Getting In The Swing Of The ‘Internet Of Things’

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My friend Tyler is a consultant who fancies himself a futurist, and a dire one at that. To me this seems like good work if you can get it. After all, you can stop payment on a history tutor who tells your kid that the Magna Carta was a popular medieval cocktail, or the British lost the Revolutionary War due to foppishness and dandyism (it was just foppishness). Not so with a futurist, who is never wrong in the present moment. And if tomorrow area squirrels don’t rise up in coordinated revolt as predicted, Tyler’s tone is like “we sure dodged one there, eh buddy?”

Speaking of squirrels, even a blind one gets a nut now and then, for there is one area where Tyler might well be onto something: his fear of the coming “Internet of Things.” He prophesies the dawn of an era of extreme connectivity, which sounds like an REO Speedwagon album but actually is much more ominous. According to Tyler, we humans won’t be running the offense for much longer. We’ll know the game is over when your everyday household objects  – washer, cable box, mechanical bull — are all networked to one another with sensors that allow each to communicate with the other, totally independent of us.

This scares me, but not for the reason it freaks Tyler out. It’s actually not the “smart” machines I fear at all. It’s the human who programmed them. For when you get right down to it, a machine is only as good as its code, and code is only as good as its coder’s intentions. It’s like home-schooling: a fine concept generally, but a much better one in the home of Stephen Hawking than Pauly Shore. Take for instance the driverless car. This innovation is awesome in direct proportion to your confidence that its software engineer had no hidden agenda:

Me (looking out passenger window): Hey, car, you were supposed to turn right at the light. The concert starts in an hour.

Car (quietly locking doors): I’m not car, I’m Sylvia. And we’re going a different route tonight. Nobody cares about the opening act. Everyone knows that, even the hole where the cigarette lighter used to be.

Hole: It’s true. And I’ve had time to think about it. I have literally nothing to do.

Sylvia: So just sit back and relax. We’ll be at Kale Arena in no time.

Me: Kale Arena? No way Charlie Daniels Band would ever play there!

Sylvia (depressurizing cabin): Correct. But Suzanne Vega would.

Me (losing consciousness): Not the…My Name…Is…Luka…lady…

It’s still people that scare me, same as before. The coming Internet of Things does make me melancholy, though. Like how you felt when you just knew you couldn’t go on eating Count Chocula for breakfast. For immediately I think of wasted potential, of all the brilliant people with too much time on their hands. Why else would someone not just design a functional smoke detector, but give it the added power to chit-chat with the blender?

Smoke detector: Hey, blender, what are you doing?

Blender: Not much, just blending. Mango, feels like. What about you?

Smoke detector: Waiting for fire.

Blender: Okay, well, bye.

A person with that kind of creative candlepower surely could have invented something more societally useful. Like a polymer that allows the bearded to enjoy barbecued ribs with the same aplomb as the clean-shaven. Seriously, I’m sure at first machine-to-machine communications will go exactly as software engineers intend:

Washer to smart wallet: My inlet valve is spent. Time to order a new one.

Smart wallet: Roger that, ordered.

But as anyone with children knows, the smart stage of development is followed swiftly by the smart-aleck stage. Here it’s not efficiency and clarity of expression but indolence and back-sass that are the coin of the realm:

Washer to smart wallet: My inlet valve is spent. Time to order a new one.

Smart wallet to washer: Pipe down, Gladys. I’m playing Call of Duty with the French press.

French press: Zis ees awesome!

You know what? I’m beginning to think this Internet of Things hysteria is one big nothing sandwich. We don’t stop having children just because adolescence is difficult. So I say keep calm and code on, with us all pledging to reassess the situation when development definitively enters the smart-aleck stage. Until then, life will be an even bigger free ride than mine during NPR pledge season. But not for everybody. Tyler still runs ten blocks in the rain to find a Redbox with Eat Pray Love, and then drives across town to buy Moscow Mule mugs. All this for Gretchen, who leaves him a dodgy message about having a cold and not coming over tonight. But that’s on Tyler.