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 04

Take 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.