My problem with the “Internet Of Things”

Is the things.

Or to be more specific, the fetishisation of the things.

To be clear, I like things.

I even own some of them.

Also, my company enjoys making and selling things, and has plans to make and sell more.

However, in terms of the near-term future of technology – I’m not nearly as interested in making things as making spimes.

NEED SETUP

Spimes and the Internet Of Things get used interchangeably in discussion these days, but I think it’s worth making a distinction between things and spimes.

That distinction is of course best put by the coiner of the term, Bruce Sterling – in his book which is the cause of so much of this ruckus, “Shaping Things“.

I’m going to take three quotes defining the Spime from Shaping Things as picked out by Tristan Ferne in, coincidently, a post about Olinda.

“SPIMES are manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. SPIMES being and end as data. They are designed on screens, fabricated by digital means and precisely tracked through space and time throughout their earthly sojourn.” [Shaping Things, p.11]

“The key to the SPIME is identity. A SPIME is, by definition, the protaganist of a documented process. It is an historical entity with an accessible, precise trajectory through space and time.” [Shaping Things, p.77]

“In an age of SPIMES, the object is no longer an object, but an instantiation. My consumption patterns are worth so much that they underwrite my acts of consumption.” [Shaping Things, p. 79]

“…the object is no longer an object, but an instantiation” – this sticks with me.

A spime is an ongoing means, not an end, like a thing.

As I say, I enjoy things, and working in a company where there are real product designers (I am not one).

A while ago, back when people used to write comments on blogs, rather than just spambots, I wrote about the dematerialisation of product through the expansion of service-models into domains previously centred around product ownership.

It was partly inspired by Bruce’s last Viridian note, and John Thackara‘s writing on the subject amongst others.

But now I feel ‘Unproduct‘ is a bit one-sided.

The stuff I was struggling towards in negroponte switch has become more important.

The unmet (and often unstated) need for a physical ‘attention anchor’ or ‘service avatar’ as Mike Kuniavsky puts it in his excellent book ‘Smart Things‘.

Matter is important.

For Bryan Boyer

To which you quite rightly cry – “Well, duh!”

It is something we are attuned to as creatures evolved of a ‘middle world’.

It is something we invest emotion, value and memory in.

Also, a new language of product is possible, and important as the surface of larger systems.

Icebergs & Photons

I tried to pick at this with ‘Mujicomp‘.

A product design language for the tips of large service-icebergs: normalising legibility, fluent and thresholding.

Making beautiful seams.

Things that are clear, and evident – unmagical (magic implies opacity, occulting of meaning, mystery and hence a power-relationship) but delightful, humble, speaking-in-human, smart as a puppy.

And perhaps, just perhaps – by edging them toward being spimes, they can become fewer-in-number, better made, more adaptive to our needs and context, better at leaving our lives and being remade.

Another thing I’m re-evaluating are glowing rectangles.

I’ve long held somewhat of a [super]position that the more we can act and operate in and on-the-world rather than through a screen – the better.

I’m not sure it’s as clear as that anymore.

The technological and economic momentum of the glowing rectangle is such that, barring peak-indium or other yet-unseen black-swans getting in the way, personally-owned screens full of software and sensors reacting to a ‘dumb’ physical world seems to be a safer bet for near-to-mid-term futures, rather than ‘ubiquitous’ physical-computing based in the environment or municipal infrastructures.

A lot of friends are at an event right now called “Laptops & Looms”, debating exactly these topics.

Russell Davies, who organised it, wrote something recently that prompted this chain of thought, and I wish I could have been there to chat about this with him, as he’s usually got something wise to say on these matters.

Work commitments mean I can’t be there unfortunately, but I know they are querying and challenging some of the assumptions of the last decade of interaction design, technology and punditry as much as possible.

The hype about 3d printing, ubiquitous computing and augmented reality could really be grounded by the personal experiences of a lot of people attending the event, who know the reality of working within them – they have practical experience of the opportunities they afford and the constraints they present. I really hope that there will be lots to read and digest from it.

Personally, returning to the source of some of these thoguhts, Bruce’s Shaping Things – has been incredibly helpful. Just reminding oneself of the wikipedia clift-notes on Spimes has been galvanising.

Physical products are fantastic things to think about and attempt to design.

And, bloody hard to do well.

But a new type of product, a new type of thing that begins and ends in data, and is a thing only occasionally – this is possible too – along with new modes of consumption and commerce it may bring.

The network is as important to think about as the things.

The flows and the nodes. The systems and the surface. The means and the ends.

The phrase “Internet Of Things” will probably sound as silly to someone living in a spime-ridden future as 1990s visions of “Cyberspace”, as distinct realm we would ‘jack into’ seem to us now as we experience the mundane-yet-miraculous influence of internet-connected smartphones on our ‘real’ geographies.

In that sense it is useful – as a provocation, and a stimulus to think new thoughts about the technology around us. It just doesn’t capture my imagination in the same way as the Spime did.

You don’t have to agree. I don’t have to be right. There’s a reason I’ve posted it here on my blog rather than that of my company. This is probably a rambling rant useless to all but myself. It’s a bit of summing-up and setting-aside and starting again for me. This is going to be really hard and it isn’t going to be done by blogging about it, it’s going to be done by doing.

This is just what I what I want to help do. Still.

Better shut-up and get on with it.

12 comments
  1. I share the feeling—anything *new* tends to get translated to easyspeak beyond the early adopters. And that tends to bland things down. In that sense not unlike “Smart Cities” and a few other recent ideas.

    The phrase “Internet Of Things” will probably sound as silly to someone living in a spime-ridden future as 1990s visions of “Cyberspace”.

    Nail, meet head. Well done, sir.

  2. karl said:

    Meiosis.

    ps: I guess it is a short comment, but was triggered by “The flows and the nodes. The systems and the surface. The means and the ends.”

  3. Tom said:

    “My problem with the “Internet Of Things” Is the things… To be clear, I like things.”
    This reminds me of the way that I like people, but they are clearly the problem.

    Thanks for the post, I’m always interested in keeping up with where you guys are thinking. Good luck with the atoms… and with the data.

  4. “personally-owned screens full of software and sensors reacting to a ‘dumb’ physical world seems to be a safer bet for near-to-mid-term futures, rather than ‘ubiquitous’ physical-computing based in the environment or municipal infrastructures.”

    From my seat at ITP I keep seeing things that make me think that 2012 is going to be The Year of the DIY Smartphone Peripheral. There is finally a coherent story for how you plug in your Arduino to an iPhone and an Android and make apps that can have a hardware bit (or, depending on which way you lean, hardware that can borrow your glowing rectangle). I have one of these cables sitting on my nightstand waiting for me to have a day off: http://blog.makezine.com/archive/2011/07/59-cable-lets-you-connect-iphone-to-arduino-no-jailbreaking.html

    ITP-types want this so badly for everything they want to design. It answers the question of you put your personal sensor network on the net, how you make your Big Game a little bit more 8-bit, and how you make your fabbed iPhone case into a smart product.

    Don’t write off physical computing in this fight yet. I think The Rise of the Glowing Rectangles is actually going to raise it up along with it.

  5. Thanks for this rumination— really useful. At some point (if you have time) it would be great to hear you unfold your understanding of ‘instantiations’. I’m wondering if it moves close to Heidegger’s separation of ‘thing’ and ‘object’?

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