Essay / Reconnecting
Stripping Back the Internet of Things: Reconnecting with a Connected Device
August 25, 2016
“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” - Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand Country Almanac
Aldo Leopold would probably not own a Nest thermostat. Nest – the seminal example of connected devices – does many things incredibly well, but spiritually connect you to the source of your heat is not one of them.
Whether you own a connected device at the moment or not, it’s undeniable that the dawn of the programmable world is upon us. From wearable technology to smart furniture, cars and appliances, our relationship with things will never be the same.
This begs some thought on the part of the consumer. Some leaders in the maker movement, like littleBits’ Ayah Bdeir, argue that we can’t allow the Internet of Things to take hold without fully understanding how it works. Heidegger’s argument, conversely, was that concealment (or “enframing,” as was the name of his theory) is simply a part of new technology coming into being.
Albert Borgmann, a tech philosopher, laid out a rather pessimistic dichotomy between ‘devices’ and ‘things.’ In his view, the Internet of Things might contain no ‘things’ at all. In The Internet of Things and the Work of the Hands Thomas Wendt explains that to Borgmann, “devices are defined by their ability to conceal the work involved in their outputs and the consumptive enjoyment they provide. Subsequently, the device erodes the users’ bodily engagement with an activity.”
In Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Borgmann used the same example of the stove to lay out his argument that concealing the inner workings of a thing makes it a ‘device,’ disconnected from the human experience:
“[The stove is] a place that gathered the work and leisure of a family and gave the house a center. Its coldness marked the morning, and the spreading of its warmth the beginning of the day. It assigned to the different family members tasks that defined their place in the household. The mother built the fire, the children kept the firebox filled, and the father cut the firewood. It provided for the entire family a regular and bodily engagement with the rhythm of the seasons that was woven together of the threat of cold and the solace of warmth, the smell of wood smoke, the exertion of sawing and of carrying, the teaching of skills, and the fidelity to daily tasks. These features of physical engagement and of family relations are only first indications of the full dimensions of a thing’s world.”
In Wendt’s words, “the thing becomes a catalyst for surrounding relations: familial structures emerge around it, roles and responsibilities are laid out, pain and pleasure are experienced as a group, and teaching skills becomes an everyday practice.”
Let’s get back to Aldo’s warning about your breakfast.
As UX Director at Grove Labs, a startup building connected devices that grow food in your home, I’m constantly thinking about how to give our users the full experience of the ‘thing,’ while designing an intelligent, easy to use product.
I believe the potential of the programmable world is not to erode our bodily engagement with an activity, but to enhance it. We can’t digitize eating for you — at least not yet. We can’t conceal the beauty of smelling fresh tomatoes or inhaling oxygen-rich air. In automating the cycle of light, the flow of water, and the movement of air in your indoor garden, we hope to invite more and more people to reconnect to the physical experience of growing and harvesting their food.
If we can succeed in creating a smart thing, and not a smart device, then real-time data about the growth of your food can fulfill the vision of smart technology by empowering you with information in context. If done right, the intelligence of a smart product can create magic in your relationship with the thing.
Ironically, I believe this digitally connected thing can strip back the layers of anonymity, convenience and packaging that currently stand between you and your understanding of your food. If Aldo Leopold saw a danger in leaning too much on our grocer, he’d be shocked to find us ordering our food on Instacart.
My fridge is a device – I don’t understand how it works, or know what’s happening behind the shiny metal plating.
If Aldo Leopold were alive today, I hope he’d own a Grove. The core of the experience – growing and eating your food – is now yours more than ever before.
“One assumption the industry seems to be making is that pleasure comes from the reduction of work, an increase in leisure time, and automation. But sometimes pleasure comes from work.”
- Thomas Wednt, UX Magazine
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