“I Am Seeing Things”. Or not.

I have had many conversations over the past few years about “the internet of things” – giving any object an ability to communicate, a specific URL and putting it online – particularly with Tony Hall and Martha LaGess; their interest lay in particular in what the internet of things might mean for cities and society – a kind of “quantified self” for buildings and social structures.

I don’t get it. (Actually, I get neither the internet of things nor the quantified self!) But that makes it interesting. So when I learned about I Am Seeing Things a few weeks ago, I signed up.

It was an interesting day, though in some ways it didn’t live up to expectations: the papers were not as focused on the internet of things as I had expected, and there was a fair bit of academic dissociation from reality. (But hey, it was a symposium held in a university – clearly my expectations were off-kilter!) There was a lovely moment when one of the organisers described playing with augmented reality apps on his phone in the park; he turned to his companion, expecting her to react like ecstatic characters in a Vodafone ad – but instead she said, “You’re a sad little man!”, demonstrating the gap between virtual and physical reality!

I think that gap is crucial. There are some neat tricks one can do – or experience – by connecting everything to the internet: the ToTEM project allows people to record their stories about objects, linked by a QR code, for instance – every object could have a narrative, adding to the way one experiences the object. But fundamentally I think most people respond with a huge “so what”, and get on with their lives.

There is also something a bit too exclusive about it all – a bit too “clever-clever”: partly this is down to the use of QR codes, which I feel is currently limiting – users have to be pretty interested already to use QR codes, and you are excluding anyone who frankly can’t be bothered to download an app or find out what the pretty chessboard patterns actually mean. (As an example of how bizarrely dissociated from reality people that use this stuff – mainly marketeers, I guess – can be, I saw an advert in last week’s “The Economist” for IMD. It contained a QR code – and they want you to download an IMD-specific app to your phone, then scan the code and see what happens. Because that is so much easier than just, say, providing a URL. I mean, FFS! It’s not just me that thinks so, either.)

You are also adding to the work people have to do to get at your object, story, information or other experience – in effect pushing them away, rather than bringing them in. (As you probably noticed, I don’t really get QR codes…)

There were several interesting presentations, though some seemed only tangentally connected to the internet of things.

My reaction to Mark Shepard‘s vision for the Sentient City veered from “so what” to out and out paranoia as the ability to track things through the physical world (the internet of things apparently started up as a way to better manage logistics, using items tagged with RFID transmitters) turns into a Orwellian surveillance nightmare. The smart city could seem more like a prison than we would care to admit.

Mike Philips talked about using sensors or “ecoids” – Arduino-like systems – within the environment, detecting and managing dynamic systems: pollution, for instance, or the internal environment within a building. Such systems interact with people already – the nature of a building depends on the people using it – and tying in active monitors allows greater control and management. Including biological data from personal sensors – an extension of the “quantified self” extends the person into the environment: we are already part of the environment, not separate from it (and as Philips pointed out, we are ourselves environments for significant number of organisms – we contain more cells of bacterial than human origin!), and becoming part of the internet itself is perhaps the next step. Perhaps…

“Things” can take on a different meaning when they are connected. Chris Speed discussed how attaching stories to objects changes them. Using QR codes and the internet so that any object has its own URL, meaning can be stored in a readable database: objects can be tagged with meaning, and they can tell their own stories. (But they don’t: the stories are stored in a database; we put them there, we retrieve them; the objects are and always will be inanimate. It is our stories and our meaning we associate with them.) He reckoned this changes the value in objects – though of course this has been the case for valuable objects forever: a painting with known provenance is more valuable than one without. Most things don’t have stories attached to them – they are purely utility – and I’ll admit to remaining pretty sceptical of this.

Maria Burke and Irene Ng both took a business-view of value (a broad term!) and the internet of things: what it means for the value chain. This was a fascinating, hard-headed take on TIoT: what difference it could actually make in the way people do business. Value depends on context (as Speed had pointed out): connecting things to the internet changes both the value proposition and the relationship to the object. Value becomes more of the moment – an digitised object may have no intrinsic value until it is used, pushing value down the value chain. With the proliferation of mobile services, value becomes “on demand”.

Mike Crang took this one step further by following objects through their life to destruction and salvage. This was fascinating – the way objects become incorporated into others, attract meaning and stories (“social biographies”), and change and are destroyed. The meaning remains – “ghost stories” (or as Craig put it, “the afterlife of things”). Despite being the most functional of processes, there was real poetry here. Some people don’t want their objects to have stories or history – in the market for second hand clothes, one doesn’t normally want to know the history of the bra you’re wearing (unless it was worn by Madonna or Monroe!). But at the end of their lives, even waste materials can attract value from thoses who have been part of their history: naval vessels being scrapped attract souvenir hunters, often those who have sailed in them. Almost any removeable part can have value.

Throughout the day, inanimate objects on the internet of things seemed to develop their own identities and personalities: we anthropomorphise our objects in relation to ourselves. When discussing the internet of things, people talk about the objects tweeting, for instance. They’re not: a computer sensor, programmed to respond (still anthropomorhising…) in specific ways to particular conditions or data is doing just that. It is possible to have “Death” of an object is part of an natural (re-)cycle. But on the internet of things, the dead objects survive as digital ghosts.

Addendum: Tony Hall has directed me to this download on the internet of things: a critique [pdf] – which looks interesting!

(I also liked the artworks demonstrated by Torsten Lauschmann and Geoff Mann – but it was hard to see how they fitted into the internet of things: rather, they struck me as being digital art. I missed the connection. But here are a couple of works I enjoyed:

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