This is a text I’ve been working on, or rather keeping in the back of my mind, for quite a while, and now it’s finished and sent to Fiberculture Journal. The early beta was presented at a conference in Istanbul in 2011, and my thinking on sociable objects has evolved quite a bit since then. The key shift in my thinking was facilitated by a series of chance encounters – discovering object oriented ontology through Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology, finding the notion of affective resonance in Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, and rediscovering the heteroclite in Lorraine Daston’s awesome Things That Talk.
Tag: sociable objects
Prezi from my Tangling with sociable objects: the internet of things as anticipatory materiality seminar in AUSCCER today. I packed a lot of content into what was supposed to be a 45 minute presentation, and inevitably overshot, but my hosts were gracious, and there was still time for questions. Good experience.
It is here. No human driver, no steering wheel, no controls, no brakes. They have clearly gone for the safest, most non-threatening design possible, and this is probably a good idea. There will be a chorus of ‘it looks so boring’ protests, but there will undoubtedly be a ‘sports’ version for that market. It still has issues with snow, traffic cops, and avoiding squirrels, but this is a quantum leap forward.
Meet Brad, the Extrovert Toaster.
It is the story of Brad, a toaster which is part of a new breed of products that love to be be used.
It shows the implications of agency of products in everyday life.
What could happen if a product wants to be used?
An environment, to be truly smart, must learn from the cumulative data within its realm to understand and guess what likely choices might be for a given agent and then facilitate or enact these on behalf of that agent.
1. The first principle of Thing Theory is that the Thing-agent operates as a meta-agent over the entire technology context, not as a sub-component. Our Thing-agent assembles capabilities (e.g. whether or not the refrigerator light is suitable as a lamp) that are extensible based on what subcomponents of the system happen to be available. In short, what Thing can do is ultimately limited by the basic capabilities of various system subcomponents in combination with its knowledge about these and how to combine capabilities to make new more context sensitive capabilities.
2. The second principle of Thing Theory is that to increase the Thing-agent’s capabilities, more information from subcomponents must be shared.
3. The third principle of Thing Theory is that the Thing-agent must be context aware, and able to identify that different combinations of capabilities are available in different contexts, and has a corresponding capacity to manipulate contexts (e.g. enact, repress, aggregate) to ‘reveal’ new capabilities, many of which may be ‘innovations’ based on context discovery (invention).
4. The fourth principle of Thing Theory is that a Thing-agent extends the capabilities of other meta-agents. In order for the fourth principle to work, the meta-agents (a social network of at least one Thing-agent and another meta-gent) must have some type of transparency or at least shared permissions for exchange of capabilities and contexts. To describe or analyze such multi-agent systems, we must take into account the social as well as the individual behaviors of the agents.
Applin, S.A. and Fischer, M.D., Thing Theory: Connecting Humans to Location-Aware Smart Environments
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.
Here is a prezi from a lecture I gave at a postgraduate seminar on Actor Network Theory (ANT) and the Internet of Things (iot). The central concept of the talk was however the notion of the heteroclite and why ANT methodologies for world-encountering are useful when tangling with heteroclite objects. I use the heteroclite in the Baconian sense of a monstrous deviation, which by its very entry on stage creates collective entanglements demanding the mobilization of all sorts of dormant or obfuscated networks. For an example of a heteroclite currently being performed think of the Google car and how it deviates from the driver as an actor. I find the heteroclite a fascinating metaphor for dealing with hybrid objects.
I am off to the IADIS Internet Technologies & Society conference in Perth – below is the prezi I will use for my paper. It is an effort to illustrate the conceptual steps towards thinking of internet – enabled things as sociable objects.
My second day in Umea – a tiny little university town in the north of Sweden, where I am attending a workshop on Social Media Cultures at the HumLab. The program for the workshop looks quite hectic, peppered by series of 10 minute presentations to be followed by short discussions. Tomorrow [Monday] I am presenting on sociable objects, to be followed by a presentation on online knowledge creation on Tuesday.
The key theme I want to drive in the first presentation is that objects are starting to acquire the power to produce a semantically rich dynamic flow of data, which makes them (or rather their information output) hard to distinguish from humans. The implications are that you could friend and engage someone’s twitter feed in the same way that you could friend and engage a car’s info feed (in fact, the Toyota Friend program is going exactly in that direction).
In my second presentation I am concentrating on the importance of continuous, dynamic engagement with and reflection on content in an online environment. The idea is that knowledge creation occurs in a constructivist scaffolding-like framework where students continuously engage with content on a variety of levels, while simultaneously reflecting on that process.