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It’s All Connected

Pretty soon, even your trousers will have their own Twitter account

Author Paul Ford Illustration Jacob Stead

tech

In 1993, scientists at Cambridge University in England trained a camera on a coffeepot and created a live feed to the World Wide Web for people to watch at their leisure. What fun that pot was, sitting there percolating. By 2002, somebody had hooked a remote-controlled Etch A Sketch to the Web, allowing users to create wobbly circles in real time. Today, we are connected to the Internet in ways that those early pioneers couldn’t have imagined. We have intelligent transportation systems, intelligent buildings and intelligent energy grids, all of which can work together via the Web. And if you don’t believe us, you can go straight to the source—some of these entities have their own Twitter accounts. By 2015, according to Cisco, some 25 billion devices will be connected to the Internet. Look around and you’ll see them: computers, smartphones, cameras, routers, televisions, MP3 players. Soon, even the most mundane objects—watches, say, or wallets—will have an Internet connection. Already we have the “quantified self” trend, in which people keep tabs on their fitness data via wearable sensors. And let’s not forget the Japanese, pioneers of smart toilets, which know when they’ve been used and can share that valuable data with people who are seriously into … tracking.

Songdo International Business District, a $40 billion redevelopment project on the Incheon waterfront in South Korea, is a model for where all of this is headed. When it’s completed in 2015, everything in the new district will be wired together and connected to the Internet, yielding total technological integration. Street lamps will react to the number of people walking by. The city’s houses and the stuff within them will be hooked up to the information grid. Kids will wear tracking bracelets.

Songdo, as ambitious as it may sound, isn’t so different from the world you and I occupy at present. It’s become commonplace to have objects communicate with other objects—CCTV cameras and traffic signals, GPS devices and a Facebook server—but we’re also getting used to having objects communicate with us. The digital theorist Tom Coates, for example, has hooked his house up to Twitter, which tweets at @houseofcoates. “It’s quite dark in the Sitting Room,” the house recently posted. “I’m going to turn the light on.” At around the same time, London’s Tower Bridge (@twrbrdg_itself) tweeted: “I am closing after the SB Gladys has passed downstream.” There’s something eerie about such messages. It’s easy to imagine Coates’ house twittering away for years after an apocalyptic event.

The game-changing thing about all of this is that our interconnected microwaves and wristbands aren’t only communicating; they’re busily generating data, and all of that data is being stored on our hard drives, or by the services we use or by the National Security Agency. You are now one of the zillion points of data that make up the Internet. Old news, you might say. But this is different—because you are publishing not by blogging or tweeting or poking, but by doing stuff in real life. Taking food out of your Internet-enabled fridge and putting it in your Internet-enabled blender, adjusting your Internet-enabled thermostat, sitting on your Internet-enabled commode. We have met the coffeepot, and it is us.

As you generate more and more data, meanwhile, there will be more and more services on hand to feed your most intimate information into the cloud, indexing you and your things in the same way that Google indexes The New York Times, then giving all that data back to you in the form of helpful advice (“Time to feed the baby!”), or even a helping hand (calling 911 in the event of a diabetic coma), before sorting and storing the details of your existence for the convenience of anybody else who wants to access them.  

You could say, in fact, that we are not so much being connected to the Internet as being absorbed by it. Whether jogging, eating, sleeping or walking around, your average human is on the cusp of becoming a movable database—a cluster of servers, all pinging and chatting, producing and logging information. If it carries on like this, before long we will all amount to little Internet companies.

Not everyone, of course, is enamored of all this. According to the trend watchers, more and more people are going “off the grid,” not only in terms of their physical location (moving to a log cabin in Alaska) but in terms of limiting their exposure to the ever-watchful eye of the Internet. You can read about these people on off-grid.net. In fact, you can track and contact them via the site’s interactive map.  

PAUL FORD, a New York City–based writer and computer programmer, recently received an instant message from his socks. Follow him on Twitter at @ftrain.

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