The End of Ignorance

This is a transcript of my talk for Webstock ’16.

I’ve been thinking about where the internet of things sits in the grand scheme of the human experience and I’ve come to some conclusions I’d like to share with you.

  1. On ignorance

The word ignorant is an adjective describing a person in the state of being unaware and is often used to describe individuals who deliberately ignore or disregard important information or facts. Ignoramus is commonly used in the UK, Ireland, and the US as a term for someone who is willfully ignorant.


It’s fair to say that we are ignorant of the conditions that surround us. Moreover we are ‘willfully’ ignorant.

We walk down the road and don’t know what is the quality of the air we breath, we don’t know what’s in our water, we don’t know what’s in our food and whether it’s good for us or not. We don’t know where the things that surround us come from and we don’t know who was hurt in that process. We don’t know how much our energy consumption and expense compares to our neighbours, we don’t know how much waste we are producing compared to a similar sized home.

We barely have access to information available that we can digest (what’s a KWh or a calorie anyway) but mostly we know nothing.

Knowledge is a familiarity, awareness or understanding of someone or something, such as facts, information, descriptions, or skills, which is acquired through experience or education by perceiving, discovering, or learning.

We are not invited to know, to discover, to learn because much of the information is being collated, then maintained by private companies. The information we are given back doesn’t allow us to make decisions in any other way than on an individual basis, making the opportunity for collective change almost non-existent. We think that this is a form of respect of our private lives, but in fact it is also a way for us to avoid knowing, discovering and learning collectively. To learn from each other. And being prevented from accessing and developing knowledge prevents us from taking action, capitalism’s ultimate weapon.

Let’s assume this is because we are weak, we are self-absorbed and we lack enough technical literacy to care about all this. What would someone else do?

Let’s imagine Margaret. Margaret is a little girl of 6 and is growing up in the future. She learnt how to code at the same time as learning how to read and write. She was playing with Cubetto and Prelibri when she was a toddler. She got her first Arduino Junior at age 5 and was making small responsive objects out of cardboard. She really wanted to be a vet so use to measure the pulse and temperature  of her cat and dog with a cardboard wearable she made. She learnt to see sensors and technology as just another thing in her world.

She used to tell her parents off about wasting food and used to show them the online facebook data log for her street, showing them how the other kids in the street would recycle more. Every morning she would check the barometer and air quality sensor next to the door to take her face-mask or umbrella accordingly. If the NO2 levels got bad enough on her street and more than 30% of doors were showing the same-ish results this would auto-file an e-petition to her local government to reduce traffic in her local area on health and safety grounds.

She used public transport on her own when she turned 12 and had a GPS-enabled backpack. If she ever felt unsafe or was being bullied, she quickly pulled a string and her bag would send a notification to any open tv screen that belonged to a ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ family along the street she was on. The ID of the phones nearest the bag and a 5 minute audio recording was also logged by the police and saved to their ‘minor incidents’ database. This made her parents feel better about her growing up so quickly.

When she went to high school, she got involved in the volleyball team. She had a bit of asthma so still had an old school Casio watch to keep an eye on how much  stretching she was doing before playing a game. Whenever she had an asthma attack, her pump would log its use and contribute to global research on the incidence and conditions of asthma.  In the changing rooms at school, all the showers were on a timer which helped her understand how much more was being used at home.

Her parents had co-invested with the neighbours to set up a collective PV solar cell on the roof and the energy gathered was split across the 3 flats across the day. This is something they could all check on the go or at home too so they knew when their home had run out of renewable energy and they had to buy some from the local network and the national grid.

Some neighbours have started develop little urban farms. They monitor the soil and have started a local ‘low carbon food’ coop that collects their food and sells them to the people in the neighbourhood, arranging for delivery by bike locally too.

Now Margaret doesn’t exist of course, but the world she lives in almost does. Her expectations of the world around her are different to our and her family and community are a bit different to those of high density urban areas. Mostly, she knows things about her world. She isn’t willfully ignorant. How do we build a world that gets a little closer to hers?

  • We stop considering technology (software and hardware) as an add-on in our children’s education.
  • We pressure our local councils to hire CTOs who have web experience.
  • We don’t just stop at our cities building data dumps (I mean stores) but we pressure them to build applications for it.
  • Government grants should be available for social and civic applications using cheap hardware and that same data.
  • Develop policies that enable scientific research to easily benefit from distributed connected hardware.
  • Force public infrastructural services to have APIs so that others can build better collective communication tools for the information they hold.
  • We look to connect the things around us that we care about, not just each other.
  • We learn how to really collaborate and act locally while thinking about global trends and impact. Being care-ful.

If some of these conditions are met in the near future we may find that we have entered the Age of Knowledge and Action. We will gently brush aside the Information Age and decide that not knowing is simply not good enough. The technologies we have developed should allow us to do all of this easily, but really our actions and attitudes will need to change forever. And that’s a good thing.

By designswarm

Blogging since 2005.