I got those visors for $99!

The Future Factory: The Internet of Affordable Things

(this is a fictional piece inspired by the $9 computer launched recently on Kickstarter by HAX company Next Thing Co.)

Five years have passed since the cost of putting computers into things dropped dramatically.

When “intelligent objects” started to replace the first wave of “smart devices”, the latter gradually filled drawers and closets. There piled up outdated “wearables” and other “smart devices”.

Who knew those guys in their Oakland warehouse would trigger such a groundswell?

The Banana is For Scale

When they launched their $9 computer “C.H.I.P.” on Kickstarter, many didn’t grasp the significance of the moment. Who really stands back and say “this is a historical moment” as it is happening? Truth be told, the creators themselves tried to minimize the story, making playful jokes with bananas (for scale). But as social media sites used to say “you wouldn’t believe what happened next!”

And oh so many things happened

First, tinkerers, hobbyists, makers and software people alike rejoiced to get access to such cheap Linux machines. Over 30,000 of them jumped on the occasion in a mere few weeks, forgoing whom an overpriced smoothie, whom a movie night, to buy and play with the new device.

Quickly, the forgotten dreams of “One Laptop Per Child” and “$100 laptop” found a new life. The Oakland folks were selling a minimal $49 “laptop” with touchscreen and keyboard. Governments and charities of all sorts jumped on it. Schools at home and abroad realized every kid could have one for less money than a pair of sneakers.

The honeymoon lasted some time, then came the second wave.

The Internet of Affordable Things

This second wave started as an art movement: tinkerers would attach computers to various outdoor display screens, abandon little machines here and there. It was reminiscent of the toy maker’s creations in the old Blade Runner. Stray electronic pets with a life of their own.

Some creators decided to go beyond producing just a few hand-made units and started commuting to Shenzhen to build products. All sort of low-cost devices flooded crowdfunding platforms and were produced in varying quantities. It was a “Cambrian explosion”, the dawn of the much-anticipated “Internet of Things”, finally made affordable.

Not a single object was safe from this re-rigging. Even the humble toaster — the butt of many jokes in the first wave of smart devices — became a reality. Its price was just a few tens of dollars above a regular one. The placid fellow was stuffed with a flurry of sensors giving it eyes, ears, and more. The onboard CPU gave it voice and face recognition; it would see you or hear you ask for a toast and start toasting to your taste. It was fully autonomous but could use internet for various tracking, data analysis, connectivity and recommendations.

Soon, objects all had a computer inside, not mere connectivity and sensors. Just like “tablet babies” were unsuccessfully trying to “swipe” the page of paper magazines (like on a broken iPad), people started to expect objects to respond to voice, waving or presence. You would often catch people executing the little “input exploration dance” in front of an object, trying to figure out which command was needed. This occasionally ended in frustration as the unresponsive “dumb” object required manual input.

Software is Eating Hardware

Per-use and subscription revenue models allowed the broad distribution of devices for free, compounding the problem of widespread electronic junk. The saying was “we’ll make it up on data”. Software was eating hardware, but not digesting it well. Devices started to be collected and repurposed, as most of the base was open source. Governments and companies started to control and limit the distribution of free devices.

Social issues arose: camera phones and early drones had showed a glimpse of those, but as rogue intelligent objects multiplied, no place was ever safe from prying eyes or ears. The Internet of affordable things had become the Internet of invasive things. What was once a sci-fi technical prowess in a Batman movie became daily routine. Everything was recorded, recognized, sorted, archived and made searchable by the millions of networked computers in the wild. Every object became a suspicious. People had to think twice before every word or action.

Countermeasures such as ultrasonic scramblers and IR flashes spread for a while, providing temporary relief to the more tech-savvy. Others fell victim to the ever-expanding synopticon.

Living in Public

Governments, once bad actors themselves, became targets. They tried to regulate and control the spread but the economics of autonomous computing were stronger and faster. After information, computers wanted to be free. Eventually, transparency became the norm.

Those born when privacy was prevalent had to either adjust their behaviors, stop caring, or live as recluse. Some chose to retreat in the safer virtual reality, making use of drones and on-demand services as their interface to the outside world.

The kids growing up with cheap networked computing and intelligent objects simply regarded older folks as behind the times. Like the latter once looked at the pre-Internet crowd, and like pre-Internet folks looked at their pre-TV or pre-electricity ancestors.

“How did you do back then?”
“Wasn’t it inconvenient?”
“How could you do without data to back up your decisions?”
“Do you realize the many things you believed and were wrong?”

And the old folks, taking a moment to reflect, replied:
“Well, we managed to get the world so far. Now I’m sure that, like us, you won’t believe what happens next!”