What is the future of the Internet of Things?

Brandon Schmittling considers a future where devices as we know them are changing forever.

Smartphones are stupid. In fact, all devices are stupid. They make us dependent, they demand that we respond to commands, they're expensive and they cut us off from the people around us. Our obsession with them is limiting our ability to create a more seamless, less intrusive digital world.

We have the opportunity to create a 'connected' future – an 'internet of things' – that is so much more than 10 billion mobile devices flickering like stars in the sky. Due to recent breakthroughs in materials, that future is within our grasp – the hard part will be in putting away our phones and embracing 'death to devices'.

The easy part

Until recently, the idea of developing effective AMOLED display technology – which unflattens screens – was fanciful. AMOLED combines OLED with Active Matrix, allowing for the display of pixel data on a flexible surface. There have been several versions of AMOLED devices demoed since 2010.

But only now, as engineers make progress in using graphene – a hyper-efficient electrical conductor made of pure carbon – to fashion essential parts like memory chips and batteries out of the material, can the possibility of completely flexible, paper-thin 'devices' become real. Just look at the Paddle concept phone from Hasselt University iMinds. These progressions will mean we can start saying goodbye to the fragile, fussy and intrusive devices we have today.

The hard part

To get to this kind of post-device future, we need to embrace the concept of 'device disappearance'. This is the unravelling of the idea that you physically need to hold on to something in exchange for the integration of digital experiences and touchpoints into the world around. To do this will require changing how we relate to objects and ourselves.

In today's interconnected era, functionality has become concentrated into one single device. In the coming era, functionality will be become a diffuse array of digital elements forming an intra-connected, self-organising network. It won't be anything like a smartphone. Despite the proliferation of smartphones and tablets in our lives, device disappearance is well underway, driven by a complex interplay of social, commercial and cultural forces.

The first wearables

Socially, the very concept of a 'device' is too small for the future, and has been shown to exhaust itself in the long run. We've had wearable devices that mimic natural features or conditions of the world around us for centuries. The Maori, for example, created necklaces with holes depicting the land masses of an island chain, or notches representing the number of inlets before a safe harbour.

These devices were certainly not electronic but were 'charged' nonetheless with specific meaning, carried and referred to as navigational aids. Just like GPS today. They were the first real 'wearables' – we didn't come up with that idea.

Devices are tools that serve a cultural function. Once we no longer have a need for them, they change. Commercially, we tend to simplify – although we don't like to admit it. Device disappearance implies the removal of stuff, actions, behaviours and scenarios from our lives.

In the West, we love to fetishise objects, and we do this through devoting time to our devices. In everyday life we see tension between the human need to socialise and the desire to spend time with our devices. Right now we are swinging really hard into technology, but this won't continue if we don't see a return on our efforts.

The hero myth

Culturally, there's a fallacy or a contradiction that no one wants to recognise when we talk about the 'connected generation' or 'connected self'. While global smartphone penetration will reach 60 per cent by 2019, that doesn't necessarily mean those devices will link to each other in a meaningful way, or that information will be shared freely between them. Connection alone does not solve anything if we don't define the outcome we want.

What's even more disconcerting is the fact that complete connection remains a very new idea. All the great world cultures share hero myths: the Navajo twins left their tribe, Buddha his castle and King Arthur's knights all marched off in different directions. Heroes disconnect and return with inspiration and solutions. Disconnection is as important now as it was then. And right now connection is being touted as the solution for everything.

Getting people connected and then challenging disconnection – making disconnection seem odd – represents a complete shift in how we've told stories and who we've considered heroes for many thousands of years. We need to accept that people may not want or need to be connected, and failing that, goals and attitudes are likely to simply change between generations, making the ideal of 'connection' a moving target at best.

Finally, we're starting to experience device fatigue. We're hunting around like never before for micro-applications of the handheld device, and still it's leaving our hand. That's what the Internet of Things is all about – now that we have a taste we can't go back.

Building blocks for the future

I've tried to identify five 'building blocks' to make the post-device future easier to imagine. As we invent it, technology for the post-device future needs to promote connectedness, create time, close literacy gaps, achieve ubiquity and embrace evaporative data.

  • Promote connectedness - Connectedness is to do with removing boundaries between digital and non-digital contexts. The more connectedness we have, the more fluidly we can move from one behaviour to the next, without interrupting ourselves with a device reference. Consider Nod.com, for example. There will be a lot of testing around this idea. For example, you'll see restaurants flooding their patrons with tablets and screens to see what they do with them. Other experiments of this nature will continue until the contours of life with computing are better understood.
  • Create time - This is about reducing effort, automation, helping you shut off and shut out (like shower time). It's also about the next wave of privacy and emphasising the break between 'off' and 'on'. We should be able to treat devices like paper (weightless, can be hidden, no breakage) and not worry about damage and the time we've invested in them.
  • Close literacy gaps - Few people can fully use their current devices. Ideas like programming without code are setting us on this path, but we need to think more generally – like how we play music without instruments. Future devices can increase participation rather than curtail it.
  • Achieve ubiquity - As Cory Doctorow observed, computers are all around us – they just have cases we don't recognise. We need a way to trust what's going on around us if we are going embrace an explosion of computing even less controllable than what we have now. Fortunately, he's proposed a series of solves that help to move us in the right direction, based on the Trusted Platform Module. You can also watch him discuss the idea.
  • Embrace evaporative data - Deji Olukotun, the Ford Foundation Freedom to Write Fellow at PEN American Center, said earlier this year at that Brooklyn Museum that the phone is essentially a device for collecting data and pushing ads. Citizens will continue to want a stronger sense of ownership over their data because, like it or not, all citizens have the ability to be vocal activists now. As reporting data becomes more universal, we accelerate the creation of an economy based on personal data. Future technology should offer users the ability to opt out or benefit from their participation in this economy.

Death to devices

As we get closer to a future in which the format of our technology changes so dramatically, we'll need new and different terms, perspectives and expectations. If we start thinking now about the shortcomings of our current tech – beyond 'can it control my TV?' – we can address larger social and cultural issues, and bring humanity and technology into closer alignment. With each wave of computing comes opportunities and this one is clear: let's expand our horizons, correct our course and start imagining a world without devices.

Words: Brandon Schmittling

For exploration around these ideas and more, visit Death To All Devices.