Connected Everything – how, why and what's the next course?

Peter Coffee Profile picture for user Peter Coffee August 25, 2021
Only connect? Let's have lunch to discuss, says Salesforce's Peter Coffee.


In the canon of the late Douglas Adams, we find the maxim that every civilization passes through three phases of Survival, Inquiry and Sophistication – represented, he suggests, by the three questions: 

  1. How can we eat?
  2. Why do we eat?
  3. Where shall we have lunch?

This progression came to mind during a round-table discussion, earlier this month, of the applications of “Internet of Things” technologies and practices – when I found myself mentally rewriting the questions as:

  1. How can we connect?
  2. Why are we connecting?
  3. What could happen after connection?

The mere fact of achieving connection was once novel, impressive, and self-governing in that (i) it was so hard to do (with so few, therefore, doing it) that no one had to ask, “But can it scale?” and (ii) most of the people involved in doing it were neither stupid, careless, nor malicious. When a map of the Internet could be drawn with only a baker’s dozen of straight lines, roughly fifty years ago, the non-linear growth of possible interactions versus number of nodes was not an enormous problem – and the users were mostly people who peer-reviewed each other’s research papers.

Only nine years later, though, Ethernet pioneer Robert Metcalfe would suggest that “the value of a system grows as approximately the square of the number of users” – and value can attract the kind of user that’s only in it for the money, whether by fair means or foul. 

Others have since challenged Metcalfe’s simple equivalence of connectivity with value, but I don’t know anyone who disputes that there is some kind of powerful growth law in effect – and greater-than-linear growth, whether it’s quadratic or “n log(n)” or possibly exponential, makes it challenging today to screen data exchanges for good intentions. It’s even hard to say when a kind of incoming data can be treated as safe to handle, as in the case of last year’s rapidly escalating threats from increasingly sophisticated “macro attacks” that covertly weaponize spreadsheets.

How to connect

Because connection used to be scarce, and the communities of connectors were small and fragmented, “How can we connect?” used to be a question to which almost any answer was likely to be pursued by someone. The legacy of that “Survival” phase is described in a report on cyberthreat risks that was published in March of this year by the United States Government Accountability Office:

Many legacy devices are not able to authenticate commands to ensure that they have been sent from a valid user and may not be capable of running modern encryption protocols. In addition, some legacy devices do not have the capability to log commands sent to the devices, making it more difficult to detect malicious activity. Further, older legacy systems often rely on unsupported operating systems that no longer receive modern software security patches to address vulnerabilities.

In simple terms, you can’t know who sent it; you can’t tell anyone later on what you received, or when; you won’t be protected against bad things being sent to you. It feels a lot like the whimsical “Ginsberg’s Theorem” restatement of the Laws of Thermodynamics:

You can’t win; you can’t break even; you can’t get out of the game.

With connection now almost dangerously cheap and abundant, we’re therefore in the same position vis-à-vis connection that leads from “How can we eat?” to “Why do we eat?” We need to become as thoughtful about the kinds of connection we make as we are (or wish we could be) about the kind of diet we consume.

Instead of going to the buffet and loading up the plate with whatever we find, we can be more deliberate in our choices: I suggest that a diginomic version of this discipline may include shunning a gluttonous TCP/IP connection to the public network, preferring more refined choices of lightweight protocols on well-defined subnets. If none of the acronyms MQTT, UDP, DTLS, DDS, or the attractively named “Weightless” protocol sound familiar, that’s fixable and might lead to healthier alternatives.

As to the Sophistication phase, “Where shall we have lunch?” sounds to me like an invitation to ask “What kind of data-enabled and process-assisting experience are we trying to have – or to offer to others?” We can move beyond industrial control, to achieve new experiences of increased worker productivity and safety; superior ability to manage facilities with pandemic-aware health protocols in place; and addition of device monitoring services for diagnosis, performance improvement, and feedback to product design. For starters.

These are, I suggest, the kinds of “let’s do lunch” opportunities that the recently retired Jeanne Ross at MIT Sloan School of Management had in mind in her book Designed for Digital, when she said:

Companies must embrace information-enriched customer solutions delivered as a seamless, personalized customer experience.

She followed that with the warning:

The alternative is to try to succeed in a digital economy with a pre-digital value proposition.

Unsophisticated. Incurious. And probably not survivable.

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