Interview with Michel Quesnel (university professor) about the book : Internet des Objets, Internet mais en mieux (Internet of Things, a better Internet?) by Philippe Gautier & Laurent Gonzales (Afnor Edition 2001)
By Philippe GAUTIER on Monday 2 July 2012, 00:04 - Web 3.0 / Internet of Things / Internet des Objets - Permalink
Original text formerly posted in this site, in French : available at "ORIGINAL TEXT".
Kindly translated by Peter Fogg (Parramatta, Australia).
MQ : Michel Quesnel
PG : Philippe GAUTIER
What stands out immediately when reading this work is that we -
humans - are envisaging the creation of 'intelligent' things that will
potentially be somewhat independent of our commands. Thus the necessity, in our
approaches of the organization engineering, to properly set up a
decision-making process that combines our own ones and those independent of us
for the benefit of smart things which may not have mastered all levels of
We are effectively in the process of accelerating this process of creation/invention, without any great responsibility or control since we are working, according to me, on the basis of inappropriate design patterns, settled to describe and deal with situations in a pre-determined and idealized manner. Hence the need for a change in approach, in a world where the unexpected is to be expected, such a phenomenon increased by the opening-up and interpenetration of private, public, economic and political domains. It then becomes necessary to question the manner in which we observe and take action (regardless of the means we use) according to our decision-making processes (involving our goals or purposes); in other words, to properly deal with the complexities of our organizations or ecosystems.
In this context, we will delegate more and more to the smart objects - or cyber-objects - a part of the achievement of these objectives: objects-players will become assistants of our processes and value chains. Therefore it is necessary to integrate as much as possible machines and humans using a common organizational methodology. This approach is fully aligned with the cybernetic movement where some schools cite a 'socio-technical system' rather than a 'social system' on the one hand and a 'technical system' on the other. If not merged then the two needs to be adjusted one to the other when they diverge too much (which tends to be the current approach).
Nevertheless, even 'humans' are incapable of controlling decision-making chains on a collective or global scale: problems related to climate change, the financial crisis, North-South inequalities, social disparities … such are daily examples. As means or artefacts, the multiplication of the cyberthings can therefore either accelerate our loss of control, or - if we change the paradigm - help us to move forward in the right direction. There is thus a double task to achieve: the most difficult is to develop our level of consciousness, to raise our common aspirations, and the most accessible is to integrate our artefacts in a socio-technical approach which would allow human decision-makers to regain control. Solutions exist, none the less, but are not implemented, doubtless due to laziness, an instinct for conformity or simply due to habit.
Reconciliation between automated artefacts and humans is therefore
necessary. But it is up to humans to do this, since it is beyond programmed
In any case, not in the immediate future. Beyond that, we enter the realm of science fiction and I have no intention of going there. That said, as I mentioned at the end of the book, the cyber-objects could act as mirrors of our own shortcomings and assist us in this work of self-determination necessary to the repositioning of our collective purposes. We will discuss this more a little later...
Among the questions based on the present and future in this book is
this one: 'Who will govern the Internet of things?' The book proposes a phased
approach. It is rather optimistic, but malicious individuals could adopt an
authority with dictatorial bent for their own benefit. We would then be in the
hands of ulterior decision-makers who would impose their own
The issue is more than legitimate but I don't personally subscribe to the sustainability of a 'Big Brother controlling everything' theory, in any case not in the long term. Systemic approaches to complexity teach us that the divergence of goals between autonomous individuals generates chaos, by definition unpredictable and uncontrollable by anyone. However, at the scale of the Internet, there is no convergence of goals, no common purpose in such a vast ecosystem. Internet is just ruled through balances of power. These contradictory forces result in compromises that are, at best, temporary stability factors. But these compromises also promote latent developments or evolutions that reflect the adaptation of autonomous actors to the precarious balance of the moment; these evolutions allow the emergence of new organizations that will later come to question the established order. Here, the parallel with the evolution of Darwin's theory is clear; who would have bet on mammals 70 million years ago or on Twitter only 6 years ago? Even all-powerful Microsoft was developed within an ecosystem that was originally bigger than it was.
The idea of 'Big Brother' is therefore relative since it is linked to the time - relatively short across civilization - of compromises established on the basis of balance of forces; in addition, it only exists in defined ecosystems and any opening of those, as minimal as it may be, allows 'movement of the lines'.
All the same, if it is illusory to want to control chaos - that allows for spontaneous creativity - it is possible to guide (or influence) the evolution of a complex ecosystem based on collective goals (these may evolve over time). 'Governance', just like 'Cybernetics' come - etymologically speaking - from a guiding action: as with a ship - the rudder - or a chariot, pulled by horses. A captain pilots his boat according to the desired heading, without pre-judging the conditions of the crossing. However, everyone on the boat must agree on the destination, even if the reasons for the trip diverge: to govern (as to navigate) depends first and foremost on the formation, maintenance or adaptation of the convergence of goals according to particular circumstances … that can dynamically change. This piloting ('skippering') is also carried out with reference to systems of values that influence or guide behaviours and know-how in the relevant ecosystem. The navigator guides his boat also according to the rules of maritime law, sometimes influenced by superstitions and always with reference to his accumulated knowledge and experience. Other members of the crew, who are delegated tasks and who also have their own know-how, respect the overall guidance, methods and rules of life on board which are dictated by customs an so-called 'common sense rules' and so on.
Thus, objectives, value-systems and behaviours (including accumulated know-how) are linked in a common evolution dynamic and must be integrated in a same recursive and systemic approach (thus all-encompassing) with respect to any system of governance. In this area, trans-disciplinary approaches are given preference to current practice where several disciplines evolve in parallel, but remain separate to each other (isolated from each other due to cognitive and technical divisions). It is the extremely technical nature of our human societies that needs to be reviewed in order to reconnect with the spirit of the Renaissance.
The Internet (including that of 'things') is neither an end in itself nor a system of values; it is a way (mean). The question of its governance then focuses on the monitoring of behaviours that characterize its use, its sharing and access conditions… and their apprehension in a wide and comprehensive vision, including as well commonly accepted value systems and collective or individual purposes . Depending on the emergence of new phenomenon and in order to integrate such novelties, this dynamic governance will evolve according to the anticipated developments of the whole; with, if necessary, the repositioning of purposes and the redefinition of value systems and skills. 'Governing' is therefore an exercise that constantly renews itself since it is closely linked to the dynamics of development of the concerned ecosystem and its interactions with other ecosystems.
It is obviously not easy; in the current debate concerning ACTA the objectives which are put forward by legislators are those relating to the protection of private property. These goals appear legitimate in the context of themes related to intellectual property but the imposed control of the means towards this end allows for the monitoring and then arbitrary sanctioning of any user suspected of fraud. These provisions are therefore contradictory - especially the systematic monitoring of Internet users by the Internet Service providers - with a different outcome, a denial of a basic right of the human person - the freedom of any individual to come without hindrance (therefore without supervision).
Any idea of governance is therefore necessarily subjective and depends on the context. The incumbent trans-disciplinary body (responsible of such a governance), as suggested in my book - a sort of Committee of wise men democratically elected for a limited time – would have the enormous responsibility of agreeing on collective objectives, of prioritizing them according to context, of promoting some of them and of guiding the way the whole Internet ecosystem (including things) evolves in accordance with value systems in place, including the monitoring of any emerging self-organization. There is no intention here to eradicate any budding organization, rather to accompany in a coherent manner its integration into the existing structure following more or less a principle of homoeostasis. The ecosystem newly created from the merger of the existing structure with any new emerging organizational form will thus constitute a new structure which properties couldn't de deduced from the only study of its parent's organizations (in systemic analysis 1+1 is greater than 2). Your question's misgivings then relate to perceived risks associated with such a 'committee of wise men' VS hegemony. Such fears may be soundly based, even if the problem of governance is more general; such an approach is not new or unique to the Internet of things.
However, the multiplication at a global scale - today anarchic - of programmable machines is now a real threat. "Vectors of change" in our organizations are today the only 'means' and their integration is made to the detriment of 'objectives' and 'value systems' which are now absent from our organizational models.
For example, money, which is a simple exchange value - thus a means - has become in many cases an end in itself (accounting and financial outcomes are also similar examples). By forgetting to reposition the 'how' in the context of the 'why'; we tend to lose control and our organizations concomitantly move toward chaos. Indeed, any technological 'externality' (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Externality) used without envisaging the whole has the potential to introduce possibly devastating effects directly proportional to their power of leverage. This could be beneficial in one case while catastrophic in another. The invention of agriculture has led to the development of culture (cities, writing, religion, and so on) but it has also sharpened conflicts (leading to the taking-over of the property of others, etc.). What is new here is the extent of the phenomenon and its potential, related to the power of the computer and the Information systems. With the 'Internet of Things' we have an historic opportunity to seriously tackle the problem! In incorporating - via rational processes - cyberthings into our socio-technical organizations, they will become for us mirrors which will reflect our own defects or shortcomings. By creating 'new assistants' in our structures, we also create the opportunity to reflect on ourselves and rethink our modes of governance. The cyberthings should, therefore, from their conception, integrate these notions of ethics.
The issue facing the Internet of Things could be reworded as follows: We humans have shown a relative inability to generate something other than chaos, at the overall stage. We are, individually and to a certain extent, almost 'too autonomous' to meet – altogether - basic organizational and survival requirements, as illustrated by species much older than our own; ants and termites. Notwithstanding this, are we able to develop a new form of collective consciousness that could exceed this 'intermediate state of intelligence and evolution' and create a new organizational model? History teaches us that constraints resulting from disasters may allow, artificially, to build over the short term usefully collective behaviour (which could involve a repositioning of objectives, such as 'survival of the greatest number'). The Internet of things is therefore not so much an opportunity to change the 'how' but especially to reposition the 'why' in our ecosystems. In this way it may help us to 'change the world'.
In addition to these considerations that go beyond simple technical aspects,
the concept of the Internet of Things remains still for me somewhat vague. The
book presents it as a cultural element available to the reader although not
really defined. Does it refer to the intelligence of the programmed things that
communicate through the Internet? Or to a 'more comprehensive system' in which
smart objects are merely elements among others?
As we have just shown by positioning the debate in a multidisciplinary and almost philosophical context, it is normal that this concept remains unclear because it is only one label among many: 'Web 3.0', 'Web 4.0', 'Semantic Web', 'Symbiotic Web', and 'Cybionte'… This label may serve only to illustrate a break. In this case, we are currently experiencing an acceleration of our history that has always been linked to the evolution of concepts and artefacts that we create and manipulate. The unique identification of individual physical objects (e.g.; with serial numbers) that are given a sensory dimension (e.g.; through sensor technologies, RFID, NFC, GPS, etc.) and an artificial intelligence (associated software avatars) - which effectively renders them into cyberthings - is the latest step in a transformation that is not new. This process began thousands of years ago with the appearance of the first human artefacts that over time complicated ('complexified', from 'complexity', would have been more accurate, but it doesn't exist in English) organizational structures, until the relatively recent appearance of the computer which has accelerated the process.
But in adding intelligence to our artefacts, we have made a great leap into the unknown: until very recently, the essence of artefacts preceded their existence. Sartre (father of 'existentialism') gave the example of the artisan, who draws on the concept of the 'letter opener' in order to manufacture these objects; the concept thus precedes the actual existence of the tool. We are now about to multiply such objects (or artefacts), without necessarily thinking through all their potential uses in our organizations, 'utilities' that may manifest themselves during the life-cycle of these same objects… indeed the manifestation of the utilities may be initiated by the artefacts themselves! The cyberobjects will therefore gradually define themselves, playing the role the existentialism previously assigned to human beings….
It will therefore be difficult to anticipate the integration of all potential uses in the repository framework of our purpose and our value systems. The Internet of Things thus marks a particular transition, because cyberobjects – that characterize it - introduce acceleration in the perpetual transformation of our socio-technical organizations. It is then an element in the systemic thinking that is now required at the collective level for governance issues, such as ecological, economic or recent social phenomena.
Indeed, the issue of governance remains major and decisive. I would gladly
emphasize parallels with the current economic crisis. Some traders toy with
share values, as nobody apart from themselves understands them, and they are
thus capable of ruining the whole system for the sole benefit of their own
financial interests or simply the satisfaction of being able to be so
The worst aspect is that no-one masters the market. Here is a fine example of powerful macroeconomic artefacts - the latest tools are based on mathematical principles of gearing or leverage, used in an essentially chaotic environment (since it has not any global finality).
The market is designed on the neoliberal principle of 'laissez-faire' and is not based on any collective value system. Today uncontrollable market forces or evolutions can generate absurd profits as well as the most destructive economic crises. So-called 'share manipulators' not only stand to gain but can also be victims of their own game: the weapons they handle have a power that is inversely proportional to their collective level of consciousness. This financial example is a perfect illustration of the famous quote from Rabelais: "Science without conscience is nothing more than a ruin of the soul". This also demonstrates the need for trans-disciplinary approaches: it is not necessary to be specialist or an expert in economics or finance to make this observation. On the contrary, better to not be part of the harem in order to benefit from a wider and therefore more objective perspective. Politics, which should take this role, have a major responsibility in the current crisis.
Even if Big Brother is not a viable option in the long term, given the scale
of humanity, who, or what can protect us into the near future from a perverse
dictatorship on the part of the main controllers of the Internet of
"Who can protect us from our own inconsistencies, if not ourselves?"... but having previously accepted and integrated common purposes in a collective scale and assisted in this by artefacts intelligently designed and properly integrated into our socio-technical structures.
In a systemic sense, as in modern physical theories: "The observer changes reality, which in turn changes the observer ". In the recent history of technology we have focused on ways to modify reality but we have had very limited understanding of the feedback this "changing reality" have had upon ourselves. Thus we can observe a growing gap between the reality that our artefacts contribute to producing and the resulting meaning that we are able to attribute as a consequence. Misunderstanding and uncertainty are therefore widespread, because our mental patterns and ways to apprehend organizations have yet to evolve sufficiently.
As consequences, stress-based chronic diseases are spreading; and our democratic changes are made with political people who can hardly understand changes, in spite of a massive abstention.
Whether within the workings of companies or within our daily urban lives, cyberthings will both introduce an acceleration of this phenomenon and a change in the scale. Thus the need for the integration of information systems (including cyber-objects) into a common socio-technical approach of our structures. This implies a paradigm shift since such an approach puts thinking man and the robot at the same level, even if there may be hierarchical distinction or decision-making preference at some philosophical level. We are less than ever in an environment where all-powerful mankind imposes its will on the rest of creation, but rather one where humans guide evolution but in turn are modified by it … and accepts and participates in this integration in all humility!
This interdependence and yet co-definition between man and his environment (whether considered as 'real living' or 'artificial living', such cybernetic borders being blurred) are the key to any sustainable evolution of our species. The Eastern way of thinking is perhaps better adapted in this sense than our Western approach, which often places 'individual man' at the centre of any analysis. When we collectively become fully aware that the evolution of our ecosystem conditions our own evolution, shall we perhaps have taken a significant step towards the defining of collective objectives? This debate is 'another story' even if the challenge, for us humans, is the elevation of our collective consciousness and the survival of our species into the medium term.
Michel Quesnel & Philippe Gautier
October 2011 – January 2012.
Michel Quesnel is academic and has held important positions in the French
teaching / educational community.
Philippe Gautier, former Chief Information Officer, is an entrepreneur
(www.business2any.com) and main author of a book on the Internet of
Peter Fogg is a very curious person, eager for knowledge and various
Copyright Michel Quesnel, Philippe Gautier, R8YF2C2 (www.copyrightfrance.com) - all rights reserved.