Interview with Rob van Kranenburg on the Internet of Things

I've taken the liberty to interview ubiquitous computing and Internet of Things luminary Rob van Kranenburg about some of his thoughts on the Internet of Things. Rob is the brains and the beauty behind Council, the multi-disciplinary bottom-up think tank taking a look at trying to shape the reality of networked everything before its too late. With Halfman I'm interesting in the design aspect of the Internet of Everyday Things and the reality of it for designers trying to make it a live-able and human compliant 'thing'. Rob is leading the charge in this, so I asked him a few questions. Rob van Kranenburg

What do you think the Internet of Things is? It is the networked ability of things to be approached in a radically generic way that humans understand best. It is to us what writing was to the Greek philosophers, book printing tot he bourgeois individual, the browser to the baby boomer generation. So we know what these have done, created ever more possibilities to express our individuality. The question remains to be seen if IoT will bring even, more to the point of atomization into smaller nodes or the possibility to finally act globally as IoT does promise a radical transparency of data and information. What I think it is I will keep to myself for a while as I can only express that in what would currently still be seen as poetry.

How do you explain it to people? Where are the people? Or what 'is' people? Marketeers have great difficulties these days. They realize we have become so (seemingly) individual ( seemingly as we are 'all' on Facebook) that their old techniques function no more. That is why all this data is being collected; to find patterns yes but also to find what makes me 'me'. So if marketing no longer has groups or thematic clusters to work with, how could we - as in forerunners - even begin to assume we can 'explain' anything to anyone? That is why we have co founded bricolabs and I founded Council (, as beehives of thought and action. No need to advertise, we will see you when you get there. As things are serious these days why waste energy on shooting so wide and hoping to catch something?

How do you make them care? Should they care? Most people I think see it as something scary that might happen some day, but there's just as good of a chance of it never really materialising.

The issue is 'care' itself. Most people drive a car. Very good friends of me tell me ' It is my Freedom'. I think I can understand that, at least for one Sunday afternoon ride. But there is an oil disaster going on because you want your 'right' to personal mobility, so do you 'care'? I have no license as I don't trust myself with speed so I have been in buses and trains taxis and planes ( no saints) and I do realize that I don't care enough not to use that bus to go to a lecture. There is a slightly better trade off as I use public transport. Other friends say: There is simply too much data, where can I start? These are friends, not bad people, yet somehow we all seem incapable of trading our local and immediate agency for future better results when we do not live in a dictatorship where fear of God, Stalin, or the Devil rule.

I read how you recently had an Internet of Things intro party for your neighbours. How did that go?

It was great! The neighbour from across the street was there. My next door neighbour turned out to be an engineer in web based stuff, my girlfriend Kitty was there and Frederic whose appartment we could use made coffee and cakes. I was more nervous then ever, speaking for people I see every day. I live with my head in the air, that is where I am good, yet I realize that if my local neighbourhood and immediate circle of friends would not support me if things break down like in Detroit, all that expertise is academic. Useless. We need tools, not talk.

What role do you see government vs. business in this in terms of intent? Do you think most people feel this is something for government to protect them from?

Governments are bound to fall pretty quickly everywhere. You can not stand an attack on all your pillars. The first book was printed in 1455. By 1500 you could have the whole population literate, by 1580 the whole known world of that time could have been networked neighbourhoods of balance, joy and some singing. Why not? The first public library in the Netherlands came about in 1917, and that because one fine man kept pushing! I find it not such a great feat that you build institutions, schools, universities, representative democracy when you rule for over 450 years in deciding what is data, what is noise, what is data - what is information. Now look at your Iphone. Take a look around and look at the first person you see. Then imagine that you will give this person that you don't know your vote for four years to go to and sit in a place you don't know and you hand over half of your pay to outmoded organizational layers called governments or countries that have privatized everything and lost their ability to rule on anything. It simply can not last beyond 2012 :)

That is why I am interested in IOT, as I see it as a possibility to become a new organizational layer, the new form of the political, hardcoding social values as well as logistical.

With Council (disclosure: I'm part of this thing too), there seems to be pretty big interest and collaboration with people pretty deep in the European Union government, and yet most of the full-scale rollouts of the Internet of Things seem to be Asia. Thoughts? Council will be in Moscow in September and we are giving input at the moment for the biggest and most promising venue in 2010 for China "Global Internet of Things 2010 conference" in Beijing on November 23-25.

I think the winning vision of IoT will not only export services but a new political reality of the relationship between individuals, their tribes (warm solidarity) and their 'country', the environment, the elderly, the ones that are unlucky for a while and need support ( cold solidarity). As such it is I believe the battlefield and the battle terrain for the 21th century. It is also my belief that the world can unite in using this new reality as a way to a gain agency in the huge challenges facing us: climate change, migration, poverty, illiteracy, that are threathening stability and simple life and

a) as the main manufacturer of things China can' enforce' its vision on code, protocol, frequencies, spectrum and database policy b) as a realtime enabler of (smart) cities not hampered by the western notions of theory-practice but learning by doing the vision of networked neighbourhoods might fit already current practice c) as a society deeply philosophically and culturally embedded in social and religious relationships with objects it can see beyond the mere logistics, efficiency, control and first wave of building-business-on top-of-existing --applications-and-services.

I argue very much for deep cooperation of the EU with Russia and China and the BRIC countries to make devices, real hardware and "quick and dirty" full range trajectories like Arrayent and Pachube.

Most people assume that this is basically the end of the world and the only thing that is going to come out of the Internet of Things is some sort of cross between Terminator and Robocop. Is it really that scary? Could you foresee this going the way of Y2K, that the endtimes maybe aren't just around the corner? Endtimes are always around the corner and human beings are simply another form of life that is not necessary or good or bad in itself. The planet is never in trouble, it will take care of itself. So I see no need to worry there. It is a beginning of a new human agency. When I look at my students that have grown up in the network I can not help but think of John Wyndham's book 'The Midwich Cuckoos'. They have all the qualities to make a beautiful hippie style world: they collaborate, theyt do not discriminate between data sets, are very kind, open, yet a political and incapable of talking to someone on the street that is not in their network. I can not get them to worry about garbage 3.0 or sewerage 3.0. They seem to think, as an entire generation! - that the world as it is is a given somehow. In a recent conversation with a coffee lady at the University she said that they seemed to live -all of them- in a different layer - she no longer has talks or discussions about the state of the world. They are nice to her, but do not see beyond her 'function' ( as another friend stated when I told this story). This generation might very well be the end of 'time' as we know it.

Where do you see the role of designers in this?

In the protocol.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Internet of Things

This article is based on a talk given at the Lift Brussels Workshop and Council launch 4 Dec 2009. As an interaction designer I'm all about reality because making technology liveable or human compliant otherwise, is a big part of what I do. I like to think this means making it relevant to people's lives. Making it good. And making it real. Making things reality has a lot to do with recognising that a lot times, technology and things in general fail, and fail pretty bad. The reason a lot of things fail is that we usually never look at one of the biggest points of failure in technology. Us. Humans break things. We're really good at this sort of thing. We're even better at getting all worked up over things that don't end up being a big deal at the end of the day.

segway tours 04Take for instance the loveable Segway. The Segway was touted by some as a technology that would fundamentally change how we live, transforming the city into a veritable hive of swarms of carefree citizens safely whizzing about, singlehandedly making the car obsolete. It never happened. Why? You just look kind of dumb. That's it. Theoretically, economies of scale would have made it work if they became cool or desirable enough. It didn't. They go for around £4,800.00 in the UK, at which point you can buy a pretty decent used car.

Do you remember this one? In 1999, people worldwide were gearing up for literally, the party of the millennium. A lot of other people were buying guns, water filtration systems, food stocks and ammo for when the Western banking system and society in general collapsed because of a twenty year old programming short cut. The Y2K disaster however, never happened. Society didn't collapse and my ex housemate didn't have to go to his parent’s woods with his guns.

Likewise the location based nightmare never really happened. People have been trying to make location sharing apps and social networks to little or no avail practically since they started putting GPS units in phones. You could find your friend for a beer, see where your girlfriend is or isn't supposed to be — a host of supposed useful applications and situations - and nobody uses them. Even the mighty Google couldn't make it work to any large extent. Why? Easy. To most people, and most people meaning not tech bloggers, designers, hackers, developers, VCs and marketers, its called stalking.

The Internet of Things

So if there are lets say 5,000 objects in your home surrounding you (Wikipedia) and every single one can be sensed, authenticated and tracked, where is the meaning for me? As a spot on a map I'm just that, a spot. So I'm home, am I having dinner with my wife or busy burying a body in the back garden? Just like being a spot on a map, what does it really mean? Where is the context beyond the pencil is next to the glass? How could you make sense out of this? Why would you want to even? Does it mean that I'm going to draw a picture of the glass, or that I'm thirsty from doing a crossword puzzle? Basically, where is the meaning?

"You would make an amazing German if you weren't Mexican." "Today's home improvement marathon starts with Bad Brains. Tomorrow Team Eagle Damage Squad takes it down." "Trying to channel Dickinson and Strubing."

For instance, try to not know me and make comprehensive sense of the endless inside joke drivel that comes out of my Twitter feed. What could the mysterious robot overlords possibly do with that data? There is tons of data like this, numbers, packets, words and sentences I've produced littering the internet. But how relevant is all of this?

“Things like running out of stock or wasted products will no longer exist as we will know exactly what is being consumed on the other side of the globe.

Theft will be a thing of the past as we will know where a product is at all times. The same applies to parcels lost in the post.“ -Wikipedia

So you have examples like this one about theft somehow miraculously not existing in the future and everything running as smoothly as it possibly can in this IP-ruled future. This is all assuming there is no humans involved in moving your post, programming the system moving your post, driving the van or piloting the plane carrying your post. Again, the reason that this will never ever happen is that we usually never look at one of the biggest points of failure in technology. Us. People.  And how we live together. When they can throw millions of IP numbers on a square meter of this planet there are still going to be humans there mucking about.

So I guess lets try to add some context to this thing. Lets try and make it liveable, more human-compliant I suppose. The designer's job is largely about easing. About easing the populace at large into an idea or a way of doing things without too much pain, controversy or misery. If The Internet of Things is convenient and "cool" (cool meaning people like to use it with other people knowing they're using it, unlike the Segway) then what happens? Cool is very relevant actually. Cool makes things liveable.

There's a lot of talk and banter about security and surveillance but not talk about fun or family. There's loads of worry, some justified, some perhaps not, but not much looking to use the Internet of Things as a design tool for social good. I want to work with this not just to sense older people in a care home, but to play games, learn history or have a good conversation with someone I barely know. So yeah, this is how I learned to stop worrying, and learned to love the Internet of Things.