There’s a theory out there about the Internet of Things. You hear it talked about in reference to microchips in cars, phones, appliances, and so on and so forth. It’s the idea that inanimate objects connect to the internet through the wireless and computing abilities embedded inside them. So when you drive into your driveway and tough a button built in to your car to open your garage door, then see a notification on your phone that your car needs servicing because you hit 10,000 miles that day, that is part of the internet of things. So is the wireless system in your house that allows you to auto-set the temperature, when the lights go on and off, the tv and/or sound system, and the alarm system all at the touch of a single remote or operating station. These things sound a lot like futuristic devices, but increasingly they are becoming standards and are available to anyone (with the money to buy them). Whether you have them or not, however, the internet has grown far beyond just a few webpages and needing to use a computer to hook up to it. Now the internet is in your car, house, and a host of other things. Together these all make up the Internet of Things.
Awhile back, I watched the Daily Show interview with David Rose from MIT. He was talking to Jon Stewart about his book and showcasing a bunch of really awesome gadgets, including a tweeting scale, a pill bottle cap that helps you remember to take your meds, and he was wearing a Fitbit as well. Stewart, who is very smart, asked Rose whether these kinds of “enchanted objects” (objects that do a service for us by using the internet of things) would eventually reduce our own ability to function by ourselves.
That’s a very good question and it’s one that I know many people are asking and discussing right now. There is certainly a worry that we are infantilizing ourselves by relying so much on inanimate objects to do our thinking or remembering for us. I contemplate this idea often throughout the day, especially since I am an inveterate web-user. Let me give you an example of the types of things I discuss with myself.
LeapFrog, that fine purveyor of childrens’ educational electronics (including a pad and books that read to kids on their own), has released a kid version of a fitness tracker/smart watch designed to get kids moving and teach them healthy habits. It’s for pretty young kids, ages 4-up I would say. It straps to the wrist and tracks movement, has a screen that provides pictorial advice on what foods to eat and how much, and uses an electronic animal buddy to help incentivize and reward good habits. Personally, I wonder whether this is too much too early. Adults and young adults may have their habits already ingrained, but children so young are still learning. Yes, the LeapFrog thing could be a good teaching tool, but kids should be learning that kind of thing from parents and at school. They do not need to be corrected on their habits like adults do because they are still building theirs. So do they need a fitness tracker? Or is it better for them to develop on their own? More importantly, will be they somehow hampered or disadvantaged in the long run because of their use of and participation in the internet of things?
These are the kinds of things I wonder about and the obvious conclusion is that we have to self-regulate our use of such objects, that there are always choices to be made about technology. Now, there are tons of negative arguments to make (and I might make a few myself from time to time), but I want to give a positive idea that perhaps we haven’t considered before.
What if instead of making ourselves reliant on objects in the internet of things, we’re freeing ourselves up for other things?
There’s a story (probably untrue) that Einstein had seven of the same suit to wear every day. He did this so he wouldn’t waste time and energy thinking about what to wear that day. I remember hearing that story as a kid spoken as an example of the eccentricity of high intelligence. Today I think, however, that we’re moving towards that kind of concept, making things easier to forget in order to concentrate on other things.
You ever hear the phrase, “They put a lot of thought into it”? That’s part of what makes the internet of things so cool. The thought that gets put into things like a fitness tracker or whatever is not just a design concept, but a thought that you now don’t have to have every day. It’s a thought that a designer can have once and you don’t ever have to have again. Now we’re all like Einstein, except instead of suits, we have fitness trackers, wifi enabled fridges, etc etc.
The Future is Now?
A lot of the technology that we take for granted today was unthinkable when I was a kid. As a new mom, my Esteemed Mother did not have access to child development apps, baby monitors that link up with her phone, or even any kind of cellphone at all. It was a big day when we got a wireless home phone, okay? I remember the first DVD player we ever got, and now Chromecast is here and it’s making players obsolete. In a lot of ways, the future is now and it is continuing to get more futuristic all the time.
The internet of things is probably going to continue to progress over the years until finally we get to a different kind of internet or even different kinds of things. When our furniture floats on its own in contradiction of gravity, then I’ll be truly impressed. But the fact is, we can’t stop the tide of development (I hesitate to say progress). Now the question is how we should use it and how much. Over time, we’ll figure that out. It is this kind of ethical challenge that we thrive on as human beings.
I may be too much of a clothes-horse to wear only one outfit every day for the rest of my life. I am neither Einstein or Steve Jobs. But I will use certain pieces of the internet of things for my own convenience. Why? Because I would rather have an electronic aid for remembering my daily pills than forget because I was thinking about something else or be so preoccupied with remembering that I can’t do anything else.
Oh, and by the way, I bought a Fitbit today. Welcome my wrist to the future, guys.