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The Future Tense

Josh Agle (Shag), Family Secrets, 2010. Courtesy the artist.

The Internet of Actual Things

As we progress from smartphones to smart toasters, our things are becoming increasingly connected. Soon they’ll be on Facebook alongside us. From there, it’s only a few steps to tactful beds.

The plummeting cost of the basics of computing—sensors, processors, network connections, batteries—will mean that in the very near future, objects all around us will start to change. They will no longer be just things; they will be connected things. They will be part of the network, our network. Our stuff will be on Facebook alongside us. 

Pundits call it the internet of things. They mean things that have more than a simple essence of thingyness about them. Things that monitor their surroundings, measure changes, respond to those changes with voices and actions of their own. Not things that think, necessarily, but things that act.

Things like the Nest thermostat, which learns how warm you like to keep your house, and is always online so you can control it from your phone. Or the diaper that tweets when baby’s dropped one. Or the WeMo smart electric outlet and its companion WeMotion sensor. Plug them in, get an If This Then That account, soon you could activate a hidden home-security system that uploads a photo of the guy breaking into your house to Instagram with the tag #handsoffmystuff, sharing it on Twitter at the same time.

If the internet of actual things really becomes as far-reaching as everyone predicts, why should any one thing be left behind? I decided to investigate further. I wanted to know what our households objects will be like in the years to come. A true internet of actual things will mean that everything is smart, everywhere, all the time. A cacophony of possessions fighting for your attention. The stuff of nightmares, or a nightmare of stuff.

 

Toe nail clippers will nag you from the drawer. 

“You haven’t cut your toe nails for five weeks!” they’ll say via a message displayed on the bathroom mirror as you stare into it one morning. “It’s nearly summer. Thinking of wearing sandals? I wouldn’t if I were you.”

They’ll tweet you too.

“Your toe nails are too long, buddy.”

“Socks are feeling kind of tight today, huh?”

“You have a fungal infection.”

Two weeks later, you’ll find an appointment has been made for you with a podiatrist. Then another message in the mirror: “That fungal infection? Getting worse. There’s a cream you can buy. I know a tube of it, I’ll put you guys in touch.”

 

“I have 10 reliable activations remaining,” your bulb will report via some ridiculous light-bulbs app on your phone. “Now just nine. Remember me when I’m gone.”

Your kitchen knives will pester you, too. 

“You want me to cut that?” the vegetable knife will screech via an IM to the screen on the door of your refrigerator. “Do you have any idea when you last sharpened me?”

An echoing chorus will strike up from the knife rack. Over the next week, your inbox will be swamped with promotions from knife-sharpening salespeople. There’ll be a knock at the front door, and you’ll open it to find a knife-sharpening robot standing there, ready to plunge your cutlery into its face of grindstones.

Whether you sharpen them or not, the knives will collude with the cutting board.

“I’m with those guys,” it will reproach you through a speaker in its base. “Frankly, you’re insulting all of us. Take a bit of pride in your utensils, won’t you?”

Determined to cook a meal, you’ll push the veg knife point into an onion anyway, and your phone will ping with a text message. “This is so demeaning. So unnecessary. Honestly. You’re just—honestly. I despair.”

 

Every single chair in the world will instruct you to stop slouching, re-arranging its moving parts under your backside when you try to get comfortable.

 

Your light bulbs will narrate their agonizing deaths.

“I have 10 reliable activations remaining,” your bulb will report via some ridiculous light-bulbs app on your phone. “Now just nine. Remember me when I’m gone.”

The next night: “Now eight. I can still remember being back in the factory. The daylight streaming through the windows. Daylight was my muse. My inspiration.”

When the day comes and the bulb goes pop, you’ll get an actual letter in the actual mail, printed on paper.

“If you’re reading this letter, it means I’ve passed on to the other side, into the valley of perpetual brightness,” your light bulb will tell you, posthumously. “Your downstairs cupboard is now dull and dim. Please recycle me responsibly.”

The rest of the bulbs in the house will dim themselves automatically. That’s how light bulbs mourn.

The letter will go on: “The good news is, the light at the end of the tunnel is a friend of mine from Shenzhen. He says things aren’t so bad. So you know, I dictated this over the home network to your dog’s leash. It promised to pass this letter on to the post office network next time you take it for a walk in that direction, and some of the leash’s envelope friends will make sure it gets printed and properly posted to you.”

 

Your bed will still be your favorite place, because it will be the most tactful of all actual things. No one would buy a tactless bed, so only the most circumspect and respectful models will make it into people’s homes.

As your pour out a glass of wine, the bottle and glass will unite in telling you what a bad idea it is.

At first, wine bottles will simply refuse to open at all. The entire bottle will flash bright yellow, with black warning text: DRINKING THIS FLUID COULD ENDANGER YOUR HEALTH. CONSUME AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Once you’ve got it open, it will be friendlier. A bit. Glass made of screens made of glass. On one side, advertising. On the other side, cheerful greetings and health warnings.

“This is a delicious fruity Pinot Grigio,” the bottle will tell you via its embedded e-ink screens, front and back. “Excellent with chicken and salad. Should you be drinking mid-week? Please turn me around to view messages from sponsors specifically chosen to match your interesting lifestyle. Enjoy your wine!”

 

Smart ovens will have integrated spice racks. They’ll add more marjoram to everything.

 

Your bed will still be your favorite place, because it will be the most tactful of all actual things. No one would buy a tactless bed, so only the most circumspect and respectful models will make it into people’s homes.

Tactful beds will weigh you every night, and gently punish you for putting on extra pounds by waking you up a few minutes earlier the next morning. “Want to sleep late? Lose weight.”

They’ll capture your bodily output—the skin you shed, the gas you expel—and analyze it for signs of illness. The best beds will discreetly email the drugstore while you’re asleep. They’ll ask the smart kitchen utensils to cook chicken soup for you when you spend three days horizontal. They’ll ruffle your hair as you’re falling asleep, like mom used to do.

The very best beds will be the ones that know how to act dumb. The moment you enter the room with a partner and the two of you start pulling each other’s clothes off, your bed will pretend to power down. It will pretend to be just a bed, just a thing. It won’t mind when you kick it and say to your friend: “Don’t worry about my bed. It’s completely dumb. It won’t even know you’re here.”

It will, though.

 

Everyone has a favorite pair of jeans. New jeans will greet you like a puppy when you have them delivered.

“I love you!” your new jeans will cry. “Put me on! Oh god you have beautiful legs! Let me hug them!”

But next time you check your email via your smart watch or your smart necklace, a glum message will await you, sent by the old pair of jeans still hanging in the wardrobe.

“I gather you’re replacing me,” they’ll say. “When were you thinking of telling me about that?”

You’ll hit delete, but your old jeans will keep emailing anyway. “I can’t believe you’re doing this. I never complained about your expanding waistline, did I?”

You’ll throw the old jeans in the trash, but the trash itself will be networked. It will help your old jeans spread gossip on denim social networks. More spiteful email will arrive, not just from your old jeans, but from all the old jeans your friends have thrown out.

Though you probably won’t notice, because by then, email will be handled for you by the object of your choice. It might be your phone, or your wedding band, or your favorite pen. It will deal with all the incoming spam, delete the rants from your ex-denim. Sometimes it might amuse itself by sending back rude one-liners on your behalf, but only when it has nothing better to do.