Viewpoint: The internet of things and yet another revolution
- 22 September 2011
- From the section Magazine
The "internet of things" is viewed as the next big thing, but when will it allow people to create their own stuff, asks Russell M Davies.
I always think of blogging as like networking for shy people.
I am very shy, I hate meeting new people, I am very bad at small talk. I entered my thirties assuming I would have a small circle of friends that would slowly diminish until I died.
But then I discovered the power of blogging. I got my own blog, and I started making friends with people. I started finding new networks of people, I started exploring new worlds and I found my own voice. I did it all without having to learn any programming, or learn any code or learn how to be a developer.
Suddenly I could just publish to the internet, publish to the whole world. It did not mean the whole world was reading but it meant I could publish out there, and it was enormously liberating, really exciting.
Blogging, we now know, is an aspect of what we call social media, which has transformed all kinds of industries and professions and is much discussed in the media.
Not much discussed is a website called Geocities. It is now defunct, but for many people it was the place they lived online for the very first time. It was a site where you could create your own pages without having to know how to do anything too technical. Some pointing and some clicking and some typing and you could make a website of your own.
It was not very attractive, there tended to be more flashing than you might want, lots of under construction signs and things like that. It was relentlessly silly and trivial but also deeply wonderful because it was the voices of millions of people finally being heard.
At the time, a media thinker, Clay Shirky, was just starting work as a web developer. He remembers thinking that no-one would ever use Geocities.
Why would you use something clunky and ugly like that? But when Geocities succeeded, and subsequent places like MySpace and Facebook succeeded, he realised that there was something going on there that all the professionals had missed.
As he says, "creating something personal, even of moderate quality, has a different kind of appeal to consuming something made by others, even of high quality".
Although slightly dull, I think that is really profound, and people missed that about social media. It is not about the readers, it is not about the quality of the stuff, it is about the writers and the act of writing. That is what made all this stuff work and made it all so powerful.
But now the innovation in that arena is drying up. We do not need new ways to put our voices online, to put our pictures or our videos or our words online. It is about as easy now as it will ever be. And so the world is moving on, and the interesting technological and technical people are starting to think of other things.
So what will the next revolution in technology be? If you talk to big companies and large institutions about it, they will tell you about the internet of things.
The internet of things is a phrase you are going to hear a lot over the next few years, and the clue is in the name as to what it is. It is about connecting objects rather than people.
According to one estimate, there will be 50 billion things online by 2020; another estimate suggests it will be a trillion - nobody really knows. But lots of people have vested interests in wiring all these things up and charging for the bandwidth to do it.
It's a world where everything is smart - smart cities, smart grids, everything prefaced by smart. It's a world of sensors in bridges so the bridge can report when it needs maintenance. This world where everything reports on its status to some kind of mothership is close to coming upon us.
It falls down, though, when it starts to think about people, and when it starts to design for how people will get involved in this infrastructure. It is not a bad or stupid world, it is just slightly boring. There is none of the texture or magic or specialness of life in it.
But in the undergrowth of the internet of things, behind the scenes, being subversive and bubbling away, there is a little culture of enthusiasts - called hackers or hardware hackers or makers - doing interesting things at the edges.
These are people who like to take stuff apart, to deconstruct it, dismantle it, rebuild it, repair it, make something new and better, make their own things. This obviously has been going on for years and years and years but now it has been brought back to life by a little device called the Arduino, a little gadget which you can use to connect your computer to electronic projects.
Simple devices that you might have made at home can connect to the Arduino, and then connect to the power of computing and the web, and that has unleashed all sorts of interesting gadgety things that people have invented for themselves.
This is a world where people make the things you would make if you were left to invent stuff on your own. It is a world where people strap domestic digital cameras to weather balloons in order to photograph space, a world where people attach bubble machines to Arduinos and connect them to the web so that when it sees a keyword on Twitter, it blows bubbles.
This stuff only gets thought about and only gets made by people who are tinkering, imagining and playing around the edges.
I always think the people behind the internet of things have a goal of making the world more efficient and controlled, whereas the hardware people, the hacking people, their goal is to make the world a bit more magic.
A friend of mine, Andy Huntingdon, calls this stage the Geocities of things. It is about making stuff that might be a bit trivial and a bit silly and a bit pointless, but you get the satisfaction of making it yourself.
I do not think we are quite at the Geocities of things yet. It is not as easy to make a thing as to make a web page. But we are not far off, and we are heading in that direction.
But I actually think what we most want is not a Geocities of things or an internet of things, but an internet with things, a world where we share our networks with things.
The designer Matt Jones said the network is as important to think about as the things, and I think that is the next phase. Designing our relationships to the objects will be the really interesting part.
It will be where the exciting, radical, life-affirming stuff will bubble up, especially when you add things like 3D printing and personal robotics to the mix.
We are going to be designing all this brilliant stuff for ourselves. And it will be dismissed as stupid, trivial and pointless by proper designers and people in the media.
"Why would they want to do that," they will say, as they said about Geocities and blogging and Facebook. And I would remind them again of Shirky's thought: "Creating something personal, even of moderate quality, has a different kind of appeal to consuming something made by others, even of a high quality."
It is not about the thing, it is about the satisfaction of making it and the relationships which surround it. That is what will be so transformative and bewitching about the next technological revolution.
It will not be about media and screens, it will be about our lives and the objects we surround our lives with.
My network of friends brought me, via blogging, to thinking about this stuff, and it will be a network of enthusiasts that will make this stuff happen, which is why they will win.
This is an edited version of Russell M Davies's Four Thought broadcast.