experiments in more-than-human design ethnography

An Internet of Cows (and Sheeps!)

Making the rounds yesterday was Cisco’s infographic of The Internet of Things. Of course there are all sorts of interesting things going on in this story, but I want to focus on the cows right now:

When it comes to networked livestock, I often mention the dairy cows that tweet and IBM’s “Farm to Fork” projects. Similarly, Gill Press used the infographic above to blog about the Tipping Point for the Internet of Things and Connected Cows:

“Given the rapid ascendance of the locavore movement, my prediction is that by 2040, we will follow our favorite cows, getting regular updates on the quality of their milk, sent wirelessly to our embedded Google++ chip.”

When I posted a link on Twitter, Justin Pickard retweeted it and (half-jokingly?) added something that’s sticking with me:

“[B]ovine spimes seem to be the internet-enabled fridge of the #IoT.”

Press’ (tongue-in-cheek?) prediction above seems to fit the techno-utopian bill, but have networked cows (or sheep) really become cliché? And, if so, do they really have anything in common with the infamous Internet-enabled fridge? I mean consumers still don’t seem to want an Internet-enabled fridge, but thousands of farmers around the world want and/or must maintain livestock databases. In other words, the “smart” fridge largely remains a technological promise (or threat) while networking livestock is already established practice.

But let’s get back to an “Internet of Cows” as a vision or promise marked by hyperbole. I first heard of Sparked, the Dutch company featured in Cisco’s infographic, in last year’s special report on smart systems in The Economist, where one piece claimed that “far from being just an anecdote from the animal kingdom, these networked cows are part of an exciting technological trend.”

Okay. My research relies on the reality that using RFID to track livestock precedes the Internet of Things, and so the first “things” online have included nonhuman animals or companion species. But “networked cows” come with comments and illustrations like the ones above that extend and elaborate this reality along the lines of design fiction.

And an interesting 2010 article describes the Sparked service and real challenges they face, which might help reconfigure such spectacular visions:

“Each cow generates on average about 200MB of information per year. Factor that figure for an entire herd and that is more information than a local server can manage. Generally, this shouldn’t be a problem in most circumstances given the proliferation of remote storage available in cloud computing. Indeed, Sparked uses Microsoft’s Azure service to store and access table storage in the cloud. And therein lies a peculiar problem. With a patchwork of different data privacy regulations in countries throughout Europe, considerable confusion exists over which laws in which countries have jurisdiction over cloud computing. It has even been suggested, in a country neighbouring Sparked, that animals’ rights to data privacy would inhibit the company’s ability to market its product widely in Europe. Should concerns about regulation arise…firms expect an opportunity to negotiate with national governments for a workable solution. Small companies like Sparked, however, don’t enjoy such assurances and must operate with great care under regulatory uncertainty since one enforcement action could shut down their business. Especially complicating the regulation of cloud computing is its diffuse nature. One can never be certain which path, and through which countries, internet communications take. Moreover, purchasers of cloud services can seldom be sure in which country their content and applications reside.”

As with many future-oriented computing visions, the greatest obstacles aren’t technological as much as they are infrastructural, including policy and regulation. And if networked cows are to avoid going the way of the Internet-enabled fridge, then our representations of these systems–and their attendant issues–have to change.

In fact, I think I’ll start working on a new story called “The Internet of Sheep” based on Eleanor Saitta’s response to Justin’s retweet:

“Points for the first person to DoS a cow.”

Not only do I find the idea of a DoS attack on cows (or sheep) pretty funny, but it makes me think of the farmers at the NAIT booth at Fieldays who were genuinely concerned about how electronic tagging data could be used against them. The Cisco infographic says that “the only limitation left will be our imaginations” and I’m imagining electronic sheep, server farms, rogue computer cowboys and a bit of the Silence

Posted: July 20th, 2011 | Author: | Filed under: Material & Visual Culture, People & Animals, Science, Technology & Society | 5 Comments »

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