Design Internet of Things Technology

In praise of boring objects

Or how the shape of the Internet of Things will be decided inside your toasters and washing machines…

This piece was originally written for the Things conference in Berlin in May 2014. It was originally posted on Medium.

Unlike the moral universe, the long arc of technology curves not towards justice, but boredom. And—at one level at least—it’s boredom that we aspire to.

We might initially thrill at a world of new functionality, new abilities and new super-powers, but we also want and expect that initial strangeness and magic to be gradually digested down into the substrate of our lives — becoming a part of the infrastructure and background of our world, barely visible, unacknowledged, almost natural.

It only takes a moment to see how uncomfortable we are with the insane, sustained complexity of the world we inhabit. Simply look around and attempt to imagine the origins and histories—the family trees—of all the products, services and objects that you can see. When you do, the spiralling complexity of it all is enough to give you vertigo.

Each thing you glance towards started with the mining of minerals in far-off lands, the harvesting of crops, the breeding and culling of animals, the processing of materials, complex machinery that grids and boils and melts and refashions. In parallel, each object has an intellectual history – reaching back across the creative labour of two thousand years worth of thinkers whose work brought us to steam, electricity, resistors, computers. Material history and scientific progress are brought together in designs on computers or sketch pads, with human hands and minds stretched across the planet, co-ordinating a collision of components from which emerge functionality, form and colour. Still more diverse people across the planet are involved in the polishing, packaging and distribution of these things, before the great ships cross the seas or trace lines across the sky, carrying these objects and materials to new homes. Finally, these objects are arranged in all their staggering overlapping complexity on the street in front of you, or the office in which you work, or the home that you love — by thousands of interconnected yet independent individuals — each object bringing new abilities into the world and into your life, making things possible that were never possible before.

So why don’t we choose to live in this world of magic and wonder all the time? Why don’t we choose to be continually surprised and stimulated by the intricate patterns formed in every direction, stretching off into the distance? Why instead do we let that complexity disappear, dissolve into our daily experience? The answer is simple — because it would be overwhelming. There’s only so much space for magic and weirdness in our lives and we reserve that space for the immediately strange, or dangerous or novel.

The small amount of drama that we’re able to deal with each day is just a sliver, shiny brightly on the water. The great invisible iceberg under the ocean is the realm of the useful, of the everyday, of the objects that don’t continually push themselves front of mind, and that’s where products and services must eventually aim if they are to be fully integrated into our lives.

It’s an exciting time to be involved in the Internet of Things. It’s been almost thirty years since people started hypothesizing about a world of ubiquitous and pervasive computation, and twenty since the first toasters and coffee pots were connected to the internet. Over that time we’ve seen endless playful experiments and explorations of how objects might connect to each other and to us in thrilling new combinations of object + computation + network. But almost none of this work has reached the general public.

Only now is that starting to change, and fundamentally that’s because evolving technologies and interaction patterns have reached a sufficient level of maturity to finally let the potential unfold. You can see it everywhere — in the pervasive internet access that now spreads across the airwaves, in cheap networking components, in tiny computers stamped out by the millions and available for pennies, and in new interfaces in everyone’s pockets through which devices and appliances can be better controlled and understood. The world of the near future now looks like a place where every object can be connected to the network cheaply and easily. Finally it seems like the Internet of Things is ready to go mainstream.

More interestingly, this new generation of Internet of Things ideas seems qualitatively different from those that came before – they’re more in tune with the deeper affordances of the Internet. One very significant move has been the layering of the concept of multiple user accounts onto physical items — a now banal element of most web services is transformative when layered onto physical objects or spaces. Zipcar alone shows how some of the affordances of web services have the power to change how we interact with physical objects completely. A car is no longer an object that is owned, but a service that you can commission or spin up as needed.

And instead of adding great chunks of immediately out-of-date hardware into appliances with decade-long replacement cycles, much more of the intelligence is being abstracted out onto the network. To use a biological analogy, the objects themselves increasingly contain only eyeballs (sensors) and muscles (actuators). The nervous system and the brain are now elsewhere, abstracted out into the cloud, where they can be built upon and enhanced over the lifetime of a product. This service layer is becoming ever more as important as the physical object itself.

But for me the most important change is the move from IoT concept cars and interaction design experiments to a new world where the things we’re building are simply, cleanly useful. This latest generation of objects no longer ‘perform’ the internet—they’re not laden with touchscreens or web browsers or e-mail clients. They are instead just using the network to make better light switches, fridges and dishwashers — things that just make people’s lives a bit better.

Nest’s smoke alarms and thermostats are among the first of this new breed of products that are not simply concerned with showing off and instead are fundamentally concerned with making better objects using the network as a material. And other manufacturers are starting to follow in their wake, with large companies that produce every kind of appliance in the home, office or wider world starting to wake up to the possibilities. This is new, and as far as I’m concerned it constitutes the largest and most significant shift that we’ve seen in IoT for years.

These companies are looking for simple life-enhancing benefits from connected objects — whether it’s the tumble drier that turns on when you leave the house, the lights that turn down in any room you’re not occupying, or the fridge that informs you if it’s malfunctioning and schedules a service automatically. They’re looking at the clear value in the more effective management of energy across smart grids. They’re looking at ways to protect users from theft by making objects that simply stop working when they are stolen. And they’re looking at the new business models that become possible when you find new ways to share objects — whether it be the local home improvement tools that can be used by people only when they need them, through to appliances that you don’t buy but pay for by the use.

It’s everyday things like this that will get the Internet of Things out into the world. But it won’t happen by itself. Large appliance companies are no more able to turn their appliances into services than web technologists and service designers are able to assemble fridge-freezers out of JSON and iPhone apps. As never before, manufacturers and online service designers need to collaborate to build something collectively that is genuinely new — simple, useful, networked products that bring genuine value to people’s lives. And we need to help that collaboration happen, reaching out to each other as we do so, if we’re really going to make a world of useful, networked smart objects.

And that is the goal — a planet of objects writing and responding to the network, knitting themselves together in a new pervasive infrastructure that opens up endless new possibilities for all of us. That may sound like a leap for a discipline currently focused on super-evolved toasters and conversational light-switches, but think for a moment about where we go next.

The stage beyond this one is full of latent burgeoning potential that we cannot tap—or potentially even understand—until the network is pervasively woven into the world. Just as the social network couldn’t happen until enough people were online to make it interesting or useful, so new categories of services will start to appear as more and more objects come online.

In the near future, the world we’re building together is fundamentally about ovens and dishwashers, parking meters and water pumps. But the services we build today for our cars and phones and robot vacuum cleaners are together forming the bedrock for a tomorrow that (from here) seems much less predictable and far more exotic. The smart thermostat and the car-sharing services you use today are test-beds for the next fifty years, and the ideas we build into them now will unfold in fascinating ways that could have huge implications on everything from public space to the very concepts of ownership and sharing. Fundamentally, in our work today we’re starting the process of blending the physical territory of the world and the digital map of the world into something that becomes better than either could be by itself. Perhaps even one where the distinctions between the two no longer seem relevant or useful.

By the time we get there, it may all seem very obvious, prosaic and — grudgingly we can admit — probably profoundly useful. But for the moment this sliver of light on the water is unknown, untapped, unprocessed and fascinatingly weird and new. And we have time to appreciate that wonder, to taste it, to bring form and shape to it, to dream and argue about it, even as we day by day build towards it. The future, at its best, is a site of endless potential and change. And while in the end, technology might tend towards boredom, the creative joy is getting there.

This piece was originally written for a free publiction given out at the Things Conference hosted in Berlin in May 2014.