A neo-luddite internet of things

by Dries De Roeck on September 24, 2014

Over the last weeks I have been wondering what my (personal?) issue is related to all the internet of things, connected products, networked objects, etc… I see popping up allover the place. Very little connected products seem to be able to really appeal to me, although that I do see the value in connected products as such. So, it clearly was time to think this over a little, and see where this ‘internal brain conflict’ was coming from.

Firstly, I’d like to link to two recent examples that make me question the whole internet of things / connected products shebang:

  • Evermind : “Evermind provides peace of mind to those who live alone, or who need extra support, and the people who care about them by detecting when electrical appliances are switched on and off.”
  • Fibaro Motion Sensor : “Inspired by the beliefs of the ancient Egyptians, we have designed the world’s smallest, wireless motion sensor and shaped it like a cat’s eye.”

Secondly, two other recent examples that were able to catch my attention and showed me that connected product do make sense:

  • Whiskers : “It works as follows. An elegant object with a long reed will find its place in your living room. And a friend, son, daughter, neighbour or acquintance also has such a design object at home. By touching the reed, it not only moves at your place, but also at the other end.”
  • Patch of sky : “Patch of Sky is your partner or friend’s silent companion, that will tell them about the sky and world you’re living in, while away.”

So, what are or could be the differences between these products? What I currently see emerging are two ‘pathways’ for internet of things products. The first pathway could be called “the logical iot progression”, the second could be referred to as “the neo-ludditte iot progression”.

The logical iot progression

Ok, I’m probably cutting a lot of corners here – but the first ‘progression’ that is ongoing is mostly technology driven. This means that “the internet of things” is solely regarded as a technological development. In the figure below, this is depicted as the straight line – creating technology standards, protocols, patents,… a well known progression of events for ‘technology creators’. A good indicator that this is happening right now are all the sprouting IoT platforms which try to build bridges between existing protocols and environments (aka the ‘get your Z-wave plugs to talk to your living colours lamps’ scenario).

What seriously bugs me in this first ‘version’ of a future internet of things is that there is very little attention for the people who would be willing to use these ‘things’. Take the Fibaro motion sensor for example, why would I want to install an eye of Sauron in my living room? To me, this is an example that focusses on technological possibility, but there is very little to no attention to how and why someone would be willing to use this device. The other example I mentioned, Evermind, sends a notification to a family member when an ageing person switches on electrical devices. At first this mights seem very useful, but at second thought – it is the ageing person who needs to live with this ‘alien’ device in his/her environment. What’s in it for them? Again, the focus is on technical possibility and not on integration with an existing context of use.

The neo-ludite iot progression

Another progression that is happening in paralel is a version of the internet of things in which technology does not play the primary role. In ‘this’ internet of things, technology is used as a means to make meaningful interactions possible. To create things that were not possible before, because there was no such technology out there. Although a little ‘radical’ and again cutting corners, I see some simularities with the neo-luddism movement. In short, neo-luddism rejects technological advancement and advocates ‘simple’ living. This does not necessarily mean that all technology is ‘bad’, but technology should be approached critically. A good quote from the wikipedia on the topic by Jaques Ellul hopefull illustrates the point I try to make:

“The rationality of technology enforces logical and mechanical organisation which eliminates or subordinates the natural world.”

The ‘neo ludditte’ progression of the internet of things is much less driven by functionaly but is driven by emotional aspects, where people and their context of living is regarded as the starting point. Both examples I mentioned before (whiskers and patch of sky) both start from people. Technology is a facilitator to make something possible. The difficult thing about this approach is that it is hard to describe, when such a process is started – you’re never sure where it will end or where it will go. But the outcome can be so much more rich, allowing people to relate to connected products instead of giving them the feeling that an alien ship has landed in their living environment.

So,

which progression is ‘best’, which ‘way’ do we go? Although that I can personally get rather annoyed by the technology driven approach, I do realise that this is a necessary path to take. Without some standardisation or conventions to make connected products, there is very little chance that connected products will ever leave a prototyping stage. But I am seriously convinced that there is a rising need for more people to become involved in the neo ludite version of the internet of things. Without this type of exploration, I have the feeling that connected products will have a hard time to become adopted by anyone else than technology aficionado’s.

Last week, @robvank said during #iotghent

It is 2014, the use case is still being built by the engineer

Let’s be adventurous, and explore the path of the neo luddites in order to define more meaningful products and “use cases” for connected products.

2 comments

[…] on how digitally connected products can be designed with meaning. The problem I framed in previous writings comes down to the fact that a lot of ‘internet of things’ products that are being created and […]

by On meaning and connected xmas lights « Dream here on January 7, 2015 at 11:55 pm. #

[…] driven by efficiency and functionality, whereas I believe we should strive to create products with emotion and […]

by Braided products and wickerwork. « Dream here on November 24, 2015 at 9:49 pm. #

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