Digitalisation as the extension of our nervous system
The contemporary automobile is a typical example of an invention dating from the First Machine Age. The Industrial Revolution gave birth to machines that delivered mechanised muscle power and extended human physical capacity. The automobile extended our capacity to go from one place to another.
Since the early twentieth century, this potential has unleashed a complex set of changes that have had a profound impact on our way of life, on our living environment, and on consumption and production. The ‘innovation game’ related to the car is far from over. The icon of future mobility is now the self-driving car – ‘a driverless carriage’ – that people must trust to make the right decisions in traffic.
The self-driving or robot car is a good example of a machine dating from our own era, the Second Machine Age. It revolves around digital devices that deliver brainpower, such as computers, the internet, smartphones, artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain and robots. Just as mankind has changed our world utilising the machines of the First Machine Age, we will turn our world upside down with our smart devices.
In this article, we consider how local government can use and respond to the technological and societal challenges of the Second Machine Age. To understand the relevance of this question, we first look at the instrumental side of smart devices. We want to show how smart devices can enhance people’s physical and mental capacities.
Technology as an extension of the human body
William J. Mitchell, an architect who coined the term ‘smart city’, sees technology as an extension of the human body (Mitchell, 2004). In his vision, we have arranged our homes and surroundings in such a way that they extend and enhance our physical and mental capacities in countless ways.
For example, Mitchell regards the water supply, the faucet, the toilet and the sewage system as extensions of our digestive tract. The bicycle and all cycle tracks are extensions of our legs and feet. While the machines of the First Machine Age mainly expand our physical capacities, the smart devices of the Second Machine Age enhance our cognitive capacities.
Our current living environment first arose during the Industrial Revolution. It can be seen as an array of machinery: a collection of large technological systems (drinking water and sewage systems, transport systems, electricity grids and communication networks) and devices, ranging from trains and automobiles to boilers. According to Mitchell, our bodies are thus connected to an extensive, external network of pipelines, pumps and land transport routes that supply us with food and water and remove and process waste.
We now live in the age of intelligent devices that function as appendages to the human nervous system, as it were. Our nervous system absorbs sensory stimuli, engages in cognitive processes and controls our muscles. Supported by the internet, smart devices are extending these three functions dramatically.
- First, we can use sensors to increase our sensory perception and thus our awareness of our surroundings. In Rotterdam, for example, operators at a single control centre track criminal behaviour through more than 450 security cameras.
- Second, we use algorithms and AI to improve our analytical skills. The Netherlands will be the first country in the world to use predictive policing nationwide.
- Finally, we can use IT of all sorts to control the mechanical systems of the First Machine Age. Examples include using a smartphone to control a smart thermostat when you’re not at home. And as of 2020, Amsterdam’s water management provider, Waternet, will be operating sixty different bridges and locks in Amsterdam from a single control centre.
The machine park of the Second Machine Age has come to be referred to as the ‘Internet of Things’ (IoT). They form a global network in which both people and devices are online and communicate with each other. The IoT is in fact a global robot network – for what is a robot but a machine that can sense, think and act? That is precisely what the IoT does.
And thanks to the IoT, we are becoming more and more connected all the time, through our smartphones. Shortly after you order a product from Amazon, a robot picks up a package at a distribution centre just across the border in Germany. We are, in effect, being fitted out with a kind of global robot suit that we can use to control a network of smart devices. Our living environment has become a gigantic robotic exoskeleton. This makes it possible for operators in Nevada to control military drones in Afghanistan and allows ‘us’ to believe in a golden future for the self-driving car robot.