What do we mean when we talk about the 'Internet of Things'? Is it limited to networked thermostats, connected fitness monitors and door locks we control with our phones, or is it more? In this article, we will look at IoT from a more holistic perspective and understand why it is so important in the emerging landscape of artificial intelligence (AI).
Something flows above IoT
We’ve been talking about the Internet of Things (IoT) for so long, it is no longer interesting. Everything that is connected somehow is called IoT. The ‘fridge with a chip’ has become IoT. But this is merely one, tiny aspect of what IoT could truly be. The vast creative space that IoT brings about is instead being reduced to convenient household appliances that follow a specific set of rules. But luckily, something still flows above. This article focuses on the physical world, how we interact with it, and the role that technology plays.
Often when we talk about the pioneers of technological innovation, we think of Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, or Mark Andriessen, the founder of Netscape, once a dominant web browser. But the true honor goes to creative digital technologists like Douglas Carl Engelbart, Ted Nelson and Jaron Lanier. They are the real innovators who were – sometimes decades – ahead of their time.
Let’s first go back in time to, say, fifteen years before planes actually started to fly. True innovators were already envisioning the cultural and business implications of being able to fly from, for example, London to Paris. This is the right mindset with which to deal with technology. We must design and develop before things actually exist, before the creative space becomes limited. By the time the invention is ‘in the air’, most of the creative energy has been pigeonholed by rules and restrictions.
Back in the days
Douglas Carl Engelbart was a computer and Internet pioneer. At ‘The Mother of All Demos’ (1), a 90-minute computer demonstration in 1968, he essentially demonstrated almost all the fundamental elements of modern personal computing: windows, hypertext, graphics, efficient navigation and command input, video conferencing, the mouse, word processing, dynamic file linking, revision control, and a collaborative real-time editor (collaborative work). An amazing moment in this demonstration was a real-time, rather high quality, video conference call with someone 30 miles away. Skype already existed in 1968! This man invented so many concepts for the things we use today. Unfortunately, he doesn’t get much credit for that.
Ted Nelson is an American philosopher, sociologist, and pioneer of information technology. He coined the terms ‘hypertext’ and ‘hypermedia’ in 1963 and published them in 1965. In his book, Computer Lib / Dream Machines (1974), he documents his life project, ‘Xanadu’ (2). Project Xanadu is an attempt to create a computer network with a simple user interface. The project itself was not successful. A Wired journalist called it the “the longest running ‘vaporware’ project in the history of computing". But it is fascinating how Nelson imagined what the Internet could and can be. If we had not created a different reality, tech-nerds might worship Nelson. Instead, his name is fairly unknown.
Eventually, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web (the web), but in a different and more simplified way than Nelson imagined it: “HTML is precisely what we were trying to PREVENT— ever-breaking links, links going outward only, quotes you can’t follow to their origins, no version management, no rights management,” Nelson said. Yet the concept of the web caught fire – perhaps just due to great timing or excellent marketing – and Berners-Lee is credited with having an ‘innovative’ idea more than 30 years after it was first discussed.
Jaron Lanier clarified why Nelson’s view was actually far more innovative than Berners-Lee’s: “A core technical difference between a Nelsonian network and what we have become familiar with online is that Nelson’s network links were two-way instead of one-way. In a network with two-way links, each node knows what other nodes are linked to it. Two-way linking would preserve context. It’s a small simple change in how online information should be stored that couldn’t have vaster implications for culture and the economy.” Unfortunately, we’ll likely never know.
Why are Engelbart and Nelson so important? Because they were working on something that truly didn’t exist. They were imagining how the Internet ideally could be and can be, also considering its social implications. They had a radical vision that is, in fact, superior to our current reality. And yet, they are largely ignored by the masses.
Visionaries like Engelbart and Nelson often cite fiction in their explanation of reality. Fiction like Flatland, which explains how can you visualize other dimensions than the three you live in, as a reference and source of inspiration.
Engelbart and Nelson imagined an ideal Internet, and considered its social implications. Their radical vision was superior to our reality.
In the Victorian era, Edwin Abbott wrote the satirical novella Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. A mathematical adventure set in a two-dimensional world (3). The world is populated by a hierarchical society of regular geometrical figures who think, speak, and have human emotions. By imagining the impact of contact with beings from different dimensions, the author fully exploited the power of the analogy between the limitations of humans and those of his two-dimensional characters. He laid bare the pitfalls of limiting our view to the reality of the world we know.
It seems likely that visionaries appreciate these stories because they explore the possibility, or from a mathematical perspective the probability, of multiple dimensions. Computer technology works much the same way. The world is just an interaction of things, and we can capture that and simulate it with a computer. But when we allow our imaginations to take us to other dimensions, entirely new worlds open up, and we can use technology to transport ourselves there.
Into the vapor
Back in the 1970s, ideas like what hyperlinking meant and how we could solve copyright problems already existed. Nelson even conceptually solved the whole copying issue that is so essential and at the same time problematic for the Internet. Meanwhile, other people did great work from a business perspective, bringing all this to the people. But in doing this, these brilliant ideas from Nelson and others got lost. Nelson invented the concept of a hyperlink, but was not really credited for this. TCP-IP and WWW was the way the Internet was brought to the people. Great work from a business perspective, but slowly we started to limit ourselves in all the opportunities and possibilities that might have been. That is the downside. The nearly limitless power of the concept of the Internet was bound and limited by our own creation of the reality of the Internet.
Naturally, this kind of imaginative thinking draws opposition. People accuse Nelson and his peers of creating ‘vaporware’ – advertisements for innovations that will never come to be. Instead, perhaps we should have more faith that our vision of the impossible could one day become a reality.
Humans have a natural tendency to put things into boxes. But there is a lot happening in the world of IoT, most of it outside of the box. Unfortunately, IoT conferences primarily focus on what is happening inside the box. It’s much safer in there. If we wish to truly harness the power of IoT, then we have to think much, much more broadly than a chip in the fridge. We have to take the chip out of the equation entirely. But that requires us to paddle against the current of conventional thinking, and dream of worlds that have never existed.
IoT has become a box: ‘how can we get a chip in the thing?’ It limits our imagination.
Embracing mass mediocrity
Digital guru and Virtual Reality pioneer Jaron Lanier is fighting a battle against mass mediocrity. In his manifesto, You are Not a Gadget (4), Lanier describes how the Internet is killing personal interaction, stifling genuine inventiveness, and changing people. Things seem to have gone wrong around the start of the 21st century. The crowd holds all the wisdom. And social networks have replaced individual creativity.
Lanier criticizes what he perceives to be the ‘hive mentality’ of Web 2.0 (the wisdom of the crowd). He describes the open source and open content expropriation of intellectual production as a form of ‘Digital Maoism’. He argues that Web 2.0 developments have slowed progress and innovation, and have glorified the collective at the expense of the individual.
But open source and content are not without their limitations. After all, they cannot actually create anything that is truly new and innovative. The open source movement didn’t create the iPhone, Lanier argues. Creative people did.
The social implications get even bigger over time. They lead us to disasters. Take Uber, for example. In addition to undermining the role of traditional taxi drivers, Uber has created a new generation of highly underpaid drivers. Not to mention the various scandals in which Uber has been involved. AirBnB is another example of tech-driven moral decline. What began as a nice social platform to help travellers get to know a city better, has become responsible for the decline and erosion of authentic city life.
These kind of platforms are not for the human good. Lanier recognizes this as a problem. They certainly limit the imagination. If we are truly ready to allow technology to guide us, then we must remove all of the rules and develop entirely new concepts.
Web 2.0 developments have slowed progress and innovation and glorified the collective at the expense of the individual.Jaron Lanier
The Hidden Life of Trees
Back to IoT. We already concluded that it primarily exists inside of a box of our own creation. Today, when we talk about IoT, the conversation mostly revolves around how to get a chip inside some household object. This is a problem since IoT, the connected world, is outside of the box. We are limiting our own imaginations by only thinking in chips. What about technology that extends beyond what we can see, touch and swipe?
Let’s take a closer look at The Hidden Life of Trees. Peter Wohlleben considers the forest to be a social network (5). Trees are like human families. Tree ‘parents’ live together with their ‘children’, communicate with them, support them as they grow, share nutrients with those who are sick or struggling, and even warn each other of impending dangers. He explains the amazing processes of life, death, and regeneration he has observed in his woodland.
This anthropology of the forest provides us with a more holistic perspective on IoT. Trees communicate with each other using scent and electricity. Ways that are tangible and measurable. The question should therefore be this: how do we get information from the worlds outside, without necessarily implementing a chip? How can we reduce the chip’s reign over the domain of IoT? What other senses can we stimulate with technology that can enrich and expand our world?
Designing the non-existent
What if designers focused on designing artifacts that only existed in their imaginations? In Speculative Everything, Anthony Dunne and Fiona Raby propose a kind of design that is used to create not only things, but ideas (6). For them, design is a means of speculating about how things could be to imagine possible futures. Their concern is not to design products to be sent out into a slightly uncertain future, but rather to imagine how that future might be entirely different. They contend that if we speculate more - about everything - reality will become more malleable. The result is a series of scenarios that help to illuminate moral, ethical, political and aesthetic problems. Often, these tools can be used to solve wickedly complicated problems. Think, for example, about climate change.
So let’s apply the principles of design fiction to IoT. What opportunities are possible beyond the possibilities of the chip? The key here is to shed all the preconceived concepts of previous inventions, and start imagining whole new worlds of innovation, with your imagination as the only guide.
The confines of the chip mentality
Imagine: An old man with Alzheimer’s disease and a young, smart lady. They both want go to a museum. They live on the same street. She knows where to go by heart. He used to know where to go, but doesn’t remember anymore. It is safe to say she has more cognitive capabilities than he has. If you get the man a smartwatch, this could easily show him where to go. The smartwatch becomes an extension of the brain, and ensures that the two people are basically equal again. At least, in the context of mobility and way-finding.
Thinking outside the box takes things a significant step further. How can we enrich the environment to not only make the old man equal to the young woman, but to make him even more capable? These kind of questions are relevant. Much more relevant than the question of whether we can implement a chip in a thing.
Developing IoT focusing only on the chip is called ‘telemetric bias’. Telemetric bias is the belief that equipping an existing product with a sensor makes it part of the IoT. Imagine that you’re working on an IoT project. The first question you might ask is, ‘what can we measure?’ or perhaps, ‘what is the telemetric value?’. Despite all the awesome ideas you might come up with, you are limiting yourself with telemetric bias. You are thinking about extending the IoT world by just focusing on the value that the chip can bring you.
Taking a more holistic perspective, IoT can act as an extension of your brain, or the ‘brain of the cloud’ if you will. Touching, seeing, hearing and tasting. Machines have more layers and possibilities when it comes to sensing. However, these opportunities are not being used to learn about the environment and to make our lives better.
So, in our earlier metaphor, the old man is the observer and the smartwatch is the cloud. What kinds of capabilities and programs could we load up into that smartwatch to ensure that the man’s Alzheimer’s was no longer a hindrance to his existence? AI should also be approached from this point of view: ways in which we can sense the environment and create smarter solutions. In the end, it is not about AI itself, but about Unleashing Artificial Smartness (7). Paul Versteeg’s article in this magazine discusses this in much detail.
Erase the boundaries
You’ve just been bombarded with a lot of information, examples, stories and ideas. What should you do with all of it? Identify the limitations of working with ‘the chip’. Not your personal limitations, but the limitations of the domain in which you are working. The limits created when we set standards and make rules. When someone talks about IoT, bear in mind that IoT is not only this chip.
Therefore, the next question is: how can we figure out how much more we can do? It is such a new field and there are so many technologies that offer us so many opportunities to improve the world. It makes the entire concept of IoT brand-new again, and not at all boring. Who cares about the connected fridge? Start thinking about the connected brain.
What do you need to do to spark that kind of imagination? Read crazy science fiction and the works of technological and philosophical visionaries. Listen to the innovators on the fringes of the tech world, instead of the ones riding the wave of trends. They may say very weird stuff, but when you consider the context, it will help you to make better and more successful designs.
So much of the soul has been removed from discussions about IoT, that it’s not even interesting anymore. It has become a box, a chip in a thing.
What IoT is – or should be – about is creating innovations that sense the environment, entice all of our human senses, and make our lives better. Sound like science fiction? Then you better get to work.
1. Engelbart, D.C. (1968), “The Mother of All Demos” on YouTube
2. Nelson, T. (1974), “Computer Lib / Dream Machines”. Microsoft Press, United States.
3. Abbott, E. (2015), “Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions”. Createspace Independent Publishing Platform, United States.
4. Lanier, J. (2011), “You Are Not a Gadget”. Penguin Books Ltd, United Kingdom.
5. Wohlleben, P. (2016), “The Hidden Life of Trees”. Greystone Books, Canada.
6. Dunne, A. and Raby, F. (2016), “Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming”. MIT Press Ltd, United States.
7. Versteeg, P. (2018), “Unleash the Artificial Smartness.” In Dynamic Design. Mirabeau 2019.
This article is a transcription and re-edit of Bob van Luijt’s master class at Mirabeau in Spring 2018.
Dynamic Design Magazine
This article is part of our Dynamic Design Magazine, Spring 2019. Download the complete magazine here. Do you want to continue the conversation about this article? Or are you interested in receiving a print edition of the magazine? Reach out to Mirabeau's Creative Director Henk Haaima.