A Time of IoT Manifestos (in Europe)
Rachel Douglas-Jones | October 31, 2018
There is a recent proliferation of manifestos coming from designers and developers of IoT. We wrote a paper entitled Calling for a Revolution: An Analysis of IoT Manifestos where we ask, what are these authors trying to tell us, how and why are there so many bold statements for a differently designed technological future.
Across Europe, designers and developers of IoT are calling for a revolution. Growing unease with the present state of IoT investment, hype and direction drives reflections about what ubiquity means in practice, and what the role of designers and developers should be in creating common technological futures. Concerns vary widely, but in the past few years, networks, studios and organisations have started to write down their concerns in manifestos. Framed variously as design principles, statements on ethics and responsibility, our work shows that the manifestos mark a specific point in the conversations about ethics and IoT.
Why would you write a manifesto? The manifesto is a transformational style that expresses dissatisfaction with the status quo, and imagines different futures. Manifesto writing is polemical, it is political. While styles vary, in our study we defined a manifesto by the two major rhetorical moves it makes. The moves are recognizable: manifestos first define the present and identify the problems with it, they then define how a better future should play out.
The first move–defining the present–is a challenge. The majority of texts that we looked at described a world of technological ubiquity, a present of past futures. Earlier visions of the future included ubiquitous technology, a world where computational devices receded into the background in order to make lives easier through invisible and just-in-time assistance. As authors Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish noted in 2007, while this ubiquitous computing world was meant to be ‘clean and orderly’ it has instead turned out to be ‘messy’. The messiness of the present takes multiple forms in the manifestos:
- the problematic invisibility of IoT devices
- lack of clarity over the data they collect
- how data is transferred, where and to whom
- the role and ownership of infrastructures in which all IoT devices are embedded
Having described a present full of anxiety and confusion, each manifesto then moves into a predictive mode. Here, manifesto authors become part of reshaping the problems they have identified: they are the designers of this future. As they write, authors invite their readers into a common future, to think through the future of IoT design. They sometimes also invite readers to ‘sign’ the manifesto, indicating an agreement to work by the principles and visions it contains.
IoT Manifesto Themes
Across all of the documents we analyzed, we find that most IoT manifesto authors put three core themes as the foundation of their visions: transparency, openness, and sustainability, as they describe the future that they want to design.
Transparency in this context takes on two meanings. First, to the need for consumers to know how IoT devices work and second the need for designers to be explicit in their design choices. The first argument runs that without informed knowledge of what devices do, or might do, and what kind of data practices the company that made the device has consumers, cannot make informed decisions. The second, emanating from designers themselves, is that control of data is not (and should not be) part of what a user has to control. Instead, some manifestos argue that designers should make evident how products work in a way that is accessible to someone using the product.
"Not having transparency into how the technology is working, making decisions, literally moulding our perception of the world, is inherently political."
Holly Robbins in RIOT 
These calls for transparency blur with manifestos that take a stance on openness. Openness might be open hardware, as in the Arduino manifesto, but it might equally be activities open to the public, organized around principles of creating a community of equal users, as in the Open IoT Studio’s text and the Dowse manifesto. Openness is raised across a set of manifestos as a way of democratizing control over the making process and the data collection process.
Sustainability, raised in more than half of the texts, emerges as an ethical concern about the production of IoT: both hardware and software. Manifestos sound an alarm about the environmental sustainability of materials used in IoT production, pointing to the limits on precious metals and the environmental costs of production. At the same time, the short lives of many IoT products concern authors: are they making things that will be out of date, un-useable or unsupported within a year? Many authors sound the alarm about the problem of physicality for a software mindset of easy and constant updates and patches.
Where should responsibility for these concerns be located? As they define their vision of a better future, all of the manifestos try to shift the hyped conversation from what is possible in IoT to what and who is responsible. Here are some of the common questions across the 28 manifestos:
- Should citizens become responsible for understanding the world of IoT (through becoming more educated) or should designers take greater responsibility for designing devices that communicate better how they work?
- Should designers consider the IoT ecosystem beyond the specific device they are working on, and consider the possible future effects of their designs?
- Should communities, networks and organisations hold one another accountable? How
Manifestos get attention. They have been used throughout the twentieth century to articulate clear positions and agitate for change. Unlike the modernist manifesto, however, the cautionary manifestos of IoT offer not a single better future but designs for multiple possibilities. Across the design and development space in Europe, the manifesto moment is one of uncertainty and numerous different positions on what a ‘good’ IoT future looks like. As a result, the manifestos reflect considerable uncertainty, one where people are still trying to ‘figure things out’. The VIRT-EU project aims to be central to that conversation of figuring out what kind of technological present – and future – we want to live in.
"While those of us who enthusiastically follow—and create—new tech look to the future with teary-eyed excitement [...] we are all acutely aware that the future can just as easily become something completely different. A future in which privacy and security decisions, made back in 2017, turned out to be devastating. [We must remember that] the future is not set. Multiple futures are indeed possible."
Christian Villum, RIOT