The IoT is the Democratization of Presence

16 Apr

At the surface, the Internet of Things may look like a simple continuation of everything that has come before: Computing continues to miniaturize, network access spreads, big data evolves, and eventually we end up with more stuff connected and more ways to utilize that stuff than ever. But this misses a major shift about to take place, one that will change the way we think about ourselves and the world around us. This shift hinges on the concept of “presence”, and the way that 1.1 billion connected things this year is changing us, the humans.

Fun With Misapplication of The Three D’s

Before I go on, I should explain the Three D’s. You can read more in my Three D’s post, but here is the summary:

  1. Decoupling. Decoupled systems minimize dependencies or the need for awareness between components. Decoupling gives you smaller components which you can maintain, evolve, and replace independently of the system whole. Think: The ability to replace worn-out auto tires rather than buying a new auto.
  2. Distribution. When the dependencies between components are abstracted, systems and individual components can be distributed. Distribution may be geographic, or conceptual, or apply to sections of computer memory or networks. Distribution is required for a system to be scalable and resilient.
  3. Democratization. Extreme distribution sometimes leads to democratization. The demand for a technology becomes sufficiently high or dependent to encourage competition in the form of imitation, alternative production, miniaturization, or lowering costs. Access to a thing becomes available to a completely new audience.

If you look at major technology innovations and breakthroughs (such as what we expect from the IoT), you can probably apply one of these D’s to that event. Go on, try it.

So what do these Three D’s have to do with presence? These concepts usually apply to physical or software innovations, but I think there is an interesting story to be told applying these to the human idea of presence. I’ll be the first to admit that this is a goofy employment of the Three D’s, but it makes for a cool diagram, and everybody likes diagrams. Besides, it’s fun to apply design patterns to all sorts of things for which they were never intended!

The Original Presence

Consider “presence” to be that abstract notion of existing or occurring at a place, and also time — the present. In its original form, presence meant two or more people, together, aware and conscious of one another. “We are here. We are communicating. We are present.” Presence implies that someone or something is around, and that they are active around me. (The potential for a response or interaction goes back to the word’s origin — the Latin praesent, “being at hand”. I’ll stop short of going in to presentism, but only just.) We even go so far as to describe this as an extra-sensory sensation, and solicit reactions or responses: “I sense a presence!” This is well captured in one of the word’s definitions, “a person or thing that exists or is present in a place but is not seen.” This starts as a highly emotional definition, totally dependent on our human senses and feeling of company.

We can propose that three things (components) are required for this early concept of presence:

  1. Humans — people are presumed.
  2. Location — people have to be in the same place.
  3. Time — people have to be there at the same time.

The Internet of Things is the Democratization of Presence

Presence Gets Decoupled From Collocation

In the early 1900s, our concept of presence became decoupled from location. The telephone gave us many of the benefits of in-person communication, and we began using phrases like “you could be in the next room”, and “you seem distant” to describe our perceptions of emotional presence and attention. Presence was no longer tied to place, but to our feeling that someone was communicating with us, listening to us. These interactions were largely one-to-one, and even when they involved groups (as with teleconferences), individuals still communicate one at a time. Keep in mind that location is still relevant to presence, since you need to be in the proximity of a phone in order to take part in this “remote presence” — we are dependent on that telephone to stay “in touch”. This phase mostly eliminates location as necessary for presence; although people may send letters and use answering machines, live interaction is still required for presence, which means time is still a requirement.

Presence Gets Distributed

Presence became distributed as a result of many innovations of the past decades, including the Internet and mobile devices. We became able to take our “sense of presence” with us nearly anywhere we go. Instead of saying, “you never call me”, we’d say, “I never see you on Facebook.” We no longer sat by the phone. And it didn’t really need to be our phone — we could now check email from any computer, since it was now in the cloud. We altered our concept of presence to one of “connectedness”, applying the term to organizations and abstract groups. “Our online presence.” Location stops being a relevant factor completely, as does dependency on any one particular device.

We are nonetheless dependent on mobile devices and the Internet itself to stay “in touch”. This phase removes location and time from our requirements for presence. Although real time interactions are still important to us, they are not strictly necessary to our feeling of presence or belonging. Asynchronous communications are persistent (email and forum threads, social media updates) and we can engage these at our leisure.

Presence Gets Democratized

Presence is now becoming democratized. What will that look like? Democratization takes something in demand and puts it in the reach of a new group. The demand here is for presence itself.  Up to this point, presence is something fully decoupled and distributed, but it still requires humans. The shift of democratized presence is that presence becomes something that things can have. Also recall that presence implies a capacity for response, taking an action in response to some stimuli or request — presence is not truly passive.

Evolution of “Presence”
The Evolution of "Presence"

Consider the things we needed for presence in the past, and that we may not need them in their current form. Apps we use today may become unnecessary. Interfaces themselves (visual or otherwise) may become unnecessary when devices are capable of presence — sensing our needs without our having to even express those needs, vocally or visually. No doubt we will continue to engage in both synchronous and asynchronous communication with one another; however, that communication will not be required for presence.

The democratization of presence is not a statement of cost, or a prediction about machine intelligence, or some kind of philosophical statement on the human condition. Rather, I wanted to reflect the changed requirements of our own, human perception of “presence”. The IoT has the potential to severely impact the concept, given devices as capable as we are of sensing and collecting data, and algorithms capable of taking actions based on that data. At the very least, this shift to presence will dramatically change the types of devices with which we engage, the ways in which we interface with them, and activities in which we participate (by choice or otherwise). At the most, the IoT stands to fully alter the way we perceive our world, and the way that world perceives us.

The Future of Presence Lies in Policies

In the IoT, humans will continue to redefine “presence”. AI and intelligent policies will make more decisions for us, resulting in a background of smart presence about which we may or may not be consciously aware. Our concept of “unplugging” from digital things may become obsolete, as we come to rely on and trust the way decisions are made.

This “trust of things” underlines a key takeaway: In a world where presence is democratized, the power of trust lies in the policies being implemented by AI. Our own perception of how well a thing serves it function will be more tied to the policies driving its decisions than to its hardware or sensors. Take for example a thermostat capable of regulating a house climate by monitoring the body temperature and behaviors of its occupants, with little or no human participation. How well that thermostat functions will not be so much a factor of its accuracy in changing the temperature or even sensing body temperatures, but how smart the policies are that govern such changes. Policies will matter because decisions will always have competing, even conflicting, inputs. How should such a system prioritize cost savings versus comfort? What are the energy conditions? Who are the occupants and what are their own needs? How to prioritize the needs of the occupants?

A Future Without Presence?

Our new, strange definition of “presence” will not only encompass the things around us, but equally so, the decision engines and policies that drive those things. The digital power of the future will lie in how well groups can harness presence to drive informed, intelligent decisions that we perceive to be correct and useful. It will radically change how we think about things like user experience — is there still a UX if there is no explicit interaction?

But most interesting to me is to imagine this new kind of presence, and the way it will change our general thinking about things. Is it possible that we will eventually lose the concept of “to be present”? If everyone and everything is digitally omnipresent, is anything ever absent? At least, that’s the general thought that occurred to me, at present.

And if I’d thought of it beforehand, I would have posted this on April 1st, leaving you to decide whether or not I’m joking. I haven’t decided myself.



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