Connecting our world: thoughts on the internet of things

On Tuesday I gave a presentation to some students of the MA Cultural Policy & Management course at City University in London, at the invitation of Charlotte Troy, who is a lecturer on the course. When she asked me to do this talk, I wasn’t quite sure initially what I should talk about – but then given that it was about culture, I thought it would be interesting and hopefully useful to speak about what is one of my long-abiding passions – the internet of things, and the relationship between digital and analog, and how they influence our culture today.

Most of what is in the presentation will be very familiar to most readers of this blog – keep in mind that the audience were students who aren’s as familiar with these concepts as I am (in fact I had to keep reminding myself of this, as I kept worrying it was too simplistic). What follows is a transcript of my talk, with slides below.

The phrase ‘internet of things‘ or IoT as it is popularly known, started being used around 1999, and is said to have been created by a technical engineer called Kevin Ashton at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the US , who was at the time working on RFID and other sensor technology – the technology which as most of you probably know, is what activates day-to-day objects like our Oyster cards.

Of course, people had started speculating back in the 60’s and 70’s about what a future controlled by the internet would look like. Take a look at this video.

I was at a conference recently where there were a number of speakers who seemed disappointed that we hadn’t reached the stage in our evolution where we were riding about in giant robot cars, probably the next stage of this video if it was ever made! – but I think the fact that a fair amount of that vision is actually true – online shopping, filing taxes online, and so on, is pretty cool. More importantly it is now something we don’t even think about.

So from merely a network of computers, technology has evolved to the point where products talk to us and to each other. Kevin Kelly is one of my favourite authors on the subject of technology. If you haven’t read his book ‘What Technology Wants’, you absolutely should. He was the founder of Wired Magazine, and prior to that the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, which chronicled interesting technical and cultural stuff happening in the 80’s. He says that the internet exhibits some ‘lifelike qualities’, even if it isn’t alive itself. And that’s where the internet of things comes into play.

Mark Weiser was the chief scientist at Xerox PARC in the US and he’s considered to be the father of the phrase ‘ubiquitous computing‘ – a phenomenon rather similar to the internet of things which envisages machines as being so integrated into our day-to-day lives that we don’t even notice it. And this is a quote of his that I love.

So why should we be thinking of the internet of things anyway?

Metcalfe’s Law states that the power of a telecommunications network is proportional to the square of the number of people who use it. We’re not talking about a network of people here (i.e not Facebook), but a network of things – devices. And the internet of things is extremely valuable now and will be even more in the future, because of the amount of data that connected objects will produce.

There are lots of people and companies who are taking the internet of things seriously. Google started giving people access to a free monitoring tool that told people how much energy they were using in their homes back in 2009. Earlier this year, they retired the project, but they launched a new one code-named Project Tungsten or Android@Home, which will use the Android Software Development Kit to ‘talk’ to things like dishwashers and washing machines in your house.

In 2005, a company called BERG built the Availabot which is a toy that tells you when any of your friends is available to chat online, when it’s connected to your computer. If your friend is offline, it’s falls down, and when she is online, it pops up. Lots of fun.

And then there’s Baker Tweet, which is a box in a bakery that sends information wirelessly to Twitter. So whenever fresh bread comes out of the oven, it tweets that information and if you follow the account on Twitter, you can be there to make sure you get it.

And Frstee, again launched just last month, where a Christmas snowman decoration for your tree will be created based on the number of followers you have on Twitter. So the more followers you have, your snowman will have a bigger head and so on.

But it’s not all about fun, it’s utility too (and more importantly!). Last year, a company called Tinker ran a project called Homesense – where they gave a few households this technology called Arduino, which each family then used to communicate with objects in various ways. One family built this board that told them which Boris Bike docking stations around their house had more than 5 bikes when they were leaving the house, by connecting it to the data that Transport for London provide.

There’s also a company called Pachube, which takes the data you provide from devices and provides the infrastructure to make sense of it. In this example, real-time radiation-level readings are fed into Pachube from over 200 sensors scattered across the country, and plotted on a common Google Map. Any individual or institution is free to connect their meters to the network, and they do.

And brands are monetizing it too, of course. Nike+ is one of my favourite examples, even if it is vastly overused. I’m sort of biased though because I used to work there! – where a small chip in your shoe can help you track how often and long you run, and make you a part of a global community of runners. What Nike did was take this information that you were generating anyway, and work with Apple to make sense of it.

There are plenty of devices and brands that track your physical activity now, but one I am most excited about is called Jawbone UP, launched just last month or so, which doesn’t track just what you do, but what you eat, how long you sleep and so on – the idea of course being to make a better, fitter you.

Objects can also have memories. Howie’s is a brand that a couple of years ago was talked about because it included a label on its products that mentioned who previous owners were, leaving a story trail of sorts. But with RFID tags you can make clothes have a digital life too. Oxfam is a brand that has these tags on its products sometimes – and in the process is able to raise a huge amount for charity, because people will always be curious about who owned that thing you bought before you did.

In this vein, Tales of Things is a £1.39 million research project funded by the Digital Economy Research Council in the UK, and a collaboration between Brunel University, Edinburgh College of Art, University College London, University of Dundee and the University of Salford.

There’s also utility – the Roomba is a robot vacuum that cleans your house with no help from you. But it becomes an internet-connected object when someone connects it to the web, and makes it tweet. So it tells you when it is going to dock because it is out of charge, and when it is at work and so on.

And GlowCaps can help elderly people remember that they need to take their medicine – potentially a life-saving thing. They flash when you forget to take them, send a message to your phone, send updates to a nominated family member or friend, order refills and send updates to your doctor about your medicine intake.

But as with anything good, there is the potential of evil. There are issues we need to consider before backing it wholeheartedly. CCTV, for example, and the accompanying issues of privacy. But it doesn’t need to be that way. Science fiction author David Brin painted a picture of 2 cities, one of which was a 1984-like scenario, and the other a more conscientious one, though both had the same level of access to data. We need to think about the responsibilities that come with the power of technology. And how this changes our culture, and what our values are.


Massive thanks to Charlotte, and Paul Sims from Made by Many who got us in touch.


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