The Internet of People: A Dumb-Smart Paradox

Authors: John Beckford1 Prof. Peter Kawalek2 Richard Berry3 

The Internet of Things and its autonomous device derivatives will doubtless nurture creativity within many sectors. Algorithms will be developed to determine how machines will interact directly with other machines, and with individuals and multi-cyborgs (teams or organisations comprising of both devices and people). These interactions will take place at data speeds never previously experienced, quite literally enabling the making of decisions at the speed of light. Design will be influenced by global diversity, economic energy and uncontrolled dynamic thought.  Activities across such networks will not be constrainable by conventional ethical, regulatory or legal standards.  These are the climatic conditions for the Internet of People (IoP) where activities such as policing and public safety face step change in the challenges they confront.

Anecdote, conversation and informal enquiry suggest that the present generation of senior leadership in many sectors is challenged by the task of ‘thinking their digital way forwards’. Organisations and people must develop the characteristics required for constant adaptation, while academia has a key role to provide a philosophy and framework of thought to underpin emerging societal change.  Technical activities run by engineers for engineers are not sufficient. Rapid research, enablement through stimulation and provocation, as well as core technical knowledge, all form part of the necessary mix of ‘IoP’ capabilities.

As emerging communications and network technologies are deployed on the internet of things supposedly ‘smart’ devices will continue to activate the local functional decisions made by their designers; decisions rooted in unarticulated assumptions about the precise functionality of their particular deployment. In reality this will mean that devices labelled as ‘smart’ will dumbly give effect to silo’d decisions embedded in their firmware and software; they will implant the assumptions of their designers in the fabric of the internet. The consequences will be not just unpredictable but unknowable.

Constrained to do only what they have been designed to do, such smart devices are made up of multiple simple switches, first order cybernetic systems, no more ‘smart’ than a regulator on a steam engine. Ingenious by both conception and construction they are nonetheless rudimentary in application. However, when richly inter-connected by the rapid and agile power of 5th generation networks, expected to be many times faster than those of today, the composite interacting outcomes of these systems will be complex and dynamic, the consequences unmanageable, unconstrained, and hence unforeseeable. As systems interact with systems, their actions may well appear to be ‘smart’ as they react to electronic stimuli without human intervention; their interactions will undoubtedly display apparently complex behaviours, generating outcomes that we cannot know, plan for or prevent. Some of those outcomes at least are likely to be undesirable; the potential for societally disruptive intervention remains unknown.

The Ingenuity of ‘Ingenieurs’: Considerations

The technical dimensions of next generation technologies have by and large been solved, dissolved or are in course of being solved. However, we have not even begun to address the societal, organisational and personal challenges that ultra-high speed, ultra-dynamic, ultra-agile networks of interacting ‘smart’ devices will begin to generate, or to consider the potential for their abusive use.

The currently ordered model of networks may be characterised as follows:

1st order          self-correcting/tactical nodes, devices and IOT

2nd order         the internet/network upon which a set of nodes exist in an ‘eco system’, choosing between alternative goals against set criteria (in effect 1st order nodes in an embedded structure)

3rd order         the decision makers – the human actor as a ‘cybernetic’ node managing the 1st and 2nd orders.

Our role, the 3rd order actor, is therefore to reduce dissonance between where we are and where we want to be in a cyber-physical setting. Forming effective teams between humans and machines is just one of those challenges, we also need to form and configure effective networks of homo-machina (human-machine teams).

Professional training, technical development, and management science education are all largely focused on the 1st order (programmed goals) and 2nd order (choice between programmed goals, in effect 1st order at a more aggregate level) application of devices to immediately presenting decisions in the name of system efficiency. The focus is on the dissemination of standardised models, methods and techniques for addressing already codified and structured problems and challenges. However complex, they are directed at problems that have already been solved; problems have been prepared to be amenable to solution within the constraints of the problem solving methodology. In effect we ‘know’ the answer to every problem because the answer is embedded in the way we have structured it.

So far, so tautologous, we express the problem in terms of the methodology required for solving it. The solutions are then inevitable – and wrong. The 3rd order needs to function beyond the limits of the 1st & 2nd orders which implies that the empirical is problematic; we need to be able to creatively and rapidly access and scrutinise what constitutes evidence. Here we can utilise the cybernetic concept of black box theory (Beckford, 2016, 2017) as the basis of a retroductive approach which contains a higher order methodology for comprehending system behaviour also seen in Ashby’s Ultrastable Homeostat (1952).

Future challenges need us to invest in developing the comprehension and apprehension of unaddressed problems rather than in teaching established methodology. The 3rd order cybernetic elements on the internet must be imbued with new skills. It is the human actors who have the capacity to generate goals, to imagine, ideate and initiate, to conceive and simulate a range of possible alternative futures, both good and evil, lawful and unlawful that become possible. Simply, we need to develop the people, skills, knowledge and ways of working that can shift the focus to systemic effectiveness, and can influence this growth in the interests of a public safety perspective.

A Socratic Approach

There is a compelling need to develop the human actors and teams who are the ‘3rd order nodes’; who constitute the Internet of People. Such a programme of development, constructed around a process of Socratic enquiry, will be question and problem oriented, rather than focused on curricula and content focused. The mantra will be:

“If you think established method is the answer to the problem then you have not understood the problem OR the method”

Framing a process of enquiry through black box thinking will generate a radical approach for distilling theory from applied practice in the most complex of human-technical systems;   i.e. abductive or retroductive methods of inference.  Drawing on ideas from Wiener (Cybernetics), Shannon and Weaver (Communication Theory), Beer (Cybernetics and Management Science), Gleick (Chaos) and Waldrop (Complexity), the key will be to approach scientific method by letting the data speak.  Entropy can grow from digital disruption, making it important to extract ‘the signal from the noise’ (Silver) within data.

Eco-systems and equilibrium across the three orders are useful but there is value in the idea of disequilibrium i.e. positive disruption to create change is a third order skill codified in Beckford’s ‘virtuous learning cycles’ (Weblink). It is essential that the process of development is negentropic and pushes ‘counter-engineering’ ideas as far as possible, reenergising externally (the applied world) and internally (the research world).

The approach outlined will offer potential gains to all areas of society and commerce. It will have direct relevance to policing, public safety and security by generating capability to operate in a setting where otherwise the ‘bad guys’ reinvent the threat faster than the ‘good guys’ can reinvent prevention, detection and mitigation.  Elsewhere, in the civil world, it will generate the capability to ideate and originate in ways which will enable individuals and organisations to anticipate market behaviours and pre-empt both competition and possible failure.

Senior leaders for the future will need to be ‘Ingenieurs’, to be curious, content to be ‘near enough’ not ‘absolutely right’, to excel at problem structuring and open to the world of possibility not probability, to comprehend where things may be going, not simply where they have been, and to be able to synthesise solutions from complex, dynamic data. They will need to be able to resolve dilemma and paradox and move the world through assertion and persuasion rather than positional power. Senior leaders will need to synthesise people and machines into a coherent yet imperfect, whole, knowing not what the answer is, but what questions must be asked.



Ashby, W.R., (1952) Design for a Brain, Chapman Hall, London

Beckford, J. (2016) The Intelligent Organisation, Routledge, London

Beckford, J. ((2017) Quality, A Critical Introduction, Routledge, London



Dr. John Beckford, Partner, Beckford Consulting


Prof. Peter Kawalek, Director, Centre for Information Management, Loughborough University


Richard Berry, ACC, NPCC Lead on Communication Data