You may have already noticed that the mobility issue is over and done. In fact, mobile, social, wearable and the internet of things have converged. What remains is to understand what it all means -- what just happened to us?
I was sitting in Starbucks a few months ago with my 8-year old daughter playing 20 questions. She chose an oddly specific creature, a black and white warbler, but she had a spotty knowledge of its habits. Turns out she was doing a little research project on the bird. She knew its song and its size, but not its habitat. So with my iPhone and Starbucks' free WiFi, we Googled the bird, and were able to find facts, images and even hear its song. Mobile can be beautiful.
Super Powers and Artificial Senses
Your iPhone, or Android, or whatever, may be in your hand more than your car keys, your silverware and your loved ones combined. It gives you superpowers. You have in your hand a super-human sense of everything from location and speed to radiation, food freshness, proximity, blood pressure and much more. It also gives you constant access to our “continually improving, communal, prosthetic memory” (thank you, Gibson), known as the internet (I have always found the capitalization of internet disturbing. Don’t do it. Just live with the green underlining).
Your phone also gives you, should you choose to accept it, a constant awareness of the world around you -- whether it's telling us about the latest sports hero or dictatorship to go down, Bezos buying the Washington Post, or the earthquake you’re about to be rattled by. We have constant contact with our kith and kin. It gives you protection in uncertain circumstances and aid in emergencies. It gives you freedom. Certainly it gives my kids theirs -- I’d never let them roam untethered.
We have seen phones, connected to social networks, catalyze the fall of tyrannical regimes, and coordinate aid in disasters. We’ve seen them both record and create historic events. The medium is indeed the message. [McLuhan understood so very deeply, so early. Of course he was also witnessing a social revolution. The 1960s and 70s reexamination of social mores hardly compares with the revolution we are seeing today, but today’s social refactoring will play out over a longer time horizon. Maybe.]
A Third Way - Neither Animate nor Inanimate
There is no longer a simple dichotomy between animate and inanimate objects.
There is a new class of objects. I’ll call them signalers. They are objects that send signals. These include your phone of course, along with many other things. Soon to be a nearly infinite number of things.
Your thermostat, for example, always was a sensor. It sensed temperature, and turned your furnace on or off accordingly. Your Nest, however, does more. It monitors and adjusts, but also attempts to record patterns and adjust according to those patterns, which is interesting, but still not the point. The point is that Nest knows when you are likely to be home and your temperature preferences and it is iPhone app controllable, which means that data is stored in someone’s cloud. Not your cloud. This is true also of your GPS.
Your box of cornflakes is not a signaler, but a signal. When you buy your cereal, it is scanned. The price is displayed and added to your grocery bill. It is also logged with the grocery store inventory processes, and their marketing database.
Because the supermarkets now give very large discounts for joining their clubs, along with gas discounts and others -- few of us are radical enough to resist joining. Not to mention the fact that this same information is also registered with your financial institution because you probably paid with another signaler -- a bank card or credit card. This began decades ago, but back then they were collecting data with little ability to do much with it. Well big data has come a rather long way -- and now Target can detect your unwed teenage daughter’s pregnancy before you can.
Now Objects can See You Back
We are used to being anonymous in an inanimate world.
Your objects are pumping you information at the same time they are pumping it back to some central location. Who’s watching and why? The government is watching some of it, and you can be certain that the company who sells or services your object/service is also watching -- probably to maximize their profits, and sometimes to also maximize your enjoyment. Apple wants to know what you listen to so that they can sell you more. Target and Safeway want your information so that they can sell you more. The government wants your information to track down bad guys, or possibly for other reasons such as public health or protection of civil rights (rather than, we hope, the suppression of them).