Dehumanization: cyborgs and the Internet of Things

[Just written this,  the beginning of Section 6.5 of my new book on ICT for Development – thought it might be of interest]

I distinctly remember once walking down Queen Victoria Street in London, and looking down through a window beneath street level to see row upon row of computers, each with their human attached, working away at delivering some unknown products.  It so reminded me of my early readings of Marx’s (1976) Capital, and the dehumanization of labour through the factory system that was designed to extract yet greater surplus value for the capitalists.  Although people like to think that they are in control of their ICTs, this is increasingly not the case.  Office workers come into their open plan work spaces, and ‘their’ computers force them to log in so as to access the information and communication tools necessary to do their work.

All too often, people communicate together by mobile devices even when they are in the same room (Figure 6.1); the art and skill of face to face conversation is swiftly being eroded, mediated instead through technology.  Internet addiction is now widely recognised as a compulsive-impulsive spectrum disorder (Block, 2008) involving excessive use, withdrawal, tolerance and negative repercussions (see also Cash et al., 2012), with rehabilitation centres being created across the world, from China to the USA, in order to try to help addicted people.

Figure 6.1: Young people communicating at the Hotel International and Terminus, Geneva, 2013


Source: Author, 19 May 2013 (taken with permission of all five people shown in the photograph).

One particularly prescient early image of the relationship between humans and technology is Villemard’s depiction in 1910 of how he thought a school might look in 2000, showing books being dropped into a machine that transforms the information, which then passes through electric cables into each pupil’s headsets.  Conceptually, this is not that different from the online learning systems that now increasingly dominate classrooms on both rich and poor countries alike.

Figure 6.2: Villemard’s 1910 image À l’École, depicting how he thought a school might look in 2000.


Source:, accessed 3 August 2016.

In the GSMA’s Mobile World Congress held in Barcelona in February 2014 smartwear was all the rage, and I remember thinking as I walked past Sony’s advertisement for Xperia on the metro platform wall (Figure 6.3) that there were things about my life that I would definitely not want to log, and would certainly not want others to have access to by hacking either my devices or the cloud servers where they might be stored.  Yet countless people have purchased such devices, and regularly have their health data automatically uploaded so that companies can analyse it and generate profits without paying them anything in return.  This is an extreme example of Big Data surplus extraction, because not only do people have to buy the devices in the first place, and sometimes the software, but they also then give the data to the companies for no recompense, and generally receive little back individually that might actually enhance their health.

Figure 6.3: Sony’s poster “Log your life with SmartWear” on the wall of a metro station in Barcelona during Mobile World Congress, 2014


Source: Author, 28 February 2014

[now time to write the actual section that explores the increasingly interwoven character of machines and humans, especially as ICTs are increasingly being advocated as a way to enhance development]


Filed under ICT4D, Photographs, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Dehumanization: cyborgs and the Internet of Things

  1. Pingback: On digital happiness | Tim Unwin's Blog

  2. Pingback: Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised | Tim Unwin's Blog

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