Three Ways to Talk About the Internet of Things

Sometimes, our work feels like a sort of reverse archaeology. Just as archaeologists examine artifacts of the past to understand how people lived, we often encounter vague ideas that speak to the future and have to make our own interpretations to understand what it actually means for how we live now.

I like to think of the Internet of Things as one of these “artifacts from the future.”Like a group of archaeologists, I imagine the design and tech community turning it over in their collective mind, asking, “What is it? How was it used? What does it mean?”

I recently had the chance to participate in the Internet of Things Lab, a workshop being offered in collaboration with WebVisions and hosted by Claro. The event asked teams of designers, developers, strategists, and makers to spend two days concepting and prototyping new Internet of Things services.

Taking part in the workshop prompted me to put on my reverse archaeologist hat and examine the Internet of Things a little more closely. What are the different ways we can interpret it?

Here are three ways that I came up with (probably among many):

Interpretation 1: The Internet of Things means that every object around us will be ‘smart,’ connected, and listening.

iot1

This, I think, is the most common, technology-driven interpretation one might encounter, and certainly, it is functionally correct. Like digital entities on the internet, everyday objects will be networked and capture data about the environment and about you. Those objects are then enabled to take actions that presumably create a more efficient, carefree existence for people.

But, as Claro pointed out during our Internet of Things Lab, just because we can do things like have our egg trays notify us how many eggs are in the fridge, it doesn’t immediately mean they are meaningful or desirable things to do. This interpretation tells us all about how and what things might change with the Internet of Things, but not what ought to change and why.

And indeed, there’s already a backlash to this somewhat mechanical approach to the Internet of Things, everything from parodies to manifestos. These criticisms raise real concerns about the potential loss of individual agency, privacy, and diversity of experience.

So, if this is an incomplete picture of the Internet of Things,what if we focused less on the “Internet” part and more on the “Things” part?

Interpretation 2: The Internet of Things will enrich and focus our interactions with physical objects and environments.

iot2

This interpretation highlights the common roots between the Internet of Things and another long-standing technological concept: ubiquitous computing. In a subtle shift of emphasis, we’re not focused here on how our things can connect to the internet, but on how the internet can serve our things. The introduction of computation into our world provides an opportunity to enrich our interactions with its physicality, rather than distract from it.

Back in 1995, Mark Weiser, considered the father of ubiquitous computing, described an early example of this interpretation in a piece by artist Natalie Jeremijenko simply titled “The Dangling String”:

[T]he ‘Dangling String’ is an 8 foot piece of plastic spaghetti that hangs from a small electric motor mounted in the ceiling. The motor is electrically connected to a nearby Ethernet cable, so that each bit of information that goes past causes a tiny twitch of the motor.

The twitching of this network-enabled piece of string makes concrete something which was previously abstract: the traffic on the local network. In doing so, it alters our perception of both the physical and digital environment.

At Second Story, we’re very interested in how digital artifacts change our relationship to the physical environment. Our lab projects like Lyt and Aurora are, in part, explorations of how network-enabled, responsive environments can enhance our experiences of the physical world.

But there is one more interpretation of the Internet of Things that occurred to me during the workshop.

Interpretation 3: Our culture today exists at a scale and level of complexity that increasingly calls for more thoughtful interconnections and engagements between people and their objects and environments.

iot3

This last interpretation brings forward an element of the Internet of Things that is lacking in the previous two: the role of human intentionality and judgment. This is the Internet of People and Things. How can we take a “people first” approach to our technology that empowers us to create useful and meaningful change in the world?

For example, the Good Night Lamp could easily be described by its functionality. It’s a networked set of lamps that are synchronized, so that when the big lamp turns on, the smaller lamps connected to it do the same. However, the product is not interesting because of what it does, but because of what it enables people to do.

The designers of the Good Night Lamp call their product the “first physical social network.” At the core of their product is the idea of enabling people to connect across distances in subtle and delightful ways. You get the sense that it’s about the Internet of People first, and the Internet of Things second.

This interpretation also raises the question of agency. If the point is to put people first in the Internet of Things, shouldn’t everyone feel empowered to participate in its creation and construction? We recently got to play with a set of littleBits in our studio, which provides a nice example of how new platforms and toolkits can foster a world of active participants of the Internet of Things, rather than passive consumers.

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So which interpretation is right? Well, all of them. Like any real design problem, there are multiple framings that you can take on the Internet of Things, each one equally valid and leading to different observations, principles, and design solutions. As we shape the future meaning of the Internet of Things, it’s worth surveying a healthy diversity of perspectives.

— Norman Lau, Senior Experience Designer

 

 

 

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