the thing about the Internet of Things


thingsWired makes a yeoman’s effort at turning a basically boring Pew report about the Internet of Things into something worth wringing your hands over. If you actually read the report, the experts seem much less worried (and quite a bit less compelling) than Wired wants us to think.

Partly this is because only a few of them seem to know much about it. There are a lot of very impressive people on the list of respondents, but at a glance they seem to mostly be drawn from the Internet’s Elder Statesperson class. And this IoT business has less to do with the internet than the name implies–it’s really about hardware, sensors and microcontrollers. So we wind up with some warmed-over and implausible futurism from the guy who runs the Webbys.

I think the milquetoast ambivalence flows from this: we understand what we’re facing. We’ve been at this industrial revolution business for a while now, and it’s mostly apparent how it works. We’ve all lived through the advent and democratization of various manufactured technological conveniences, and we are confident both of their steady pace and their limited capacity for delivering transcendence. Consumerism: we get it.

This was not the case with software! Infinite abundance, communication and human potential — you could tell a really amazing (and, alas, often overblown) story about what this would mean for all sorts of social institutions. Something truly new was happening, emergent forces were emerging, and nobody could tell how it was going to end. It was unclear why your boss was paying for you to get drunk at SXSWi but he was and it was awesome and everything was surely about to change.

This is not the case with the Internet of Things. With the exceptions of miniaturized-yet-affordable PCB manufacturing and solid state accelerometers, most of the central technologies have been achievable for a while. They just haven’t been used. For example, the idea of a home thermostat you can set from your office is sort of neat, but such products have existed for decades. Why are we excited about this now? Well, prices have dropped, the gadget-purchasing habit has been solidified, and control interfaces have improved (thanks, smartphones). Ubiquity is newly practical.

But we still don’t have many really compelling stories about what it’s all going to do for us. The benefits to these use cases are known, or at least can be imagined. It’s nice to have a door open itself for you or an alarm clock that knows when you’re sleepy, but how much is it really worth? We’ve been able to network appliances for quite a while. We did it a long time ago for cardiac monitors in hospitals, because in that application it’s worth the money. Giving your fridge an IPv6 address? We can certainly do it, and we probably will. But don’t kid yourself about the scale of the benefits that will flow from this innovation.

(One exception: the quantified self movement *does* have a bunch of compelling stories about gigantic improvements to health that careful self-measurement can deliver. Given the enormous amounts of money we invest in not-very-effective healthcare interventions, it seems safe to say that if this idea could deliver a fraction of what it’s being used to promise, our failure to implement it already would represent one of the greatest market failures in history.)

I love playing around with hardware, so don’t mistake my skepticism about IoT futurism for a lack of enthusiasm. Filling the objects around us with dancing grains of sand that we’ve etched with runes and whispers of ions, so that they might ceaselessly observe and manipulate the environment for our convenience: I think that’s a lovely thing for a species to do, and often a pretty fun art project. And I suppose emergent network effects are always possible. Seems a little far-fetched to me, though, at least so long as we’re mostly talking about thermostats and pedometers. But my imagination is admittedly terrible.

I’ll boil it down to a few things, I guess:

  • The adoption of ubiquitous computing is a function of physical technology’s ever-falling price versus the benefit it confers. There are many applications enabled by lower prices that are just now achieving market viability. But that’s because their benefit is meager, not because the tech was impossibly pricey. This may not be universally true, but it’s probably true for the anticipated uses that are currently being used to sell this phenomenon: quantified self and home automation.
  • Concerns about maintaining the software in a zillion different devices seem legit (though people are underestimating just how awful embedded tech can get away with being, and overestimating both the incentives facing bad actors and the threat surface present on devices that are designed to be *extremely* limited). Partly for this reason, functions will continue to accrue to your phone whenever possible (we’re running low on compelling sensors at the moment, but IR photography and laser rangefinding might sell some iPhones). Some will try to achieve a profitable, lock-in-driven business through proprietary solutions to this headache, but I doubt they’ll succeed.
  • The most interesting questions surrounding these issues concern transhumanism.

UPDATE: You know, I did leave off one huge thing–the sharing economy (with apologies to Tom Slee). Uber, Bixi, AirBnB–using technology for access control really is only recently possible, thanks to the evolution of IT payment and identity systems. And it really can make our collective use of property hugely different and better.

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Tom Lee
By Tom Lee