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XVIII.3 May + June 2011
Page: 18
Digital Citation

An internet of things that do not exist


Authors:
Chris Speed

What are the implications of our relationship with physical artifacts as the technical and cultural phenomenon known as the Internet of Things begins to emerge? The term, coined in 1999, is attributed to the Auto-ID research group at MIT and was explored in depth by the International Telecommunication Union in a published report bearing the same name at the United Nations Internet summit in 2005. The term refers to the shift that is anticipated as society moves to a ubiquitous form of computing in which every device is on and connected in some way to the Internet [1].

The implications for the Internet of Things upon production and consumption are tremendous and will transform the ways in which people shop, store, and share products. The analog bar code that has for so long been a dumb, encrypted reference to a shop’s inventory system will be superseded by an open platform in which every object manufactured will be trackable from cradle to grave—from manufacturer to distributor, to potentially every single person who comes into contact with it following its purchase. Furthermore, every object that comes close to another object and is within range of a reader could also be logged on a database and used to find correlations between owners and applications. In a world that has relied upon a linear chain of supply and demand between manufacturer and consumer via high street shops, the Internet of Things has the potential to transform how we will treat objects, care about their origin, and use them to find other objects.

Everything will be searchable and findable, and, subsequently, the shopping experience may never be the same. The concept of throwing away objects may become a thing of the past as other people find new uses for old things.

Spimes

In his text Shaping Things, Bruce Sterling introduced the term “spime” to describe an object that was more digital than actual:

“Spimes are manufactured objects whose informational support is so overwhelmingly extensive and rich that they are regarded as material instantiations of an immaterial system. Spimes begin and end as data. They’re virtual objects first and actual objects second” [2]

A mash-up of the words “space” and “time,” spimes are objects that are in contact with the Internet all the time, constantly telling the world where they are and what time they are there, as though they are new coordinates that will define how we map reality. I describe them as new because they synthesize locative, temporal, logistical, and social data, unlike traditional forms of scientific measurement that have tended to concentrate on one aspect of the world: maps/space, clocks/time, thermometers/temperature, etc.

Although society is not yet entirely immersed within an Internet of Things, we are beginning to see evidence of the types of spimes that might emerge, so much so that we can begin to postulate a continuum of artifacts that are more or less valuable in their material or immaterial form. In order to begin identifying the poles that define a practical continuum, I would like to introduce two simple oppositions: things that are actually in the world, and things that are not actually in the world.

This basic opposition is one that formerly wouldn’t have generated any particular tension—we are not used to considering the relationship between things that no longer exist and the things that do. However, for interaction designers, the significant difference in the materiality of both objects is changed by the likelihood that they may both have a data shadow, an immaterial other.

Things That Are Actually in the World

Much of what has so far been hypothesized and funded for an Internet of Things consists of programs that are associated with logistical systems, such as stock control and product tracking. Regardless of the type of tagging technology, these systems offer the ability for the condition of an object to be recorded in a variety of forms and streamed to databases that can be correlated and mined to ensure that things, for example, are in the right place now or have been in the right place in the past, have been kept at the right temperature, and handled by the right people, etc.

From books to frozen peas, parcels, to even people, things move through scanners to update their location; if that location has particular properties, then aspects of its condition complement the data that is associated with the object. For example, fish are not individually tagged as they land at a refrigeration unit at a fishing port. Instead, a box is logged as being within a particular freezer, and the temperature of that freezer is associated with the box of fish. In this way, things carry data about the world around them.

For the many objects that move through supply chains, most of them are read-only, with tags and identities that are legible only to the organizations that care about their condition before they move into the hands of another supplier or consumer. However, we are beginning to see the opening up of these closed channels, allowing the public not only to read tags but also to add information and contribute to their identity. Platforms such as Red Laser offer smartphone users the ability to scan traditional bar codes and access product libraries that include the name of the product and its type, placing a technology that was formerly held by a checkout assistant in the supermarket in the hands of the public. Based upon this system, applications such as StickyBits (www.stickybits.com) allow users of smartphones to scan a product code and attach their own media. Short text stories, a photograph, or a video can be posted to the StickBits database, where it is made available for others to read when scanned again using the same software. Turning the bar code into a media channel, mobile phone camera scanners offer companies and individuals a conduit through which marketing materials can be fed, and social data can be attached.

While StickyBits tends toward using codes that are shared across whole product lines, other platforms offer the public a chance to create new codes for unlabelled items, and tag them with memories, stories, and media content. The Tales of Things system (http://www.talesofthings.com/) allows individuals to pick a single item, attach social data through a website that then generates a unique bar code so that others who come across the object can retrieve that data. Aimed at encouraging the public to record personal stories onto objects, the Tales of Things website demonstrates that some objects that are moving through the world not only contain quantitative data to ensure product integrity and freshness, but many are also beginning to hold qualitative data that is intended to affect how users interpret and use physical objects.

As scanners move into the public domain, and more and more people carry phones that are constantly connected to the Internet, the amount of nodes that constitute the points of scanning and posting of data about things grows. This model assumes that the things exist, and the same things can be tagged with a bar code, RFID chip, or magnetic strip to allow them to be registered as they accrue more data about their whereabouts and condition. However, there are things that remain vivid and meaningful in the public consciousness but no longer exist.

Things That Are Not Actually in the World

Memories of things that have been lost, destroyed, or even died no longer have a material instantiation and are recalled only when the memory of that thing is triggered in the mind of an individual or the public.

It has been suggested that people in general surround themselves with between 1,000 and 5,000 objects [3], many of which are discarded and replaced through consumption and subsistence. However, some objects are lost, stolen, or mislaid forever and are irreplaceable because of the memories they are associated with. But in the context of an Internet of Things, this status of absolute loss is already becoming a thing of the past, as an artifact’s data is likely to remain.

As we move to a time when objects are individually tagged through their production, we can assume they will accrue more forms of data. Unlike the old adage “a rolling stone gathers no moss,” artifacts within the Internet of Things will gather moss. As they move from one place to the next, they will gather locative data; as people interact with them, they will gather social data; and even as they sit idly on a shelf, they may well be gathering data about the objects that are around them. This data will exist in virtual form even when the actual object has been broken, lost, or thrown away. Stored safely in the cloud and accessible for eternity, the object lives on as a ghost in the machine, waiting for a chance to be exorcised.

Although lost in the actual world, the things that no longer exist in physical form do remain in the world in an immaterial form. These types of objects are not new—we have been using totems to evoke memories and concepts throughout the history of society. Objects such as public memorials offer a surrogate material “person” in order to evoke memories of the person who was lost. In cities across the world, the Tomb for the Unknown Soldier plays an important role in offering a point of identification through which memories of any person can be accessed. The Tomb for the Unknown Soldier is as valuable for one family who has experienced the loss of a relative as any other family, no matter the cultural background or the conflict in which a person died.

Evidently, through the example of a public memorial, we find that things that are not actually in the world are still able to find a thing to which they can be associated and therefore be remembered.

Surrogate Things

The decoupling of immaterial things from their material counterparts through loss presents some interesting design futures for both the disassociated ghosts that remain in cyberspace, and the potential for material objects that have yet to be used by people and subsequently develop a complex identity. As a means of exposition for this potential, I want to reference a piece of artwork as an example for how the gap between physical objects and their intangible qualities may not longer be tenable.

Last year’s RememberMe intervention was held in a U.K. charity shop, memories of donated items were associated with the physical things using the Tales of Things (www.talesofthings.com), which represented a provocative context for exploring a social model for the Internet of Things. A year on, the team wanted to explore the further potential for physical objects to be used as hosts or surrogates for the “immaterial things” that have lost their original material partner. RememberUs is a conceptual installation that consists of a series of secondhand artifacts that have been painted completely white. Installed in a gallery, each material object is accompanied by a book of blank bar codes. Upon viewing and handling the object, the holder is invited to record a memory about the type of object onto the actual thing using the TalesofThings mobile phone application. Figure 1 shows how a rotary dial telephone might look in the gallery once it has been associated with multiple memories.

What seems apparent from the RememberUs project is the potential for one tangible artifact to be reassociated with not just one memory of another object, but multiple. For further visitors to the exhibit, the physical rotary dial telephone becomes a surrogate for memories that are recalled only once the visitor picks up and handles this type of phone that is now a thing of the past. Replaced by digital telephones, some without physical buttons or cords, the rotary dial telephone, in its material instantiation, is an object that is already lost. Even though the particular phone on show has become detached from its owner and the environment in which he or she associated it with memories, anybody who handles the phone in the gallery is able to attach their memory of these types of phones and recover the artifact from being lost in the world.

Opportunities for Interaction Design

It is likely that memories will far outweigh the number of actual things in the world, simply because people throw so much away. If this is the case, then we are likely to see more circumstances in which physical objects will become associated with social data looking for a host. In this context we may need to design blank objects that have no other function than to become the host for memories that have lost their connection with the original physical artifact. Other times, discarded and culturally lost objects may be used because they retain some of the physical attributes that trigger associations with immaterial things (e.g., memories) that have lost their original material partner.

Whatever we do with things in the future, it will be radically different from what we’ve done in the recent past. Used to buying new things and throwing them away when they are no longer useful, we will see a shift in our relationship with objects. As well as becoming conduits that allow us to recall information from the past, things will help us to recover memories that have lost their physical place in the world. This world of “ready-mades” is potentially as significant to social and industrial processes as was the work of the Surrealist artists, who understood how important language is in our interpretation of the world. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp and René Magritte understood that imagery on a painted canvas was only a representation of the thing, person, or landscape that it depicted. Magritte’s famous painting Ceci n’est pas une pipe, which depicts a pipe but claims that it isn’t one, has never been an actual physical pipe; it is only the painting of one—but at least it looks like one.

In the Internet of Things, objects may end up on your mantelpiece with associated memories of completely different artifacts. The value of these vessels and our attachment to them will likely depend on the social data stored in them, rather than on their physical form.

Acknowledgments

The Tales of Things project and RememberUs are supported by a Digital Economy, Research Councils UK grant, and made “real” by our team: R. Barthell, B. Blundell, M. Burke, M. De Jode, A. Hudson-Smith, K. Leder, A. Karpovich, M. Manohar, C. Lee, J. Macdonald, S. O’Callaghan, M. Quigley, J. Rogers, D. Shingleton, and C. Speed.

References

1. Greenfield, A. Everyware: The Dawning Age of Ubiquitous Computing. New Riders, Berkeley, CA, 2006.

2. Stirling, B. Shaping Things, Mediaworks Pamphlets. MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2005.

3. Waldner, J-B. Inventer l’Ordinateur du XXIeme Siècle. Hermes Science, London, UK, 2007.

Author

Chris Speed is reader in digital spaces at the Edinburgh School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture. He works in the field at the convergence of digital architecture, human geography, and social computing.

Footnotes

DOI: http://doi.acm.org/10.1145/1962438.1962445

Figures

F1Figure 1. RememberUs. Artwork allows any person to store a memory onto an object, turning domestic items into shared memorials.

©2011 ACM  1072-5220/11/0500  $10.00

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