Connection is many things: friendship, education, love, etc. The conscious choice to disconnect is one that I made several years ago when I deleted my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Aside from everyone’s common complaint that those two platforms are frozen hellscapes of general endless-void-screaming over vegans/meat eaters/politics/wars/immigrants/religion/identity/celebrity break ups/internet memes, I felt (and still feel) that they added minimal value to my life relative to the percentage of mindshare that they consumed. Why expose myself to that mess? Similarly, like a lot of young and dumb kids fresh off to college I picked up a cigarette habit within weeks of the opening semester of freshman year. The addiction was intense but fortunately relatively short-lived as I realized just how stupid it was to not be able to process oxygen like, you know, everyone who didn’t smoke. Kicking the habit was hard and, over a decade later, there still are times when I find myself unintentionally walking just a bit too close to a passing American Spirit because second-hand smoke tastes delicious to my subconscious reptilian id. When I broke up with most of the social media landscape, it felt almost the same as quitting smoking. It was genuinely difficult and there was legitimate withdrawal. I also felt massive (unintentional) encouragement from my friends to rejoin when they used it for scheduling parties or when they asked if I had seen photos from the wedding of such-and-such to what’s-his-face. Every so often I log on to my wife’s profile just to see what’s happened while I’ve been gone: second-hand smoke for my social disconnection. It helps that I don’t even recognize the platforms anymore as an infinite army of UX/UI designer-commandos A/B tested each network’s interface to death and back since I left. While the rarely-turbulent Bahamian waters of Instagram and the utility that is the shipping port of LinkedIn still lure me in, I don’t miss cold Atlantic tweetstorms nor the floor of the Marianas Trench that is Facebook’s algorithmically-enhanced, ad-enabled social pressure. Those brief glimpses back through the window happen less and less frequently as time goes on and now often end with me slamming my wife’s phone back down on the table like it’s a rattlesnake.
This article is supposed to be about the Internet of Things. When are you going to write about IoT?
I’ll believe it when I see it.
In response to a recent article I posted about why IoT devices are suddenly flourishing, someone commented that I wrote a glorified listicle of reasons why it’s possible but that no one had yet presented compelling evidence that we should build a connected world. While I cannot say for certain if this person advocates for general technological disconnection, it is certainly a conceivable progression of thought based on that interaction. Despite my own misgivings related to the general permeation of technology in society, my first reaction was one of mild disbelief. How could someone not see the obvious increases in efficiency and utility enabled by IoT technologies? I sat down to write a response- a Powerful Listicle of Powerful Reasons Why Everything Should Have a Power Cable and an (Powered) Ethernet Port. It was going to be filled with stories of plant sensors and connected devices that enable dramatic increases in crop yields, the growing potential demonstrated by connected sanitation fixtures that help measure and improve human health in the developing world, and examples of how smart grid technology can dramatically increase overall energy efficiencies and thereby lower global fossil fuel consumption. I had data. It was going to be scientifically accurate and well-cited. This person would change their mind and would likely go out and buy an Alexa before connecting every light in their home to voice control. This person might even eschew their obvious decision to embrace the austerity of hyper-asceticism and join the ranks of those of us who occasionally eat bread for fun and listen to rock n’ roll music on the weekends! Yeah! YEAH! OH YEAHHHHH!
But then I wrote out the first paragraph and I realized that:
- This was basically a tweetstorm by another name.
- I didn’t really have any skin in the game within the context of that conversation.
- Efficiency and productivity data- especially when it’s data about energy consumption- is crushingly soulless.
So I stopped writing the uberlisticle and the tweetstorm died. I’m also here to tell you that a large portion of the clients with whom I work are heavily invested in IoT development or are engaged in IoT-adjacent/dependent industries. There is a strong likelihood that they are reading this article.
What about the third point?
Aren’t you still supposed to be writing about IoT devices?
…FINE, yes. You should know that Mom told me that she loves me more than you.
The answer is pretty simple: we should build IoT devices because they enable a more empathetic interaction with the Internet which is- for all our best efforts- still a weirdly stunted means of communication and information storage.
Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Internet as we know it circa 1989, gave us an incredible gift but it was never built to be a platform on which people lived out massive portions of their lives. The Internet was made to send digital messages from one end of CERN’s Swiss research campus to another and to be a way to efficiently consume academic literature. As the latent potential became manifest, we somehow forced the Internet to perform as something it was never intended to be: a lens onto humanity via the finger-smudged screen of a smartphone. As a society, we now let the Internet and its algorithms exert massive control over our lives yet these little lines of code, respected for their elegance and all-engrossing power, lack the sentience to actually understand their emotional and spiritual impact. Code does not modulate itself accordingly or care about what is best for us as people because code feels nothing; it simply mirrors us back to us using a bunch of interconnected wires and transistors. Like a craftsperson who fetishizes and oils heirloom-quality hand tools instead of making the furniture for which those tools were originally designed, we are obsessed with the Internet’s inherently infinite capacity to… be capacious. We persist in its use as it currently stands and, in turn, we are American-Spirit-addicted to the status quo.
That’s not to say that the Internet has no worth and is useless. Quite the opposite! Its infinite capacity is only exceeded by its even more infinite value. The utility it offers has unquestionably and dramatically improved the world. In a more accurate sense, our needs as a species have evolved beyond the Internet’s original design intent and constraints to the point where our interaction with the global web we weave now suffers.
When it’s done correctly, the Internet of Things represents an opportunity to level up our interactions with the Internet commensurate to the demands of the modern age. IoT technologies should become a seamless addendum to our lives and such innovations allow the unfeeling Internet to finally function as the instant processing tool that we need. An Internet of Things enables the Web to take the data from our actual breathing lives- not our digital footprints as interpolated by USB-and-Bluetooth-connected HID inputs– and process it intelligently before reconstituting it for our use. Well-designed IoT devices allow people to be people without all the extra fluff because there’s nothing else there- an IoT light switch turns on the light (hopefully) better than a normal light switch but it still just turns on the light. Even Alexa-like devices built to allow for more comprehensive human contact do not convey the cacophony of the Internet and do not suffer from the forcing and intent problem. Will that change over time as technology evolves? Unquestionably. There will be people and companies who dream up IoT-based ways to consume our attention by recombining our data into new and interesting morphologies.
In the interim, we should lead by example and make better stuff that respects our humanity. It’s only by pursuing this path that we can hope to influence the development of that which comes next.
We now stand at a precipice on the edge of the future. On one side, there is the Internet as we know it today but more and more of it is filled with the type of forcing that we’ve built over the last forty years. On the other is an Internet that is mediated by highly specialized things that are limited as a feature and by design. These devices allow us to live our lives as we want to live them. They hum about in the background and contribute to our existence without demanding adulterated human input from us and they are pleasantly reactionary while also highly responsive. Either future is possible. One of those futures makes me sad and the other feels useful. It’s important that we make intelligent decisions about IoT and how it shapes society now as opposed to another forty years from today when we find out that we’ve been limited to painting in black and white and there’s actually an entire spectrum of light and color for our use. It’s high time for both humanity and the Internet to evolve. IoT, when done right, allows that evolution to happen.
So, dear Person, that’s why we need IoT.