"Thing" is a word that encompasses everything, goes with anything and clarifies just about nothing.
"The thing is to put a motor in yourself."
-- Frank Zappa, "We're Only In It for the Money"
LAS VEGAS -- According to all the banners, keynote speakers and shameless self-promoters at this year's Consumer Electronics Saturnalia (CES), the thing is the "Internet of Things."
Samsung CEO B.K. Yoon
The very term sounds momentous. I fairly trembled at its vast scope and Promethean implications until -- the first night here -- B.K. Yoon, head honcho for consumer electronics at Samsung, tried to explain how the Internet of Things (Eye Oh Tea) will endemically "change people's lives for the better while "transforming society and revolutionizing industries" the world over. Whoo-ee!
The thing is that Yoon seemed to be having trouble with the concept of the "thing" itself. I don't blame him. Socrates and Einstein could probably talk for days about what exactly is a "thing" and come away from the whole thing cranky, disheveled and irresolute.
"Thing" is a word that encompasses everything, goes with anything and clarifies just about nothing. Yet, here at CES, I watched 160,000 non-philological geeks and post-metaphysical hustlers clogging up Sin City, trying to plug their particular "things" into a nebulous global "cloud" of concept, communications and cutthroat commerce.
But what's a "thing," Yoon?
When someone says, "my things," of course, he or she knows exactly what those precious, proprietary things are. It's the contents of a handbag. Or, it's the buildings, contents, grounds and beachfront of a mansion in the Hamptons. Or, it's a shopping cart pushed around Skid Row, accumulating aluminum beer cans, plastic sheeting and half-eaten Whoppers.
When people say, "The thing is...", they know what the thing is. It's the point, the crux of the matter, the rhetorical coup de grace that silences all debate. Except that someone else's "thing" usually manages to survive this crushing blow, and -- in less than Socratic order -- the dispute rages on, both full of things and thingless. Even poor befuddled Einstein, all things being relative, would understand this.
The Thing is also a classic sci-fi film in which James Arness, dressed in a sort of asbestos gorilla suit, plays a raging, superhuman extraterrestrial who trashes an arctic research outpost.
If the Internet of Things were a flying-saucer refugee who terrorizes arctic research outposts, it would bring blessed clarity to the endless hype of CES and the bewildering vagueness of IoT. But movie monsters are, definitely, not what Yoon and his army of nerds are trying to explain. James Arness, even if he stripped off his E.T disguise and morphed incongruously into Marshal Matt Dillon, would be too easy a "thing" to pin down.
Internet of People
The thing is that the "Internet of People" (Eye Oh Pee?), which most of us now use daily to do Facebook, answer e-mail, delete spam, watch dirty movies and buy socks from Amazon, has exhausted its run as The Next Big Thing (TNBT). The all-new, latest-thing Eye Oh Tea consists of products -- that is, devices -- that is, gadgets, doo-hickies and buzzing, spinning gewgaws -- that is, things! that are styled to dazzle the gullible consumer and create infinite possibilities of income for the gadget-makers.
But what are the things -- in an economic era of vast income inequality and stagnant incomes among us non-Yoons in the 99 percent -- that radiate the irresistible power to squeeze the last drop of blood from the stone of consumer culture. What things do we want to connect to our other things to reassure us that we belong, that we, human beings belong to the Internet of Things just as surely as our smartphone, smartwatch, smartTV and brain-wave detecting hat (one of B.K. Yoon's brainstorms) belong?
What are the things we still don't have? What things are left that we really want? Which things do we need so much that we're willing to re-mortgage our double-wide and spend the kids' college fund to plug into a home network that reads our consumer tendencies so accurately that it can advise us -- at ten-second intervals -- of all the things we don't yet have but want and need?
Yoon told an adoring, standing-room audience at CES that one thing we all want for sure (little did I imagine) is a seamless, end-to-end technology that will effortlessly manage our... wine cellars. Yes, surprising. But he had a point. The thing is, not only do I need a wine-cellar solution. I need wine and I need a cellar. Not to mention a house above the cellar. And an income that would allow me to buy all that wine, seamlessly, effortlessly.
But the thing is, I actually don't want what B.K. Yoon wants for me. Neither the wine thing nor the brain-wave thing. Nor the thing that that drives my car for me. Nor the thing that beeps six times every minute, forever, reporting on the GSM coordinates of my entire family -- none of whom wants me to know where they are.
Ain't no big thing
Here's the thing: I do my thing. B.K. Yoon does his thing. This is not a thing for me. But it is for Yoon, and for all these other Eye Oh Tea folks. They want to identify the thing and the things so immersive that they have the magnetic force to suck us all, people and devices alike, into their Internet of Things -- like toons being dropped into Judge Doom's vatful of "dip."
All this “thing” talk at CES carried me back to my college summer as a camp counselor. The camp, which mixed kids from all points in Chicago, was built and maintained by a rugged crew of Job Corps workers, most of them on release from jail or drug rehab.
The “work camp” counselors, who had to keep the Job Corps guys on a tight leash, were behavioral geniuses whose qualities combined toughness, discipline, compassion, persuasion and keen psychology. When tensions mounted among the work campers and violence became a genuine possibility, their counselors took charge swiftly.
There were arguments among the work campers, but I never saw a fight, because of four soothing words that the counselors — and then the workers — had turned into a mantra. So powerful was this phrase that it became a golden rule throughout the camp, applicable to all problems for everyone in the camp's melting pot.
When you said it -- "Ain't no big thing" -- you had to chill. Whatever it was, whatever had you at wit's end, whatever indefinable thing that for the moment was clouding your mind and firing your emotions, no...
Ain't no big thing.
I come away from CES this year wondering if that might turn out to be the motto, the benediction, the main thing and the epitaph for the Internet of Things.
--David Benjamin is a novelist and journalist who writes occasionally on technology issues for EE Times, usually from the Luddite point of view. His latest novel, A Sunday Kind of Love, is available on Amazon.