The Internet of Things and the Eclipse of Capitalism

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Jeremy Rifkin, author of "The Zero Marginal Cost Society"

Jeremy Rifkin, author of “The Zero Marginal Cost Society”

The Internet of Things will connect every thing with everyone in an integrated global network. People, machines, natural resources, production lines, logistics networks, consumption habits, recycling flows, and virtually every other aspect of economic and social life will be linked via sensors and software to the IoT platform, continually feeding Big Data to every node – businesses, homes, vehicles – moment to moment, in real time. Big Data, in turn, will be processed with advanced analytics, transformed into predictive algorithms, and programmed into automated systems to improve thermodynamic efficiencies, dramatically increase productivity, and reduce the marginal cost of producing and delivering a full range of goods and services to near zero across the entire economy.

The Internet of Things European Research Cluster, a body set up by the European Commission, the executive body of the European Union, to help facilitate the transition into the new era of “ubiquitous computing,” has mapped out some of the myriad ways the Internet of Things is already being deployed to connect the planet in a distributed global network.

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The IoT is being introduced across industrial and commercial sectors. Companies are installing sensors all along the commercial corridor to monitor and track the flow of goods and services. For example, UPS uses Big Data to keep up to the moment with its 60,000 vehicles in the United States. The logistics giant embeds sensors in their vehicles to monitor individual parts for signs of potential malfunction or fatigue so they can replace them before a costly breakdown on the road occurs.¹⁹

Sensors record and communicate the availability of raw resources, inform the front office on current inventories in the warehouses, and troubleshoot dysfunctions on the production lines. Other sensors report on the moment to moment changes in the use of electricity by appliances in businesses and households, and their impact on the price of electricity on the transmission grid. Electricity consumers can program their appliances to reduce their power consumption or switch off during peak periods of electricity use on the power lines to prevent a dramatic spike in the electricity price or even a brownout across the grid and receive a credit on their next month’s electricity bill.

Sensors in retail outlets keep the sales and marketing departments apprised of which items are being looked at, handled, put back on shelves, or purchased to gauge consumer behavior. Other sensors track the whereabouts of products shipped to retailers and consumers and keep tabs on the amount of waste being recycled and processed for reuse. The Big Data is analyzed 24/7 to recalibrate supply chain inventories, production and distribution processes, and to initiate new business practices to increase thermodynamic efficiencies and productivity across the value chain.

The IoT is also beginning to be used to create smart cities. Sensors measure vibrations and material conditions in buildings, bridges, roads, and other infrastructure to assess the structural health of the built environment and when to make needed repairs. Other sensors track noise pollution from neighborhood to neighborhood, monitor traffic congestion on streets, and pedestrian density on sidewalks to optimize driving and walking routes. Sensors placed along street curbs inform drivers of the availability of parking spaces. Smart roads and intelligent highways keep drivers up to date on accidents and traffic delays. Insurance companies are beginning to experiment with placing sensors in vehicles to provide data on the time of day they are being used, the locations they are in, and the distances traveled over a given period of time to predict risk and determine insurance rates.²⁰ Sensors embedded in public lighting allow them to brighten and dim in response to the ambient lighting in the surrounding environment. Sensors are even being placed in garbage cans to ascertain the amount of rubbish in order to optimize waste collection.

The Internet of Things is quickly being applied in the natural environment to better steward the Earth’s ecosystems. Sensors are being used in forests to alert firefighters of dangerous conditions that could precipitate fires. Scientists are installing sensors across cities, suburbs, and rural communities to measure pollution levels and warn the public of toxic conditions so they can minimize exposure by remaining indoors. In 2013, sensors placed atop the U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported hour to hour changes in carbon emissions across the Chinese capital. The data was instantaneously posted on the Internet, warning inhabitants of dangerous pollution levels. The information pushed the Chinese government into implementing drastic measures to reduce carbon emissions in nearby coal-powered plants and even restrict automobile traffic and production in energy-intensive factories in the region to protect public health.

Sensors are being placed in soil to detect subtle changes in vibrations and earth density to provide an early warning system for avalanches, sink holes, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes. IBM is placing sensors in the air and in the ground in Rio de Janeiro to predict heavy rains and mudslides up to two days in advance to enable city authorities to evacuate local populations.²¹

Researchers are implanting sensors in wild animals and placing sensors along migratory trails to assess environmental and behavioral changes that might affect their well-being so that preventative actions can be taken to restore ecosystem dynamics. Sensors are also being installed in rivers, lakes, and oceans to detect changes in the quality of water and measure the impact on flora and fauna in these ecosystems for potential remediation. In a pilot program in Dubuque, Iowa, digital water meters and accompanying software have been installed in homes to monitor water use patterns to inform homeowners of likely leaks as well as ways to reduce water consumption.²²

The IoT is also transforming the way we produce and deliver food. Farmers are using sensors to monitor weather conditions, changes in soil moisture, the spread of pollen, and other factors that affect yields, and automated response mechanisms are being installed to ensure proper growing conditions. Sensors are being attached to vegetable and fruit cartons in transit to both track their whereabouts and sniff the produce to warn of imminent spoilage so shipments can be rerouted to closer vendors.²³

Physicians are even attaching or implanting sensors inside human bodies to monitor bodily functions including heart rate, pulse, body temperature, and skin coloration to notify doctors of vital changes that might require proactive attention. General Electric (GE) is working with computer vision software that “can analyze facial expressions for signs of severe pain, the onset of delirium or other hints of distress” to alert nurses.²⁴ In the near future, body sensors will be linked to one’s electronic health records, allowing the IoT to quickly diagnose the patient’s likely physical state to assist emergency medical personnel and expedite treatment.

Arguably, the IoT’s most dramatic impact thus far has been in security systems. Homes, offices, factories, stores, and even public gathering places have been outfitted with cameras and sensors to detect criminal activity. The IoT alerts security services and police for a quick response and provides a data trail for apprehending perpetrators.

The IoT embeds the built environment and the natural environment in a coherent operating network, allowing every human being and every thing to communicate with one another in searching out synergies and facilitating interconnections in ways that optimize the thermodynamic efficiencies of society while ensuring the well-being of the Earth as a whole. If the technology platforms of the First and Second Industrial Revolutions aided in the severing and enclosing of the Earth’s myriad ecological interdependencies for market exchange and personal gain, the IoT platform of the Third Industrial Revolution reverses the process. What makes the IoT a disruptive technology in the way we organize economic life is that it helps humanity reintegrate itself into the complex choreography of the biosphere, and by doing so, dramatically increases productivity without compromising the ecological relationships that govern the planet. Using less of the Earth’s resources more efficiently and productively in a circular economy and making the transition from carbon-based fuels to renewable energies are defining features of the emerging economic paradigm. In the new era, we each become a node in the nervous system of the biosphere.

While the IoT offers the prospect of a sweeping transformation in the way humanity lives on earth, putting us on a course toward a more sustainable and abundant future, it also raises disturbing issues regarding data security and personal privacy, which will be addressed at length in chapter 5 and in other chapters throughout the book.

Some of the leading information technology companies in the world are already at work on the build-out of the Internet of Things. General Electric’s “Industrial Internet,” Cisco’s “Internet of Everything,” IBM’s “Smarter Planet,” and Siemens’ “Sustainable Cities” are among the many initiatives currently underway to bring online an intelligent Third Industrial Revolution infrastructure that can connect neighborhoods, cities, regions, and continents in what industry observers call a global neural network. The network is designed to be open, distributed, and collaborative, allowing anyone, anywhere, and at any time the opportunity to access it and use Big Data to create new applications for managing their daily lives at near zero marginal cost.

From The Zero Marginal Cost Society by Jeremy Rifkin. Copyright © 2014 by the author and reprinted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Ltd.

A complete list of sources can be found in the book.

Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Zero Marginal Cost Society: The Internet of Things, the Collaborative Commons, and the Eclipse of Capitalism, one of the most popular social thinkers of our time, is a bestselling author whose 20 books have been translated into 35 languages. Rifkin is an advisor to the European Union and to heads of state around the world and a lecturer at the Wharton School’s Executive Education Program at the University of Pennsylvania. For more information, please visit

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