If This Toaster Could Talk: The Place of Stories on the Internet of Things

drougge/Flickr via The Atlantic
drougge/Flickr via The Atlantic

The common toaster is a flashpoint of sorts on the Internet of Things – both ridiculous and profound, either a case of overreach or a demonstration of how something as seemingly mundane as toast is the next frontier of web-based technologies.

If Web 2.0 brought us the social web – the ability to track each other, poke each other and talk to each other, then the Internet of Things proposes that we’ll soon be able to have those same conversations with objects.

And much like Facebook has become, for many, a kind of ambient social backdrop in their life, the happiness of your toaster or the temperature of your living room will be a kind of mesh that underpins our feeds and pokes, a humming kind of ambient noise that auto tunes itself based on mood or location.

Enchanted Objects

Alexis Lloyd explored the idea of things having narratives in a recent post at The Atlantic. She proposed that it’s time to start moving beyond functional descriptions and frameworks for the Internet of Things and start thinking about the narrative of objects:

“The cultural conversation about the Internet of things has tended toward a highly functionalist, utilitarian set of ideas: Connected objects can make smart homes a reality, where toasters will talk to alarm clocks so your toast is ready when you awaken, and fridges will know when you’re out of yogurt. Connected objects can turn an environment into an ambient data utility, where the color of your lamp reflects your stock portfolio’s performance or your bracelet’s color lets you know how active you’ve been.  Connected objects can optimize health habits by giving continuous readouts of activity levels, arousal, weight, blood pressure, and more.

While these scenarios, and others like them, are certainly useful, plausible, and rife with challenges and opportunities, there is a whole world of narrative and poetic potential embodied by the Internet of things that has yet to be fully explored. Even the phrase “Internet of things” can evoke a drab sense of utility and hyper-efficiency.” 

She proposes that we start asking questions about the stories behind objects, and proposes we adopt David Rose’s term enchanted objects to help us break from the paradigm of utility and functionalism that surrounds discussions of the Internet of Things:

“As more of our objects and environments become actuated, connected, and data-enabled, these enchanted objects are developing the capacity to contain their own stories. An object can remember its history, can understand how it is used, can talk to other objects around it to understand its environment. As these capabilities evolve, objects no longer become inert backdrops to our experiences, but active participants in our world that can share stories about themselves and us.”

But what do these stories look like? For inspiration, I’m reminded of this video which tells the story of a ‘thing’:

The Story Structure of Enchanted Objects
Alexis proposes three frameworks to help envision the story potential of objects on the Internet of Things:


Objects as Portals: In which objects are starting or jumping off points into stories and where “objects can become lenses through which to look backward in time, to tell a story about their own histories or the histories of their environments”.

She points to John Kestner’s Tableau as an example of such a device:

“It’s a nightstand that quietly drops photos it sees on its Twitter feed into its drawer, for the owner to discover. Images of things placed in the drawer are posted to its account as well.”

The project reminds me of work that I saw at Toronto’s TAG Lab in which a picture frame acted as a communication device for older people with cognitive dysfunction.

Objects as Subjects: In which objects have a point of view and are participants in a shared experience. She points to existing systems as signs that this co-participation with objects already exists:

“In some ways, this perception of subjectivity is already developing with regard to systems that are explicitly computational. When we interact with voice or gesture recognition systems, for example, we have a mental model (correct or incorrect) about how the system understands us, how it “hears” or “sees.” Not only do we begin to perceive the machine’s subjectivity, but we also adapt our behavior in order to best converse with it, making subtle changes in the way we enunciate or the way we move. How does this mental modeling and behavioral adaptation evolve as sensing and interactivity move beyond the explicitly computational sphere and into our everyday objects?”

Objects as Oracles: This is perhaps the more speculative use case, one in which objects give a hint of what’s to come, either by facilitating new perspective or by sketching out futures that haven’t quite been imagined yet. Alexis likens it to the fragment a hologram in which there is a residue of the whole. She points to ‘things that don’t work’ as a place from which stories can emerge and quotes Matt Ward on Design Fiction:

“Things that don’t work create interesting stories…Finding the uncomfortable haunting fiction that surrounds an object, the place where social life starts to break down and fracture is far more interesting than a world that ‘just works’.”

This reminds me of emergent gameplay – the unintended consequences of technology which will arise no matter how ‘controlled’ the game system is.

Beyond Lifelogging
This view of things as stories – as portals, subjects or oracles, stands in contrast to the view that objects primarily tell stories about US. It runs counter to the argument that IoT is nothing more than an extension of our Facebook profile.

At GigaOm, Nova Spivack proposes that the quantified self movement needs to be supercharged with stories:

“The “self” is too narrow. The quantified self movement isn’t about me, explicitly — I care dramatically more about what all of the past, present and future “me” amounts to. We’re looking at a new oral tradition — the sum and summary of my life. It’s my story, spoken through data and technology.”

But Nova builds from a starting premise that the answer to a need for stories is in our need to share:

“We want to be authentic with friends and family. We want to be digitally intimate. Whereas lifelogging signals aggregation, lifestreaming suggests openness and sharing. If new filters emerge that sit between private and public data, all the better. It’s my argument that the all the quantified self data in the world amounts to very little until it’s put into the context of the other human lives I care about.”

And while that might be partly true, it isn’t ALWAYS true. In other words, just because SOME people want to be authentic and open and to share their vital stats or heart rate or number of miles jogged with friends it doesn’t mean that EVERYONE does.

It also privileges, once again, the person above the environment, my social connections above the mesh of the world around me – and while it might sound odd to say that objects themselves might deserve equal privileges to people, I’d propose that it’s an interesting design paradigm to BEGIN with that premise, rather than with the premise that all objects are simply tools for our social connections or culture.

The Cultural Meaning of Object-Based Stories
In fact, I can’t help wondering whether the people doing the really brilliant work around stories on the Internet of Things aren’t scratching at something deeper and more profound.

We live in a world where the conventional wisdom out of Silicon Valley is that technology is simply a tool. It’s values-neutral and is there to abet human progress. Anything that needs to be solved can be if we only deploy our tools the right way.

But the story of objects tells us something different: that objects themselves can have the privilege of their own stories and might not always be there to inform our social lives or facilitate greater sharing or transparency or monitoring or tracking. As portals to deeper meanings and future histories, as participants in our experiences, objects on the Internet of Things are starting to craft their own culture of story and it is one that may very well diverge from our own.

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