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

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.
Written by Charles McLellan, Senior Editor

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.

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