Writings on the Internet of Things

Writings on the Internet of Things is a text by Rob van Kranenburg, it is part of the Blowup Reader The Era of Objects.

Making sense is the ability to read data as data and not noise. It is a matter of life and death when dealing with the flowing reality of the earth’s core: “If we consider that the oceanic crust on which the continents are embedded is constantly being created and destroyed (by solidification and remelting) and that even continental crust is under constant erosion so that its materials are recycled into the ocean, the rocks and mountains that define the most stable and durable traits of our reality would merely represent a local slowing down of this flowing reality.’ (Manuel de Landa, 1997) Reading this local slowing down of flowing reality has never been easy, in fact it has never been possible. There was no way of reading information in the data drawn by the patterns of the seismographs. Vulcanologists could, but read in particular ways that refused to turn data into reliable information. Until Bernard Chouet, a physicist – after five years of intensive study – saw patterns where no one saw patterns before, decided what was data and what was not data.1 He focused on a particular pattern that no one had seen before. The challenge we are facing now is reading the flowing reality of our surface. How to store real-time information flows? How to chart them? Which are our seismographs? How do we match real-time processes with the signified that they are supposed to signify? How to find ways of deciding what is data and what is not data in the space of flows? When Cook’s ‘Endeavour’ sailed into the bay that we know now as Cape Everard on April 22 1770, touching upon the Australian shore for the first time, the British saw Aborigines fishing in small canoes. Whereas the native population of Tahiti had responded with loud chanting and the Maori had thrown stones, the Aborigines, neither afraid nor curious, simply went on fishing.

Only until Cook had lowered a small boat and a small party rowed to the shore did the Aborigines react. A number of men rowing a small boat signified a raid and they responded accordingly. The Aborigines must have seen something and even if they could not see it as a ship, they must have felt the waves it produced in their canoes. However, as its form and height was so alien, so contrary to any-thing they had ever observed or produced, they chose to ignore it since they had no adequate procedures of response. In Dreamtime, the Aborigines believed they saw an island. And as islands are common, you can let them drift by, you don’t notice them, you don’t perceive them as data. They thought Cook’s boat was an island. When you see an island you do not have to look up. It will pass. We find ourselves today in a similar situation. Our Endeavour is the merging of digital and analogue connectivity as described by Mark Weiser in his 1991 text The Computer in the 21st Century and Eberhardt’s and Gershenfeld’s announcement in February 1999 that the Radio Frequency Tag had dropped under the cost of a penny. For most common people the ubiquitous computing revolution is too fundamental to be easily perceived.  But it will change the way that companies such as British supermarket chain Tesco does business. Tesco’s UK IT director Colin Cobain says that RFID tags will be used on “lots of products’ within five years - and perhaps sooner for higher value goods; “RFID will help us understand more about our products’, he claims.2 Some professionals believe that what we call ubiquitous computing will gradually emerge as the dominant mode of computer access over the next twenty years. Intriguingly, it is Mark Weiser who believed “that ubiquitous computing will enable nothing fundamentally new, but by making everything faster and easier to do, with less strain and mental gymnastics, it will transform what is apparently possible.’3 Contrary to Mark Weiser’s claim that ubiquitous computing will enable nothing fundamentally new, I believe that ubiquitous computing will enable something fundamentally new, and my main question is: to what extent is does it allow for analogue human agency?

The Disappearing Computer4, launched by Future and Emerging Technologies, part of the European Commission’s IST Programme, is a vision of the future: “in which our everyday world of objects and places become ‘infused’ and ‘augmented’ with information processing. In this vision, computing, information processing, and computers disappear into the background, and take on the role more similar to that of electricity today - an invisible, pervasive medium distributed on our real world.’ In such a mediated environment – where everything is connected to everything – it is no longer clear what is being mediated, and what mediates. Design decisions become process decisions in a mediatized environment. Environments such as your kitchen, your living-room, our shopping malls, the streets of old villages, websites, schools, p2p networks, are new beginnings as they reformulate our sense of ourselves in places, in spaces, in time. The goal of the Disappearing Computer project is augmenting the world of everyday objects and places with information processing while at the same time exploiting the affordances of real objects in the real world. Dr. Norbert Streitz, one of the key figures in the network, explains that this requires “an integrated design of real and virtual worlds and - taking the best of both - developing hybrid worlds with matching metaphors.” The disappearing computer can, according to him, be thought of as genius loci, the spirit of the place. As ‘nature’ and ‘techné’ become hybrid spheres, people become ‘tags’. Ghosts.



1 From the BBC documentary, Volcano Hell: “Chouet’s methods have commanded wide respect and have been increasingly used around the world. In a dramatic demonstration last year Mexican scientists used Chouet’s method to predict an eruption of the mighty volcano Popocatépetl. Tens of thousands of people were safely evacuated just before the biggest eruption of the volcano for a thousand years. No one was hurt.” http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/2001/volcanohell.shtml
2 Shops reveal plans to replace barcodes, by Steve Ranger [04-09-2002]
3 Mark Weiser, “The Computer for the Twenty-First Century,” Scientific American, pp. 94-10, September 1991
4 http://www.disappearing-computer.net/   Originally printed in: Real Rules of Innovation for the 21st Century (Part 1) Inspiration Materials http://www.noemalab.org/sections/ideas/ideas_articles/kranenburg_rules_of_innova.html
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