfaces.

Changing the focus: From Values to Things

A few months ago, I explored a ‘materialist’ approach to ethics and technology. As I explained, one of the most common approaches to ethics can be summarised in two steps. In the first one, the researcher carries out some ethnographic work in order to identify the values shared by relevant social groups. Usually, these groups are the ones that are closer to the processes of conception and building — programmers and designers — although sometimes business managers, activists and journalists are also taken into account. The second step consists of looking at the way the values and ideas held by these groups actively shape or get encoded in specific engineering and design solutions.

In this article, I am interested not in the ‘values’ shared by technical communities but instead in the way the technical properties of technology can also open up or constraint how groups conceive, materialise and reflect about values. This is a different emphasis compared to previous work on ethics and technology that, I suspect, can shine a light in some aspects that have not been developed in detail.

In relation to the social sciences, I would like to situate this attempt within what has been called ‘material turn’ or ‘turn to things’. This framework has contributed to de-centring the discursive or symbolic dimension of technology in order to highlight the technical properties that open up or constraint possibilities. In the case of the Internet of Things, I translated this definition as the things that make up connected devices, such as the hardware components, data and electric power that make possible the construction of connected devices. In case you are interested, in the first blog post of this series I developed more on this approach and discussed some of its advantages and disadvantages.

These blog posts draw on the ethnographic work carried out by researchers at the LSE, ITU, and CIID. Since the beginning of the project we have attended conferences and meetups, interviewed different actors and ran co-design workshops with people involved in the IoT in Europe. Here I share the results of a re-reading of these data with a ‘materialist’ concern in mind. After carrying out this method, I came up with a list of six components — data, network architectures, hardware components, energy power, maintenance, and interfaces — , to which I add a discussion on the ethical concerns that they make salient. Here I draw on some examples to illustrate the ways in which technical components are ethically framed.

Hardware Components: Challenging Deterministic Accounts of the IoT

One of the things that fascinate IoT developers[1]is to work with physical things, such as computer chips and visual screens. Unlike programming, the IoT also implies designing and making devices that are made up of multiple components. This physical dimension is valued by designers and developers because they provide an opportunity to practice — and sometimes also show off — virtues such as engineering mastery, innovative thinking, and creative design. For this reason, the possibility to create devices from scratch is one of the factors that attract people to the IoT.

However, what we have seen in our fieldwork is that, in the end, few IoT designers and developers manage to actually end up working with hardware. As is the case for data, dealing with hardware components can become the source of several difficulties. In general, dealing with hardware significantly increases the amount of capital required to set up a company, slows down commercial growth and introduces the problem of distribution. More than once I heard advisers and entrepreneurs recommending to ‘avoid hardware’ as much as possible. Apparently, there is a moment when IoT developers give up and focus on software and business development. ‘Let’s be honest’, I heard an entrepreneur saying in a meetup, ‘we all end up buying our components in Alibaba’. This can be even more difficult in places like Serbia in which, according to some participants, the lack of resources and bureaucracy, can introduce additional constraints.

There is an interesting initiative seeking to tackle the difficulties of building IoT devices. Buzz Technologies’ project seeks to change the way the IoT is usually developed. Through a Uber-style model of production, it seeks to decentralise the process by offering “overnight peer-to-peer, distributed manufacturing in the home and small business”. Machines such as 3D-printers can be booked by guests, who can then employ them during the machine’s spare time. Although there are some details in the proposal that would need to be cleared, it is interesting to see how machines such as 3D printers and p2p platforms can afford new ways of ‘making’ IoT products. The consequences of this new mode of production would be interesting to study further.

Also, and in spite of these difficulties I mentioned above, the material affordances that make up IoT devices might also allow for the advancement of certain ethical values. Take sustainability as an example. One of the setbacks underpinning the proliferation of connected devices is the increasing amount of electronic waste being produced, a phenomenon that has been widely criticised. Indeed, research conducted by colleagues of Virt-EU from IT University of Copenhagen shows that the environment is a big concern for some IoT developers in Europe.

In practice, however, the affordances of the IoT might also contribute to the protection of the environment. Cupclub is a good example of it. This ‘poster child’of technology-enabled circular economy seeks to replace single-use cups by distributing and washing re-usable ones. It employs RFID technology to track the cups, and users can receive incentives for contributing through an app. I find particularly interesting that according to the founder, Safia Qureshi, privileging single-use products“ is a selfish and arrogant stance”.

Dealing with the physical dimension of the IoT is usually seen as a barrier for business growth. On the contrary, Cupclub shows that a ‘material’ approach can help us study the way values and technical configurations can be associated in multiple and flexible ways. Different combinations of technical arrangements and ethical values, even within a category such as ‘the IoT’, do not necessarily follow a clear-cut set of values or ideals. Once again we are reminded of the need to challenge the deterministic assumption that purports technological development as following an ‘ automatic and unilinear’ path.

Power: Shaping Values in Highly Discursive Realms

I realised the importance of power when I heard the presentation of a developer from a smart bikes start-up. When introducing the company, he made an interesting distinction. ‘What we do, are smart bikes’, he said. ‘But in technical terms, we are experts in dynamos for bikes’. Indeed, power is so relevant that it can provide you with a membership in the club of the IoT.

The example illustrates the relevance that power can have for IoT products and services. Given the small size and high mobility required by connected devices, low power consumption is an important imperative within the developer community. This challenge has given rise to interesting initiatives, especially when it comes to network architectures such as LoRaor NB-IoTthat, unlike the Wi-Fi one, provide connection with low power consumption.

What I find particularly interesting in relation to power is that, for some reason, initiatives working in this field tend to draw on strong ethical narratives in order to introduce their mission and goals. The first example is Chargifi, a company that provides wireless chargers in public spaces. For them, ‘power has become a basic human need’, and one of their slogans is ‘power to the people’. According to this view, connectivity is so fundamental that it needs to be put at the bottom of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The second example is BuffaloGrid, a company that manufactures solar-powered phone chargers. Since they work in developing countries such as India, they state their missions as one of “bringing mobile power and internet to the next billion”. As Chargifi, they also draw on a narrative of connectivity, sustaining that ‘off-grid shouldn’t mean offline’.

Unlike these examples, projects innovating in other elements of the IoT tend to highlight some of their features from a more pragmatic and functionalist logic. For example, network solutions would mention their lower costs, years of experience spectrum efficiency in their website, not necessarily specific ethical values. A good question is why does power lend itself apparently easily to the employment of ethical narratives?

How could a materiality-first approach contribute to such a discursively charged field? I would argue that what could be interesting in this case is to see how can the specific technologies offered by these companies shape the very values through which they introduce them to broader audiences. Take connectivity, for example. What happens when connectivity is equated with the possibility to access the internet? What is left inside and outside through this analogy? How do the technical affordances of IoT devices shape the way designers and developers understand by connectivity? Values are not static but instead mutable over time, and one of the ways in which they change is by getting associated with different things. The modern belief in the primacy of the mind and abstract reasoning has kept us from acknowledging the important role of objects in areas such as public participation, sciences and, why not, ethics.

The acknowledgment that we think with objects have fundamental analytical consequences because objects, as I have discussed, are not neutral but open up or constraint possibilities. What developers understand by connectivity necessarily changes in the process of conception, design, and construction of connective objects. This is partly because the design process is contingent, far from straightforward. What seems to be the case most of the times is that plans tend to change in order to reflect the always-changing environmental conditions. Putting values into practice involves interaction with pieces that do not fit together, protocols that are not interoperable and infrastructures that break down. In the end, the device considered to be connective is the result of the interaction between the plans of designers and the physical properties of the components with which it has been built.

Conclusion

In sum, looking at materiality illuminates the fact that the ethics of technology is not only defined by the intention and agency of human designers but also by technology itself. In a way, modernity has convinced us that we are in full control of our tools, but seeing technology as a process shows us that the scenario is messier and more complex than we originally thought. I completely agree with people proposing ethical design frameworks as a means to acknowledge the situated and contingent nature of technology building. This also explains Virt-EU’s goals of developing a tool that could help people to elaborate on ethics in the very process of designing and developing IoT products.

After a reading of Virt-EU’s field notes and interviews, hardware components and power came out as two important technical challenges faced by IoT designers and developers. In this blog post, I analysed the IoT in order to discuss two particular topics associated with a ‘material’ interpretation of ethics. On the one hand, I employed hardware components to address the way the ‘physicality’ of technology can challenge deterministic notions of the IoT, such as the idea that it has a negative impact on the environment. On the other hand, I drew on issues surrounding power to highlight the way technology can shape the way we conceive ethical values.

Echoing the theoretical lenses that inspired this post, I have argued that values such as environmental consciousness and connectivity are more than mere abstract ideas held by specific groups. Instead, I have discussed ways in which the very technical characteristics of the IoT mandate us to avoid deterministic and straightforward understandings of the ethics of technology.


[1]At Virt-EU we use ‘developers’ in a broad sense, encompassing programmers, designers, innovators, makers, business managers and all those involved in the conception and production of connected devices. Given the focus of our research, we mainly focused on small and mid-size companies