Closer to One:

Buddhism and The Internet of Things.

Sara Öhrvall at SXSW
Sara Öhrvall at SXSW

This blog post is based on the March 13th SXSW Interactive session in Austin, with Matt Rolandson (Ammunition Group), Vincent Horn (, and Sara Öhrvall (Bonnier R&D)

In a very near future there will be an invisible web linking together human beings, physical objects and their virtual representations in an information network. The size of the Internet of Things will be enormous: Ericsson predicts 50 billion devices connected to the Internet in 2020. But we have already passed the threshold in which there are more devices connected to the Internet than there are humans. As a matter of fact, one Internet message in 20 is sent from machine to machine (rather than by human to human), and with the latest version of the Internet—IPv6—we will have Internet addresses for every atom on the face of the earth.
But long before the Internet of Things became a geek meme, Eastern philosophers also had a vision of an “invisible web” connecting all things. As Buddhist Geeks founder Vincent Horn says, “The universe is the original Internet of Things.”

For Horn, the interesting question about our networked future is whether the Internet of Things allows us to “hack the universe” by designing technologies that enable us to feel true spiritual interconnectivity. According to Buddhist theory, you become free only once your actions are harmonized with how things already work. And you become aware of how things are connected only once you understand their interdependence.

Perhaps when the abstract idea of a “web of life” becomes physical—when our plants, houses, boats and bodies are interconnected through technology—interconnectedness will feel more real to us. Perhaps we will better understand the impact of our behaviors when visualized aggregated data shows us the consequences on air quality of taking the bike instead of the car to work. But will this knowledge of our connection to all other things make us better people? Or will we just fuel our addiction to stimulation, becoming experience junkies who use increasingly advanced devices to post updates, tweets and check-ins and win badges, rewards and social status? What happens when our plants start tweeting that they’re thirsty and our cars check themselves in at a parking lot by the beach? What was supposed to be enlightening becomes performance art.

The Internet of Things will produce data sets like we’ve never seen before, but that doesn't necessarily mean we will have more meaningful products. So the question becomes, how can we design connected objects with meaning and mechanics to make people engage in better behavior?

Matt Rolandson says, “The first step is to put meaning on the agenda in the product development process, as emotional and philosophical intention, by encouraging designers with ideas about how to manage intention and awareness. A lot of what is developed today uses the triggers of fear or social stress.

“We could instead design products and services that help people get more meaning by visualizing the bigger picture, connecting services or products to some sense of larger purpose. And then coach them to behavior modification, collectivizing intent instead of competition. The key question to ask ourselves as designers is: How is the network you are creating allowing users to experience power — are they reinforcing a positive identify for themselves or the exact opposite?”

Can the Internet of Things become a movement with a positive impact on our lives?  And what can we learn from Buddhism to help make that happen?

As Vincent Horn says, “Buddha was the original mind-hacker—a proto-scientist of the mind. We have been through several revolutions, including in the physical sciences with Galileo, and in the biological sciences with Darwin and his theory of natural selection and evolution. But we have not yet had a revolution in the mind sciences. Now, we are on the brink of a possible exciting revolution in that area. Meditators are being studied by mind scientists to see the actual benefits of meditating and how it impacts the brain. Hopefully, that will lead to technologies that help us become more awake to our senses.

“From a Buddhism perspective, everything rests on the tip of intention. Buddhists look at actions and connections as internally generated. If we become aware of that, train our minds and explore ourselves, we will move from being self-centric to self-aware and thereby become more aware of ourselves in relation to other things. Being aware of how things are connected has the potential to make us less self-centric if designers and developers build experiences with those ideas in mind.”

When individual data gets aggregated into a bigger picture, it will be harder and harder to separate the self from the whole and it will be more apparent how we are connected. What can we do as designers of this emerging, connected world to help people better understand and improve our society? Can we really orchestrate interdependence?

Matt Rolandson sees a paradox in us moving from an “experience economy” to an “attention economy,” since there has never been more attention poverty than right now. Buddhists believe a well-trained attention is at the root of our ability to connect in healthy ways with ourselves and others.

Roland cites a statistic from Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit: over 40% of the decisions we make are unconscious (based on Duke University research). But designers can visualize the impact of decisions and find mechanisms to guide people to make more decisions consciously. One example is games that involve habit design, modeling out scenarios for helping people get where they want to be. Rolandson believes “we should lengthen the horizon and compare the importance of attention with the reality of interdependence”.

But what effect are we facilitating by connecting all the humans and objects around us? Vince Horn does not see technology as a fake simulation of interconnectedness but rather as an extension of our experience. “Technology is not a problem unless we're not aware of it, because then we get absorbed and lost in it. We can always protect ourselves by being aware of technology and its impact on us. But we need better design of technology products that take an un-selfish perspective. And we need networks that encourage us to be selfless. There should be a bottom-up approach to hooking people up with useable data.”

To demonstrate how the Internet of Things is already impacting our behavior, Rolandson brings up IBM Smart Planet and, which is an example of how to be a part of the interconnectivity of intentions. There is also the MIT Medialab experiment with the Copenhagen Wheel, a bicycle wheel that keeps track of friends, fitness, smog and traffic. The wheel can monitor the bicycle's speed, direction and distance traveled, as well as collect data on air pollution. The aggregated data from all bikes shows the implications of biking at an urban scale and encourages people to leave their cars at home.

Horn sees a future when the use of bio- and neuro-feedback gets more advanced and thereby can tell us when our minds start to wander, when our attention goes away. A big part of Buddhist thinking is being reminded to be present, and a number of technologies are being developed toward that end. Vince sees a huge potential to automate certain activities in order to free up energy to explore new vistas of the mind.

As the Internet of Things is being developed, there is a question of whether the movement toward an interconnected society will be hindered by monetization. But Rolandson believes it won’t necessarily be a problem. “We have to stop perceiving everything non-profit as good cause and everything monetized causing destruction,” he says. “There are certainly ways of finding interesting sustainable economic models to drive innovation forward.”

Hopefully, the future will bring products and services that change our behavior in positive ways, as well as technologies that help us understand our connectedness—that neither our inner worlds nor the outer one are a series of aimless accidents.


Vincent Horn (@vincenthorn), Buddhist Geek and Innovator, was recently named one of 50 people who are going to change the world by Wired UK.

Matt Rolandson (@rollo) is a partner at multiple award-winning design studio Ammunition Group.

Sara Ohrvall (@saraohrvall) is global director of R&D at Bonnier

Published Monday, March 19, 2012 in