Culture, Affordances, & Emergence

Meditations on the Internet of Things

What is the current discourse around the Internet of Things (IoT)? What are the topics and concerns being discussed by engineers, designers, entrepreneurs, politicians, and others? If we look at the media from a journalists perspective it would seem the discourse covers privacy, security, and authenticity. If we look at conferences such as O’Reilly’s SolidCon in San Francisco, from a technologist’s perspective it would seem the discourse covers openness, appropriateness, and perhaps biohacking. IoT seems to be inevitable and if Cisco’s prediction of 50 billion connected devices by 2020 (thats just 5 years!) becomes a reality, designers, who historically have made things, should also have an opinion about the future of things. With IoT looming and my career as a design practitioner starting, I wonder about the future IoT and design’s role shaping it. To add to the discourse on IoT the topics that I’m interested in are about culture, affordances and emergence.


The world has become more connected and as a result cities have become cultural melting pots. Walk a block in any hip metropolitan neighborhood and you are likely to find stores and restaurants that have cultural roots from different parts of the world. So whenever I hear about designing smart cities or smart homes I wonder whose city? Whose home? One of the challenges IoT companies face today is not imagining how to make things technically possible but rather imagining how things have context and meaning in peoples lives. Physical objects unlike their digital counterparts (i.e. stuff on screens) have a history and people derive context and meaning based on that object’s cultural legacy. For example, depending the household the design of a toilet can be varied. In most western countries people sit on their toilets whereas in Asian countries people squat over their toilets. French and Japanese toilets have a bidet whereas British and American toilets do not.

The toilet is a classic example of how the context of an object can vary based on the cultural history of a person interacting with it. So as we start to connect everyday objects to the internet then understanding the cultural ancestry of those objects is critical and this especially true as cities become culturally diverse. Additionally, if objects the past have cultural history that inform the context of objects of the present what is the legacy we want to leave behind for objects of the future when designing for the present?


Similar to culture another way people derive meaning from objects is through their affordances. Coined by psychologist James J. Gibson an affordance is “a relation between an object or an environment and an organism, that affords the opportunity for that organism to perform an action” or more simply put it is an action promise. That being said these action promises are not universal, for example, stairs promise that they will support your weight as you walk upwards but for someone in a wheelchair they promise to be a burden. One of the benefits of digital objects/interfaces is that their affordances are malleable and can adapt to the person interacting with it. The malleable qualities of digital things fused with physical things presents an interesting opportunity around affordances. Hiroshi Ishii and other researchers at MIT’s Media Lab imagine a world where atoms become as mutable as bits. Can connected things adjust their affordances based on the person interacting with them?


Another symptom of our connected world is that the internet has become a public utility for information and as a result people have easier access to learn. Over the last few years the maker and open hardware movements have grown along side IoT. In this post-industrial “internet” age people have started to shift towards making things rather buying things. For example, a viticulturists in California can cheaply/easily build a custom crop monitoring system with a few sensors, micro-controllers (i.e. Arduino or Raspberry Pi), and open sourced code without having to buy a product from a company. Historically it was the role of industrial designers to design things so that they can be made and consumed in mass but now as makers (and algorithms) take over that role, are designers still relevant? I would argue they still are largely because designers are good at defining problems/constraints. If designers no longer design for scale then perhaps they can design for emergence. A great example of this is the Conditional Design movement.

Rather than designing the object itself perhaps designers can define the conditions of a system such that people within the system can design their own Internet of Things that is place specific. What would an emergent system instead of a scaled system look like?