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The Internet of Things and Libraries: The Wednesday Evening Session

Lee Rainie and Jane Dysart

Lee Rainie and Jane Dysart

Lee Rainie, Director, Internet, Science and Technology Research at the Pew Research Center, author of Networked: The New Social Operating System, and a frequent speaker at CIL and Internet Librarian conferences, presented the Wednesday evening session on the Internet of Things (IoT) and Libraries.  He began with the Oxford English Dictionary‘s definition of the IoT: “development of the internet in which everyday objects have network connectivity, allowing them to send and receive data”.

The rise of the IoT is the 4th digital revolution; in 2010, for the first time, there were more connections to things than to human. By 2050, it is estimated that there will be 50 billion things connected to the internet.

What the IoT means for libraries:

  1. It is the 4th digital revolution and it is tied to another revolution moving toward gigabit connectivity.
  2. People: It reshapes who librarians are and what they do.
  3. Place: It reconfigures library spaces and media.
  4. Platform: It redefines the role libraries play in communities.

The future is not evenly distributed; some people are early adopters, and the IoT is just beginning to affect people.

From 2004 to 2011, Pew did surveys of analysts, forward thinkers, and scholars about the future of the internet. Here are some of the significant findings:


In 2014, which was the 25th anniversary of the World Wide Web, Pew did more surveys on the future of the internet and what it would be like to be present with each other without being physically together. Here are some of the details:

Survey details

This video made by Corning Glass shows some applications of the IoT.

Rainie invited the audience to interact and ask questions, and a wide-ranging discussion on a number of related topics ensued. Here are a few of them. (Rainie kindly provided me with a copy of his slides; a summary of them follows.)

  • The internet has become an aggregation of human-level data; people are uploading their human condition to it.
  • The IoT is bound with the rise of Big Data. It will never take off if it doesn’t make life better and more convenient for people. One of the biggest challenges of the rise of the IoT is getting the societal benefits without compromising privacy and penalizing people, i.e. anonomyzing the data.
  • In the business community, the IoT is most aggressively pursued in supply chain economics. One of the biggest changes is that we will know a lot more about ourselves; you will have no excuse not to be self-aware.
  • Why would businesses want to give their information to libraries? They want to be known as good stewards of their data and want a trusted third party to validate it to them. There is an enormous wave of transparency sweeping through our culture that is hard to resist.  The act of refusing to share data brings a lot of grief that businesses want to avoid.
  • People want librarians to help them navigate spaces. Do people think there will be adoption followed by outrage over loss of privacy? We have not gone through revolutions like this so quickly in the past, so we don’t know the answers to questions like this. We are trying to figure out what our relationship with this world should be: what is the right thing to share? There is no “Miss Manners”. Librarians are in the best position of being fully engaged with smart technologies of this wave.
  • Will we able to keep up with the access to so much information?  Most social scientists say that we will.  It will follow the “Matthew Effect”: the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. Advantages will accrue to super-searchers and people like them.
  • Are there any limitations on bandwidth? How many things will we be able to connect? The improvements in bandwidth are following Moore’s Law; there are many ways to compress data. Many devices will be near to each other and won’t use much bandwidth.
  • Librarians are navigators of information for students and also educators of an aging population. They have a huge contribution to make when the IoT arrives; don’t be afraid of it.

In a study of digital life in 2025, people were asked what they expected would be the most significant effects of our uses of the internet on humanity between now and 2025. Here are some of the responses:

  • The internet will become like electricity: less visible but more deeply embedded in peoples’ lives for good and ill.
  • 83% of respondents thought the IoT will be widespread and beneficial.

Potential applications of the IoT (these examples are a sampling from

  • A wearable monitor could check on a baby and send notifications to the parents
  • Reminders to take medicine could be transmitted from a pill bottle.
  • Activities could be tracked, or senior family members could be monitored.
  • Smart thermostats will allow us to heat our homes more efficiently.
  • Smart outlets could let us check whether an appliance is on or off.
  • Lost items (keys!) could be tracked.
  • Homes could be monitored remotely and checked for broken pipes, intruders, etc.
  • Gardens could be watered.

Here are some hopeful IoT outlooks:

  1. Information sharing over the Internet will be effortlessly interwoven into daily life.
  2. Artificial intelligence, augmented reality, wearable devices, and big data will make people more aware of their world and their own behavior, and will especially aid in health care.
  3. The spread of the Internet will enhance global connectivity that fosters more planetary relationships and less ignorance.
  4. An Internet-enabled revolution in education will spread more opportunities, with less money spent on real estate and teachers.

And here are some downbeat outlooks:

  1. The realities of this data-drenched world raise substantial concerns about privacy and people’s abilities to control their own lives. The level of profiling and targeting will grow and amplify social, economic, and political struggles.
  2. Dangerous divides between haves and have-nots may expand, resulting in resentment and possible violence.
  3. Abuses and abusers will ‘evolve and scale.’ Human nature isn’t changing; there’s laziness, bullying, stalking, stupidity, pornography, dirty tricks, crime, and those who practice them will have a new capacity to make life miserable for others.
  4. Pressured by these changes, governments and corporations will try to assert power as they invoke security and cultural norms.
  5. Humans and their organizations may not respond quickly enough to challenges presented by complex networks.
  6. There will be complicated, unintended consequences: ‘We will live in a world where many things won’t work and nobody will know how to fix them.’

Despite the potential problems, here is Rainie’s  best advice.

Rainie Be Not Afraid

Don Hawkins

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