The Things from Inner Space

By | July 31, 2014

Nebula- and Hugo-winning science-fiction author Robert J. Sawyer is perhaps best known by non-sci-fi fans as the author of FlashForward, a pretty good novel that was made into a pretty bad TV series back in 2009 (premise: everyone on Earth blacks out for two minutes and seventeen seconds and has a vision of the future). A few years after that, Sawyer wrote the excellent (in my opinion) “WWW” trilogy, in which the Internet evolves consciousness and becomes a living entity.

I was reminded of that in a weird way a few weeks ago when I was having a conversation with someone about “the Internet of Things (IoT),” a phrase I first started hearing a couple of years ago. (I did initially confuse it with the “Internet of The Thing,” which I assumed was a fan site dedicated to the 1951 sci-fi classic, if not the 1982 or 2011 remakes which were cases of diminishing returns.)

Be that as it may, “the Internet of things” has nothing to do with giant malevolent plant creatures from space or James Arness (who played the actual Thing), or any of that, but instead refers to the idea of having all the physical objects in our lives connected to the Internet. This can refer to any number of things—smart medicine cabinets that use WiFi to automatically keep our prescriptions up to date, a smart refrigerator that lets us know when our milk has gone sour, Internet-controlled appliances and environments, and so forth. Much of this exists already. You can buy a slow cooker whose temperature can be adjusted using a smartphone app. You can buy an electronic fork that calculates how fast you’re eating and warns you to slow down. (I’d give it less than two minutes before thwinging it in the ceiling.) Friends of mine in the UK have a pet door that is unlocked by an RFID chip implanted in their cat. DVRs and other household appliances can be controlled remotely. Then there is wearable tech, which is a whole other kettle of fish. And it’s probably only a matter of time before there is an Internet-enabled fish kettle. (I wouldn’t put the fish in the slow-cooker; fish is too delicate for slow cooking.)

And all that is just the beginning. Gartner estimates that there will be nearly 26 billion devices on the “Internet of Things” by 2020.

Now, depending on your point of view, this all sounds really convenient or utterly horrifying. And certainly no “digital nirvana”! Regardless, it’s probably inevitable. And who knows, maybe the Internet will develop a consciousness at the end of all this, becoming an all-seeing, all-knowing entity. Which would be even more terrifying.

What does this mean for all of us here in our own corner of the Internet? Well, the printing industry has never done an especially good job of keeping up with technology and how it has transforms our culture. Dr. Joe and I write about this at length in our forthcoming book This Point Forward: The New Start the Marketplace Demands, which will debut at Graph Expo in September. I remember when e-books first hit the public consciousness in the late 1990s. Everyone pooh-poohed the idea; “who wants to read on a screen?” Well, go to any public location today and all anyone is doing is reading from screens, often to the exclusion of everything else, like conversing with people or paying attention to traffic. The Internet of Things will continue to change our relationship with technology, with media, and with mobile phones, as smartphones will be our “nodes” for accessing all the interconnected  “things.”

On the plus side, we’re going to need sensors for all this stuff. Lots and lots of sensors. Sensors produced in high volume and at low cost. Printed electronics—the sequel to what RFID was touted as a decade ago—may be the way the printing industry gets a piece of the IoT action. Needless to say (but I’ll say it anyway), it will require a whole different approach to the printing business than simply buying a new piece of equipment, but it could be—and has been—a viable option for those interested in pursuing it. But as we talk about in the book, you’re probably going to have to take a completely different approach to the printing business as we lurch toward 2020.

Kind of makes you feel like James Arness in The Thing, doesn’t it?

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