"Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go and say unto thee, Here we are?" Job 38:35
During the 19th Century when electricity made its way into our lives there was much discussion about what electricity actually was. Commentators had no prior reference points by which to compare this new concept, however many had an opinion. One scientific writer named Dionysius Lardner summarized this at the time by stating: "The world of science is not agreed to the physical character of electricity".
Electricity was believed by a number of people to be fluid-like, lighter and more subtle than any gas; others suspected electricity was a compound of two fluids "having antagonistic properties"; whilst some thought it was more like sound "a series of undulations or vibrations". From the early telegraphs there were incredible announcements showing that electricity could make a gold leaf move, a pencil turn, or a curtain blow. The wonder and fascination was immense. The coolest people in the world were those who could tell you what else electricity could do.
Depending on your research into 19th Century thinking on this subject, you may have your own favorite, but mine is a comment by Harpers Magazine in 1854 that read: "We are not to conceive of the electricity as carrying the message that we write, but rather as enabling the operator at the other end of the line to write a similar one".
I find this to be an interesting placement of the medium as being solely a supporting role to the main characters of sender and recipient, enabled to communicate. Harpers were perhaps suggesting that the fascination with what is carrying the message should be de-prioritized in favor of what it means for the two 'operators' to be in contact.
Throughout history the placement of our fascination is a determining factor for how industries, careers, and societies, are formed. Sometimes, however, the most visible aspect is not the most important.
As an example, let us fast forward to the present day.
Just as electricity re-defined the lives and value chains before, the Internet, and the increasing capability and affordability of technology, is re-defining all that we know. We are at the early stages of this disruption, and even the most cynical are becoming aware that nothing is as it was.
At the time of writing, in July 2012, an increasingly popular topic is 'The Internet Of Things'. This was a term first used in 1999 by Kevin Ashton, the British technology pioneer who co-founded the Auto-ID Center at MIT which created a global standard system for RFID and other sensors. His definition of 'The Internet of Things' was a system where the Internet is connected to the physical world via ubiquitous sensors. As it happens, prior to this work at MIT, he was a brand manager at P&G in 1997 where he got interested in how RFID could help manage P&G's supply chain.
Since then, and like a child with a new toy, our tendency is to be drawn into the new possibilities of fridges populating shopping lists, pepper mills telling waiters a refill is needed, or car engines alerting garages that a service is required. Yet I feel it is just as important that we take time to reflect and consider what all this super-connectivity actually means to society and life in general.
If our objects can remove tasks that make up much of our lives, what will we fill those holes with?
If the majority of our workforces carry out jobs that can be increasingly automated, what will those people do instead?
Is there a limit to what we seek to enable connection of?
Do we require limitations on the free thinking within connections?
As with all things, time and events will identify if it is good or bad. We will also see how it evolves. I doubt anyone can predict where it will go and how it will end up being used. All we know for certain is that it presents possibilities and all it will take is inspiration to exploit its capabilities.
Let the entertainment begin.
"The Internet of things" sounds about as utopian as "a telegraph in every house."
A better comparison to electricity would be the Higgs boson. Everyone is talking about it...nobody knows what it is useful for. Antigravity? Nuclear manipulation, and manufacturing? Who knows. But it is just as esoteric to the layman as electricity is.
And judging from the history of the 20th century, even after we all use light switches and electronic gadgets routinely, it will still be mysterious to the layman.
It's almost like a new industrial revolution, where we're on the precipice of another form of automated workforce. I don't know how long it will take before most manufacturing jobs are all automated, but with robotics advancing at the pace it is, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a major shift towards this in the next decade. Awesome post. Lots of food for thought.
David Patterson, known for his pioneering research that led to RAID, clusters and more, is part of a team at UC Berkeley that recently made its RISC-V processor architecture an open source hardware offering. We talk with Patterson and one of his colleagues behind the effort about the opportunities they see, what new kinds of designs they hope to enable and what it means for today’s commercial processor giants such as Intel, ARM and Imagination Technologies.