A wearable camera, circa I don’t know when.
The Internet of Things Doesn’t Need You
Ian Bogost at The Atlantic published a piece titled “The Internet of Things You Don’t Really Need . It’s a long rant against connected devices, with the occasional irony and creative putdown (like “Conspicuous computation” — I sort of liked this wording).
I was about to write an analysis but I remembered a frequent line from one of my favorite yet defunct blogs, “if you read it, it’s for you”.
This article was for me. As an investor in connected devices, I was at the ready for a rebuttal of many of its points. It was also meant for all those who are thinking, like the author, that all those Internet Things are a way to trick dumb and/or obnoxious consumers of their money for at most a slight improvement in convenience.
Rather than waste energy on this, I’d rather consider an approach I find more interesting:
- Why is there a discussion?
- Is it new?
- Why not celebrate?
- What’s next?
Let’s get started!
1. Why is There a Discussion?
With 7 billion people out there, many things will be tried. Some will be useful to you, most won’t. Just pick.
To show how something that sounds dumb can be actually useful when you think it through, this website named “The Internet of Useless Things” describes fictional “stupid” inventions, such as the “Intestinal Track 2.0”, a smart pill you ingest that Tweets you when it detects an impending bowel movement.
Well, while not a pill, we just invested in a device that tracks bladder fullness. Why? It could save millions of seniors as well as people in wheelchairs and men who had a prostate operation from the current best alternative: adult diapers. Which is a yearly multi-billion dollar market.
It is a good reminder that when you think things through, you can find real opportunities, even in the apparently pointless or mundane. And it doesn’t have to be an app with disappearing photos or that just says “Yo!”.
2. Is it New?
Recently I visited the Musee des Arts et Metiers in Paris. It’s an industrial design museum founded in 1794 as a “repository for the preservation of scientific instruments and inventions” (source: Wikipedia).
The Museum is full of those gorgeous brass scientific instruments and inventions of the “steampunk era”, and many other devices.
While some helped science, others were either gadgets or strange attempts. Yes, even — like in the cover image of the Atlantic piece — some “wearable” cameras in hats, neckties and more.
What it shows is that anytime an important barrier comes down for creation, there is an explosion of creativity, which leads to a majority of short-lived curiosities or niche products, and a few that evolve into mature and useful things for a larger audience.
A great divergence, followed by a convergence.
Focusing on the former is entertaining but misses the point. It is also unnecessarily dismissive of this groundswell. Just like video games (the Atlantic columnist is a game designer), connected devices come in many shapes and forms.
Today, the barriers that came down are: prototyping (3d printing, Arduino, Raspberry Pi, CHIP, low-cost sensors), widespread connectivity (Wifi, Bluetooth, smartphones, cloud), lower capital requirements and easier financing (for B2C products with crowdfunding) and — to some extent — manufacturing, sales and distribution (when using Amazon or others).
Cheaper prices are of course key to the unlocking of the Internet of Affordable Things.
3. Why not celebrate this creative explosion?
There are many reasons to be dissatisfied:
Yes, the first generations of many products will likely disappoint. Only very large companies can afford to make things perfect every time (and does such a company really exist?). Just like pro photographers they only present their best shots.
Yes, many will fail. Most will never become businesses, and many will stay niche.
Yes, many will be ridiculous / funny / not for you and me. Let’s ignore those, or be entertained.
Yes, it will create more junk. Until new entrepreneurs find a way to recycle, re-use, repurpose or repair. Actually, such thing already exists. It is called reverse logistics. It will probably be baked into the price of products (instead of being an externality), or simply be self-sustaining with the value of recycled and scrapped parts.
And yes, the vast majority of the Internet of Things does not need you, or me, or The Atlantic. It will happen, survive and die regardless. Well, as media, project backers, or investors we might help a few have a better shot, or kill others prematurely. “It made a difference to this one”, as the story goes.
4. What’s Next?
As mentioned above, convergence will likely follow divergence, until the next barrier to creativity comes down.
Devices that are expensive and/or “dumb” today will be replaced by cheaper and/or more convenient ones. How did we do before mobile phones? Before the Internet? For sure we could live well, but there were many inconveniences. Like waiting at home for a phone call.
What we need moving forward is to build better self-awareness on how devices affect us. “Junk devices” are like junk food: they are full of the digital equivalents of fat, sugar, salt and MSG. Pick your devices as wisely as you do for your food, and stop using those that affect you negatively.
And as a game designer, Mr. Bogost might share this view.