When Things Start to Gossip and Other Computational Matters

Arduino Connected Home Internet of Things Technology
When Things Start to Gossip and Other Computational Matters

This essay is excerpted from the newly published third edition of Tom’s seminal book, Making Things Talk: Using Sensors, Networks, and Arduino to See, Hear, and Feel Your World.

A few years ago, Neil Gershenfeld wrote a smart book called When Things Start to Think. In it, he discussed a world in which everyday objects and devices are endowed with computational power: in other words, today.

Gershenfeld talked about the implications of devices that exchange information about our identities, abilities, and actions. It’s a good read, but I think he got the title wrong. I would have called it When Things Start to Gossip, because—let’s face it—even the most exciting thoughts are worthwhile only once you start to talk to someone else about them. Making Things Talk teaches you how to make things that have computational power talk to each other, and about giving people the ability to use those things to communicate.

Notes on the Third Edition 

Two hopeful changes prompted the previous rewriting of this book: the emergence of an open source hardware movement, and the growth of participatory culture, particularly around making interactive things.

The changes that prompted this rewrite are more cautionary: the spread of consumer devices that collect data about all the physical activities of our lives, and the gradual obfuscation of where that data goes.

These come wrapped in products and services that offer us simplicity and convenience. We need to consider these trends and their consequences carefully. An understanding of the technologies that underlie them will help us to make informed choices about the role they play in our lives.

Don’t Call it IoT

Despite what the title (chosen more than 10 years ago) might suggest, this book is not about the “Internet of Things.” The ideals behind that term run counter to those I hope that this book promotes. Kevin Ashton, director of MIT’s Auto-ID Center, reportedly coined the term in 1999.

In his essay “That ‘Internet of Things’ Thing,” he noted that most of the data collected on the internet at that time had been collected and entered by people. He went on to argue that people are unreliable collectors of data, and that leads to unreliable data. He stated instead that, “We need to empower computers with their own means of gathering information, so they can see, hear and smell the world for themselves, in all its random glory. RFID and sensor technology enable computers to observe, identify and understand the world—without the limitations of human entered data.”

While I agree with him that computers can serve our needs better when they have the capability to sense a wider range of physical activity, I think that a world where data is collected automatically, without human oversight and judgment, is not one in which I would like to live.

Data Custodians

Though I don’t think Ashton wants to live in a world of total surveillance any more than I do, his vision is being interpreted in such a way as to make that a reality. Consumer connected devices gather information about our activities at home, in the gym, in the car, and everywhere else we go, in order to learn our patterns and deliver us ever more convenient services.

That’s great as long as we understand who the custodians of that data are, what they are collecting, and what the terms of our relationship with those custodians include. Unfortunately, that level of transparency has not yet been realized in the devices and services we’re enthusiastically inviting into our lives.

My Nest knows my temperature preferences and auto adjusts; my Hue brings up a warm glow as I approach the house; and Alexa knows just what I want to hear on the stereo. I can relax, I’m told, because the data is “in the cloud.”

But there is no cloud. There are routers and switches and servers, and they’re owned by companies with whom we have relationships. I believe we can maintain the upper hand in those relationships when we have a better understanding of the operation of these devices and the networks through which they communicate.

I want you to know how these devices convert your actions into data, how they transmit that data to servers, and where they send those readings. For that reason I haven’t used many of the cloud-based data services for connected devices in this book. The Internet and the Worldwide Web are built on a number of open and collaboratively derived standards like the Internet Protocol (IP) and the Hypertext Transport Protocol (HTTP), and there is value in knowing those standards before you start using cloud-based services that rely on them.

You’re the Smart One, So Stay Safe

The Internet has become a less innocent place in the years since this book was first written. The events of 2016, from the Mirai botnet attacks to the network activities surrounding global political change, have made it clear that we can no longer see the Internet as a place to escape from the physical world. Along with its potential, it poses similar dangers to our privacy, our individual agency, and our wellbeing.

It is now necessary that anyone using the Internet must have a basic understanding of the security tools that make it a safer place to conduct our activities. Although this is not a book on network security, I’ve attempted to include a few basic tips on that.

What makes the Internet great is not its ability to store information about us, but its ability to allow us to interact with each other in new and unexpected ways. Sensors and creative design thinking expand the range of physical expression that our networked devices might sense and interpret. Although this capability comes with the potential for abuse, I believe we can manage that danger if we understand how things work.

Ashton says, “In the real world, things matter more than ideas.” That’s true only if we keep in mind that in the best world, people matter more than things.

‘Making Things Talk,’ third edition, is available at Amazon.com and other booksellers.

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Tom Igoe

Tom Igoe is an associate arts professor at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, and a co-counder of arduino.cc.

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