IEEE Spectrum Magazine, March 1999

“In the future,” says the futurist, “everything will be connected to everything else.”

This is the kind of sweeping statement that leaves the audience awestruck.  Imagine – everything will be connected to everything else!  But as the rapt listener gropes for implications, the futurist moves on to other generalities about what technology holds in store for us.  Timing is everything -- since no one has any idea what all those connections will mean, the experienced futurist knows that it is best to move on to another topic.

Of course, connecting things to the Internet will be easy and incredibly cheap.  A simple chip with built-in wireless connectivity, and costing perhaps a few cents, will enable anything to connect to the world through the Internet.  Engineers are working on such chips now, and there’s little doubt it will happen.  But, I ask myself – what does it mean?

The futurist drones on with other predictions, but I’ve tuned out, caught up in the fantasy of a world of connected things.  I think of the appliances in my house, and wonder if they want to connect to the Internet.  And, if so, what they would say.

Perhaps my toaster would have its own web page.  Maybe all toasters come with personal web pages.  There would be a cute picture of my toaster, a little biography, pictures of recent successful toast, and maybe a summary of recent activities, along with tips that it has learned about good toasting.  Best toast practices, as it were.

Then I think – who is going to visit this homepage?  No one is going to be interested in my toaster.  Not even me.  Then it dawns on me – other toasters!  Other toasters might be looking for tips on how to produce better toast.  Or perhaps, stuck in dead-end jobs themselves, they might be looking for suitable positions.  I can imagine getting email the next morning from some strange toaster which, having observed the faltering performance of my own toaster, is extolling its own virtues and applying for the position

My drier would probably like to chat with my washer, getting warnings about oncoming loads of wash.  Of course, it would be regularly in touch with its manufacturer, getting the latest downloads of drying software, and reporting on its own condition.  The drier and its designers would be continually looking for new responsibilities in order to maintain their place in my house.  I imagine the doorbell ringing, and it’s FedEx with the new clothes ordered by my observant drier, cleverly bought at auction on the net.  My closet is jealous, since it feels this is its responsibility, and has ceased talking to the drier.  Worse, I discover that, in spite, the closet has donated my clothes to charity.

My refrigerator would monitor supplies, and order new staples when necessary.  Occasionally it would refuse to open at certain hours of the day, having talked to my bathroom scales, the latest web-enabled model from Tattletale, Inc.  I would undoubtedly fear the “this program has performed an illegal operation” message on the refrigerator door just when I need a quick snack.  I also imagine that it would be necessary occasionally to reboot the refrigerator.  Although I would be sorely tempted to pull the plug on this supercilious beast, there would be a warning label on the power cord – similar to that on pillows and blankets – stating that federal law prohibits its disconnection.

Perhaps the notion of six degrees of separation also applies to things.  My washer talks to my drier, which in turn talks the stove, which talks to the microwave, which talks to the refrigerator, which talks to the local supermarket, which talks to my neighbor’s refrigerator, etc.  The doorknob incorporates face recognition, talks to the thermostat, and reports on all visits.  (“He’s back!” broadcasts the doorknob to the rest of the house.)  The neighbor’s doorknob warns mine of impending visits by salespeople.  The newest doorknob models have incorporated all the functions of the butler.  The old sayings that “the walls have ears” and “if these walls could talk” have become the disturbing reality.  The world is filled with all-knowing, all-reporting things

The net hums with thing-talk.  “I’m ok, I’m ok, I’m ok,” echo the speeding photons.  Terabits rush by with their urgent messages, saying “Nothing to report, nothing to report.”  Millions of VCRs fill the fibers with their updates.  "12:00pm, 12:00pm, 12:00pm,” they repeat.  “Mayday, Mayday!” dribbles an anonymous and pathetic thing-voice.  “Xxy#&,” is the muffled cry of a dying light bulb.  A stove hums a midi tune to “Baby, Won’t you Light my Fire.”  I can’t get on the phone, because my microwave is hogging the line.  The Internet backbones are jammed with traffic, and no one has any idea anymore of where it is all coming from.  There are so many things, so many bits, and there is so little to say.

My car reports to the local gas station in the evening when it is low on gas, so that it can be filled at night and ready for me in the morning.  I like this service, but my car is no longer the friend I once knew.  If I exceed the speed limit, it reports me, and if I try to park illegally, it refuses to turn off or to let me open the door.  With integrated GPS, it continually reports my position.  I want to disengage these features, but the car comes with a shrink-wrap agreement whose legalese implies that the purchaser has only licensed its capabilities without any true ownership.  The car now owes its primary allegiance to the new mega-company, Motorsoft.  I study the car in the quiet darkness of the garage, trying fruitlessly to discern its vulnerabilities.  I feel surrounded by enemies and traitors.

My fantasy has turned dark, and I’m back to the speech I am hearing about the future.  I’m no longer sure that this “everything is connected to everything else” is really a good idea.  Maybe things should just be mute.  Maybe they should just be, well, things.

“There will be a billion people connected to the Internet,” says the futurist.

Now you’re talking, I think happily.


Robert W. Lucky