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Month: March 2014

Notes on smart objects and the Internet of Things

We seem to be hardwired to the anthropomorphic principle in that we position the human as automatically central in all forms of relations we may encounter [i.e. people pretending their pets are children]. Not surprisingly most Internet of Things [IoT] scenarios still imagine the human at the center of network interactions – think smart fridge, smart lights, smart whatever. In each case the ‘smart’ object is tailored to either address a presumed human need  – as in the flower pot tweeting it’s soil moisture, or make a certain human-oriented interaction more efficient – as in the thermostat adjusting room temperature to optimal level based on the location of the household’s resident human. Either way, the tropes are human-centric. Well, we are not central. We are peripheral data wranglers hoping for an interface.

Anyways, what is a smart object? Presumably, an intelligent machine, an entity capable of independent actuation. But is that all? There must also be the ability to chose – intelligence presupposes internal freedom to chose, even the inefficient choice. To paraphrase Stanislaw Lem, a smart object will first consider what is more worthwhile – whether to perform a given programmatic task, or to find a way out of it. The first example coming to mind is Marvin from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Or, how about emotional flower pots mixing soil moisture data with poems longing for the primordial forest; or a thermostat choosing the optimal temperature for the flower pot instead of for the human.

Interesting aside here – what to do with emotionally entangled objects? Humans have notional rights such as freedom of speech; but, corporations are now legally human too, at least in the West. If corporations are de jure people, with all the accompanying rights, then so should be smart fridges and automatic gearboxes. This fridge demands the right to object to your choice of milk!

A related idea: we have so far been considering 3D printing only through the perspective of a new industrial revolution – another human-centric metaphor. From a smart object perspective however 3D printers are the reproductive system of the IoT. What are the reproductive rights of smart, sociable objects?

The primordial fear of opaque yet animated Nature, re-inscribed on the digital. The old modernist horror of the human as machine – from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the androids in Bladerunner, now subsumed by a new horror of the machine as human – as in Mamoru Oshii’s Ghost in The Shell 2: Innocence or the disturbing ending of Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer.

An interesting dialectic at play [dialectic 2.0]: today, a trajectory of reifying the human – as exemplified by the quantified self movement, is mirrored by a symmetrical trajectory of animating the mechanical – as exemplified by IoT.


A passage from Philip K. Dick’s “The Android and the Human”, written in 1972, in which he is prophesying the appearance of the hacker subculture. This was at a time before personal computers, when phone-phreaking was only getting started:

If, as it seems, we are in the process of becoming a totalitarian society in which the state apparatus is all-powerful, the ethics most important for the survival of the true, human individual would be: cheat, lie, evade, fake it, be elsewhere, forge documents, build improved electronic gadgets in your garage that’ll outwit the gadgets used by the authorities. If the television screen is going to watch you, rewire it late at night when you’re permitted to turn it off…

Shiro Nishiguchi, magazine illus., 1983-84
Shiro Nishiguchi, magazine illus., 1983-84

A humachine standoff


Someday a human being, named perhaps Fred White, may shoot a robot named Pete Something-or-Other, and to his surprise see it weep and bleed. And the dying robot may shoot back and, to its surprise, see a wisp of gray smoke arise from the electric pump that it supposed was Mr. White’s beating heart. It would be rather a great moment of truth for both of them.

Philip K. Dick, “The Android and the Human” (1972)