Climbing Trillions Mountain: a field guide to the Internet of Things

Climbing Trillions Mountain: a field guide to the Internet of Things

Summary: A fourth revolution (after the agricultural, industrial and information revolutions) is almost upon us: the age of the 'trillion-node network', also known as The Internet of Things. This absorbing and accessible book offers copious ideas on how we should shape this 'pervasive computing' future.


Widespread machine-to-machine (M2M) communication is bringing about the Internet of Things — or 'the trillion-node network', as the authors of this book put it. Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Ecology, which is written by the three principals of MAYA Design (a Pittsburgh-based design consultancy and technology research lab), addresses the problem of how to cope with an internet comprising trillions of nodes, the majority of which do not have a person directly controlling them. Peter Lucas, Joe Ballay and Mickey McManus warn of the chaotic complexity that's in danger of developing, and offer suggestions as to how to design a digital future in which "The data are no longer in the computers. We have come to see that the computers are in the data".

The book is built around a mountaineering analogy, with 'PC Peak' — encapsulating the personal computing era and the human-centric internet/web — having been scaled. But looming above is the far larger 'Trillions Mountain', where, the authors contend, "the design techniques that have served us well on PC Peak will be wholly inadequate for the problems of scale we will soon face".


The early chapters summarise the route to the post-PC era, including a cautionary tale about a once-great company (DEC) that failed to adapt to an imminent (PC) revolution and paid the ultimate price within a decade of its peak revenue year. The inference here is clear: there will be some notable fallers in the foothills of Trillions Mountain. The next-generation computing landscape, comprising trillions of nodes, is discussed, with the authors stressing the importance of 'fungible' devices and 'liquid' information — terms borrowed from economics. Fungibility — the free interchange of equivalent goods — is not a widespread feature of today's IT landscape, with its numerous walled gardens, they say. Liquidity — the free flow of value — is variable: low-level packet switching flows efficiently enough, but higher levels of the information infrastructure are stickier. The third key requirement of the trillion-node computing landscape, say the authors, is a 'true cyberspace' comprising persistent digital objects, in contrast to today's hypertext-based web.

In fact, according to Lucas, Ballay and McManus, quite a few components of today's IT landscape are poorly architected for the trillion-node future. This includes computers that are platforms for data-siloing applications rather than pure information, the web browser — even the web itself and cloud computing. What we're heading for, they say, is Complexity Cliff (there's that mountaineering analogy again) — cascading unforeseen failures in ill-designed complex systems that, for example, "could easily 'brick' all the lights in a next-generation skyscraper that uses wireless systems to control illumination. Or the elevators. Or the ventilation".

Around this point in the book, the authors expound their vision of cloud computing, which turns out to be a pervasive information store built on peer-to-peer networking — they call it the GRIS (the Grand Repository In the Sky), and contrast it with today's essentially client-server 'corporate Hindenberg' clouds that could one day, like the airship, explode along with your data. There are also some rather curmudgeonly digs at the software development community in this chapter, which may not meet with universal approval. For example, a perceived lack of organised professionalism in software engineering (compared to codes of practice for the likes of builders or electricians) is largely laid at the door of the open-source community: "the Internet era has now passed into the hands of a pop culture that is neither formally trained nor intellectually rigorous, and doesn't particularly care whether its 'solutions' have a rigorous engineering basis — as long as they accomplish the task at hand".

Turning to the assault on Trillions Mountain, there are plenty of useful insights, beginning with a chapter on nature's solutions to distributed complexity. There are musings on symbiotic mycorrhizal networks in forest trees, Pauli's Exclusion Principle, the Periodic Table, DNA and resilience in biological peer-to-peer networks, leading to a discussion of four underlying principles behind 'good' complexity (as opposed to the chaotic complexity we wish to avoid): hierarchy, modularity, redundancy and generativity (a Chomskyan concept, 'generativity' here refers to the need to design "processes by which people author and tune the digital environment in which they live").

The next chapter covers the birth and development of design as a profession, saluting Buckminster Fuller and other Depression-era pioneers of the discipline along the way (we might expect a hit-tip to the likes of Jonathan Ive and Dieter Rams here, but neither even appear in the index). Around this point in the book, the authors lay their cards on the table, so to speak: "Today, we are arguably on the cusp of a fourth revolution [after the agricultural, industrial and information revolutions]: the age of Trillions...We think that pervasive computing represents a profoundly different relationship of people to information, and that eventually it will be understood as a distinct epoch of human history".

'Trillions' is a rarity among technology books: it's accessible, packed with challenging ideas and nicely designed, with plenty of (sometimes quirky) illustrations and sidebars.

This is where MAYA Design saw its opportunity back in the late 1980s: applying the principles of industrial design to a post-industrial world in which the computer industry "was making no distinction between design and engineering. Indeed, engineers were often the sole designers of computing machines intended to be sold to and used by people who knew nothing about engineering". Their methodology for fostering good post-industrial design involves true interdisciplinary collaboration and a simple precept for cutting through specialist jargon: "draw what you mean" — literally, turn your ideas into diagrams.

Up next is 'design science', an evolving discipline founded on a mixture of natural ecological patterns, professional design practices, traditional science and "a commitment to the search for underlying Architecture to provide structure". Key to the successful practice of design science, say the authors, will be: "Deeply interdisciplinary methods; Focusing on humans; Interaction physics; Information-centric interaction design; and Computation in context". ('Interaction physics', in case you're wondering, is a set of inviolable 'laws' that will help to define a unified user experience.) There are interesting ideas here: for example, the fact that, as information itself takes centre stage in the Internet of Things/trillion-node network, the user experience becomes more of an emergent property than a consequence of the design of individual devices. The chapter ends with a summary of the challenge facing design scientists: "It is one thing to design a usable computer program. It is quite another to design a usable environment when that environment comprises innumerable semiautonomous devices mediating an unbounded swirl of constantly flowing information".

This section of the book ends with a discussion of Architecture (with a capital A) — and in particular 'information architecture', which is defined as the bit sitting between detailed systems architecture and user interface architecture. "If design science is going to be more than pretension," the authors say, "it must develop work products that exhibit the same powers of abstraction and generalization as do the differential equations of the physicist and the periodic table of the chemist." Who will be design science's Newton, or Mendeleev, we wonder?

The final two chapters attempt to discern what life will be like in the pervasive-computing world of the trillion-node network, without — wisely — being too specific. We are introduced to the concept of an 'information ecology' comprising 'life forms' (devices), 'currency' (information), architectures (information architecture and device architecture) and 'the environment' (human culture). Certain desirable properties emerge from such thinking, including resilience built on widespread redundancy, diversity and the embracing of stochastic processes. Trust, provenance, reputation and security will all be vital on Trillions Mountain — the authors raise the all-too-plausible spectre of "malicious functionality hiding in insignificant hardware" and consider it more of a threat than "malicious code hiding in information objects". Above all, the information ecosystem needs to be 'humane', accommodating online communities ('networks of trust'), privacy and the empowerment of power users (your friendly local/family geek, for example) who can help ordinary mortals survive in the new pervasive digital environment.

Trillions is a rarity among technology books: it's accessible, packed with challenging ideas and nicely designed, with plenty of (sometimes quirky) illustrations and sidebars. You may not agree with all of the authors' assertions or subscribe wholeheartedly to their roadmap for the trillion-node network, and some will hanker for more technical detail, but it's a stimulating and highly recommended read for anyone with a stake in our developing digital future.

Trillions: Thriving in the Emerging Information Ecology
By Peter Lucas, Joe Ballay and Mickey McManus
John Wiley
252 pages
ISBN: 978-1-1181-7607-8
£23.99 / €28.00

Look out for much more content on machine-to-machine (M2M) communication and the Internet of Things in January.

Topics: Cloud, Networking, Reviews, After Hours


Charles has been in tech publishing since the late 1980s, starting with Reed's Practical Computing, then moving to Ziff-Davis to help launch the UK version of PC Magazine in 1992. ZDNet came looking for a Reviews Editor in 2000, and he's been here ever since.

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  • Sounds like my kind of book ...

    … but I prefer a different set of revolutions:
    - canals, turnpikes and mail coaches
    - railways, coal, the steam engine
    - steel, electricity and heavy engineering
    - oil, automobiles, petrochemicals and mass production
    - the Information Age
    This last revolution is only halfway through and in danger of stalling, held up by increasingly powerful global corporations seeking to subvert the natural progress of events. They must be stopped. ZDNET is such a tame corporate sheep; it is complicit with the lack of necessary progress to the detriment of its readers.

    One factor characterising previous industrial revolutions is the elimination (or at best marginalisation) of the previous incumbents: once the railways got going, canals went out of business (for transportation in general). Would you consider taking the train from London to Sydney? Or sending a telegraph or telegram from Paris to Tokyo? The idea seems absurd today.
    Yet the majority seem perfectly happy with iTunes, which pays a big tax to APPL, a big tax to the ‘money collectors’ like VISA … and very little to the creators … despite the fact that THE INTERNET solved all publicity and distribution problems two decades ago. (Ask The Pirate Bay.)
    - the postal services should be marginalised
    - newspapers should be marginalised
    - consumer banking should be marginalised (you have already paid for your computer and broadband connection, that’s all that’s needed to conduct business)
    - music services should be marginalised
    - … it’s not going to happen unless you fight for it. ZDNET isn’t fighting. It’s complicit.

    Most people don’t realise what’s going on. ZDNET won’t tell you: it’s a corporate sheep. Unless strong opposition is forthcoming the consumer will soon have a low power, low functionality tablet … linked to a vendor cloud. You can call it democracy if you want to choose between the APPL, MSFT, GOOG and AMZN silos … I call it vendor lock in. All four choices will be expensive: by expensive I mean that had the vendors released their technology for your use it would have been far cheaper. They won’t do that – they will keep the advances and profits to themselves. It’s a particularly capitalist American thing … forget the American ideal of freedom! IT is in the worst country possible from a freedom and pricing point of view!!

    Does this sound like ‘The American Dream’?
    - Boot to Windows 8 only
    - Enforced start menu
    - Constant thrusting towards the METRO user interface
    - Hardware upgrades impossible in Surface RT
    - Links to MSFT cloud
    - Office 2013 biased towards links to MSFT cloud
    - Subscription payments equal to previous outright perpetual ownership
    In the words of John McEnroe … “You cannot be serious, man!”

    What recent events have we observed?
    - Banks fiddling the LIBOR
    - Newspapers tapping private lines and IT system privacy violations
    - the unwillingness of media companies to relinquish their obsolete business model profits
    - constant technology limitations and price increases to preserve historic corporate IT revenues.
    The transition to the Information Age is about to stall: it will be the first transition halted by the incumbent corporations.

    I say we give those corporations and ZDNET the finger.
  • Trillion nodes is evolution, not revolution

    The mass connection of everything to the Internet is simply the next expected step. That makes it evolution. People are taking far too many liberties with the term "revolutionary" these days. Revolution involves disruption of existing widespread paradigms in favor of a brand new paradigm.

    If you want to look at technology with truly revolutionary potential, check out personal 3D printing. Think of it as personal manufacturing. It potentially ushers in the end of mass production of consumer goods, which will in turn eliminate a massive amount of jobs requiring limited skill. Instead, companies will be hiring lots of, 3D solid modellers and product designers to create plans they can sell online.

    People will someday be shopping online for "recipes" (plans) for objects that they just print at home on their own printer as many times as they wish. As these devices drop in price and become more capable, we'll even be printing out extremely complex objects with multiple materials in one pass. This feeds into our collective "instant gratification" craving. It also allows item customization, for those willing to learn the skills. It means every individual can own truly unique items which reflect their personality.

    Another drastic change will occur in the replacement part industry. People will be able to print their own replacement parts for most things. Again, more limited skill manufacturing jobs will be lost. More products will need to have 3D models of their parts created for downloading and printing. The work force will need to become more skilled.

    One last area which will be affected is the shipping industry. Since parts will be transmitted in electronic form to be manufactured on site, a large amount of the current shipping loads will be eliminated. A smaller amount of shipping will be added for distribution of raw materials, but it won't be enough to offset the losses.

    There will be an intermediate step where maker cafes spring up. These will be places with higher end 3D printers available for use by people who bring in plans they want printed. I imagine them to be a bit like Internet cafes, but with a bank of printers along the wall. People queue up their item to be printed and have a cup of coffee or sandwich while they wait. They would pay for print time used plus raw materials. They could sit and watch their item being made as a source of entertainment.

    The big new business model will be massive online databases of item plans. These have already begun. If you want to see a small sample of what a future database of item plans will look like, check out These are things you can print today with the dozens of personal 3D printers which already cost less than $1k. In the future, we'll simply be buying raw materials and printing all the objects we use every day.

    This personal manufacturing revolution will eliminate a large portion of the unskilled and limited skill jobs currently in existence. As a result, the need for extended education will rise significantly. People who have resisted education will be dragged kicking and screaming into the future. Unfortunately, that means a lot of folks who simply can't learn skilled jobs may be in big trouble.
    • Good copy does not necessarily make a good prediction

      I work with some the most common materials widely used in mass manufacturing. I struggle daily to get suppliers to make complex parts from these materials by conventional means. (This is in spite the fact that the company for which I work has a high-end 3D printer.)

      1) The 3D printer is used to make plastic MODELS of parts which ultimately will be made from other materials by conventional methods.
      2) Even in possession of a wealth of information about the conventional materials and processes they use, the suppliers sometimes have difficulties making acceptable complex parts.
      3) At present 3D printers can produce parts only from polymeric (or similar) materials. (A tasty exception is a 3D printer which can produce custom chocolates.) In what may be the most advanced use of 3D printers, some manufacturers can use 3D printers to cause liquids to react and solidify, which solidified materials hold in place other materials which are actually used to produce parts by conventional means. (An example is the creation of sand molds by 3D printers instead of by packing sand in patterns and using chemical binders to hold the sand particles in place. This permits the creation of test molds much more quickly and more cheaply than through conventional methods. Yet the final parts themselves are still made by conventional processes. - This is a variant on the "intermediate step" which was mentioned.)
      4) The production of parts from conventional materials by 3D printers (or from advanced 3D-printable materials having properties equivalent or superior to the conventional materials) awaits advances in materials science which I don't expect to see in my lifetime or that of several generations of my progeny. (3D-printed polymeric connecting rods may resemble those forged from alloy steel, but they won't perform equivalently in an engine.)
      5) The "database" for parts produce by 3D printers will have to include not only the part designs, but also information about the materials and printing methods needed to produce parts of specific shapes which specific properties. The "size" of this database would be orders of magnitude greater than the size of the "plan" database.
      6) The skills required to operate 3D printers of this level of sophistication are several "seven-league-boot-steps" above today's level of sophistication of 3D printer manufacturers.
      7) When 3D printers having the capabilities predicted by today's seers are available, they will probably driven by user interfaces no more complex than the human voice ordering something like, "Tea, Earl Grey, hot."
    • Alternatively...

      I appreciate the point you make about evolution and revolution. But consider the possibility that perhaps instead of evolution we think in terms of transformations (across a multitude of registers and gradients). Further consider the possibility that in the Age of Information we may no longer experience revolutions, but transformations - some quick, others disruptive, and still others, slow, subtle and virtually imperceptible.
  • Does anyone really bother with prediction these days?

    Looking at previous predictions for the future shows quite clearly that unintended consequences and the over looked always play a bigger part than any of the so-called amazing things to come ... which incidentally if they appear at all will be marginal and of little relevance to the main thrust.
  • Information has been evolving since the first human

    opened his eyes and ears, and was then able to pass on that information to others and to later generations.

    The "information age" has been, forever, and it's the computerization of the process which makes the flow move faster and more widespread.

    What would be very fruitful for the "information age", would be the taming of the information, where, when one examines the information, one begins to notice that, a lot of it is repetitious and held in many different locations and in many different formats, by many different people and many different entities. We don't need or a piece of information to be held in millions of different places by many different pieces of equipment. Instead of a million copies, perhaps a few thousand might be sufficient, and even at that point, we'd have a lot of redundancy. Do we really need for an article from, say, the NY Times to be replicated thousands of times by many different media organizations, just so that, millions of people can get access to the same thing? When a book is written, chances are that, many thousands or perhaps millions of copies will be printed, but, the original work resides with the owner and/or the publisher. But, the material is copyrighted, and reproduction is likely prohibited or inhibited. Purchasing of the book is controlled, and so is the publishing of it. Why can't we have the same with the news and information that we get through the internet? For example, the articles and/or material which ZDNet uses to present to the readers, doesn't have to be reproduced or copied, and it could be "referenced" and/or linked to, which then keeps the material from appearing to be a "new" piece of information on the internet. That way, the information does not suffer from loss of meaning through repetition, and the contents of the whole internet won't be driven to such a massive size as we seem to be heading to. When one does a search on Google (or Bing), we see thousands or millions of references to the same thing, but, it is the same thing, promulgated via thousands (and perhaps millions) of sources.

    News and information are the food of the brain, but, we don't need for the same thing to be kept in thousands or millions of different sources.