Nubians built their pyramids with stone, while the Chinese used hard-packed clay. The Native Americans of Illinois built dirt pyramids. The Babylonians used sun-dried brick. From Aztec temples to Egyptian tombs, the pyramid form is so ubiquitous that people write books avowing alien intervention or the occult as the cause.

Less excitable types will point out that if you want to build something very large and impressive, and you haven’t invented the arch yet, it must be a pyramid or gravity will just pull it apart.  Mother Nature doesn’t like slopes of more than about 45 degrees.

Technology inevitably shapes culture. Pyramid builders weren’t following alien blueprints. They were merely acting within their own technological limitations. The large, sedentary workforces that resulted from the invention of agriculture made pyramid-building possible.

Then the invention of the arch, with its ability to convert tensile stress into compressive stress, rendered pyramid building unnecessary. You could build large, impressive structures using far less building material and labor, and that’s exactly what people chose to do. In retrospect, the ways in which technology affects society seem natural and obvious.

It gets a bit more complicated when your own world is in transition. Look no further than the current paradigm shift in data communications. The “Internet of Communications” is ceding to an “Internet of Things,” a world where even the most basic devices are becoming network-aware. We’ve already seen how the Internet of Communications changes the way we work. The Internet of Things will change the way we live.

The Forces At Work

Bob Metcalfe, often called the “Father of Ethernet,” stated that the value of a network increases proportionally with the square of the number of compatibly communicating devices.

Of course, several caveats apply in this scenario. Not all connections are created equal. A networked vending machine probably adds a bit more value to the network than Charlie Sheen’s Twitter feed. Some devices actually decrease a network’s value, like those that spew out data that has no purpose or value. Examples would include malfunctioning nodes, spam, and, some would argue, about 99% of what happens on Facebook.

Proprietary protocols touted by shortsighted vendors also devalue networks. In almost every case, though, those proprietary silos have ultimately been toppled by the economic reality described in Metcalfe’s Law. As the network grows, and as data is made to move more efficiently across it, the more value it provides. Those proprietary protocols were only getting in the way.

Now let’s add Moore’s Law to the equation. Moore, a cofounder of Intel, observed that the number of transistors that can be placed inexpensively on an integrated circuit doubles roughly every two years.

Metcalfe’s Law shows us that expanding the network increases its value. Moore’s Law tells us that while capability steadily increases, the cost of those capabilities continually drops. Together, they mean that continued network expansion network is inevitable.

The day is coming, and it isn’t far off, when it will be technologically feasible and economically worthwhile to network-enable even the simplest of things, right down to the light bulb. More sophisticated industrial devices are already network-enabled, and that’s just the start.

Incontrovertible Trends

Societal shifts can be hard to identify from the vertex, but let’s look at a few statistics that show us the path that’s being carved:

  • Global IP traffic has increased eightfold over the past five years.
  • By 2015, the number of devices connected to IP networks will be twice as large as the global human population.
  • More Internet traffic is originating with non-PC devices. Projections show PC-based traffic expanding at a compound annual growth rate of 33%, while machine-based module traffic is forecast to grow at an incredible 258%.
  • By 2015, traffic from wireless devices will exceed traffic generated by wired devices. Specifically, wired devices will account for 46% of IP traffic, while Wi-Fi and mobile devices will account for 54%. (In 2010, wired devices accounted for 63% of IP traffic.)
  • The IPv4 addresses that we’ve come to know and love have become quaint artifacts of the past. Only 4 billion addresses were possible, and it wasn’t enough. That led to the creation of the IPv6 system. Hopefully its 340 trillion, trillion, trillion addresses will give us a little breathing room.
  • Cellular subscribers in the U.S. outnumber the total population. Machines have started using the phone.

The Wireless World

Henry David Thoreau once questioned the need for a telegraph that would connect Maine and Texas by saying, “Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.” He may well have had a point. The telegraph charged you by the word. You didn’t use it to send people a bunch of drivel.

However, modern communications have become so cheap, as demonstrated by the incessant texting of today’s generation, that the content’s importance has become irrelevant. It’s been a good thing for consumers, but it has saturated the cell-phone market, forcing cellular companies to look elsewhere for growth. Minutes of talk time per connection have flattened out.

Texting, interestingly enough, continues to climb at an annual rate of 74%, despite the fact that it’s possibly the crudest form of human-to-human communication since the pictograph. Still, even when combined with sales of additional consumer data plans, it can’t produce the kind of sustained growth required by cellular companies.

The real future for cellular networks lies in M2M communications. Moore’s Law tells us that connecting machines will steadily become cheaper and easier. Meanwhile, Metcalfe’s Law tells us that connecting hundreds of millions of machines, all around the world, will add incredible value to the cellular network.

The cellular network is a managed infrastructure. Wi-Fi dominates the unmanaged infrastructure category , taking on functions that once required physical connections. As was the case with wired Ethernet, Wi-Fi makes you responsible for your own infrastructure. But you needn’t give a second thought to interoperability, transportability, or scalability since they’re built in.

Wi-Fi is only just beginning to get interesting, though. For example, improvements in range and bandwidth continue unabated. New energy harvesting and micropower technologies are beginning to come online, too. In fact, Wi-Fi can claim victory as the uncontested winner of the unmanaged infrastructure wireless race, and it’s only getting better.

As important as Wi-Fi has already become, there’s still plenty of room for Bluetooth. The new sensor-targeted, low-power extension included in the Bluetooth 4.0 standard looks very promising. It’s being driven by the personal-area-network (PAN) infrastructure made available by every cellular handset in the world. Expect an explosion of micropower Bluetooth 4.0 clients in applications that involve PANs collecting wireless sensor data.

Other semi-standard wireless technologies do exist, but they will be hard-pressed to survive.

Conclusion

Looking backward, we can see how technology drove the shift from hunter to farmer, from farmer to factory worker, and from factory worker to knowledge worker. Looking forward, it’s become clear that the convergence of Metcalfe’s Law, Moore’s Law, and the Internet of Things will produce another of these pivotal societal changes in just the next few decades.

It is, of course, impossible to predict every potential change. Whatever happens, though, it’s going to be much more interesting than dragging rocks around to build a pyramid.