So I'm sitting down with a rare opportunity to watch some television. I find something in the guide I want to see (seriously, why don't TV remotes have QWERTY keyboards, or even predictive text like those old school Nokia phones?), and I switch over. Unfortunately, advertisements take up half the listed running time of a TV show, so I'm stuck watching some dumb ad for an exercise bike. Only this is a super 21st Century exercise bike, and its control screen is wirelessly hooked up to Google Maps. In fact, it is an internet-connected exercise bike, which no one probably saw coming when they laughed at the idea of internet-connected fridges. With the bike, you can use Google Maps to select a real-world cycle route, and the bike emulates the slope of the road as you progress.
Or, put another way, it's a device that processes and physically responds to remote digital data without significant human action. It's the blunt end of the Internet of Things. One step down from, say, house lights that know when you're coming home, or a toaster oven that tweets. (I recently saw a project in which a toaster is wired to tweet if it's not being used enough and will beg for a new owner who will make better use of it.)
The Internet of Things, often written IoT, is something that people will be looking at in 2013. Google Glass, for example, is one of those touchstones for The Next New Normal. Ignoring the fact that as of this year Google Glass glasses don't do much of anything and will only be adopted by developers who are prepared to pay $1,500 a pop for them. It seems that all of these ideas (IoT, Google Glass, 3D printing, etc.) are in some kind of overlapping space and they will somehow connect together one day and bring on... I dunno, Web 3.0?
I remember, in the 00s, watching some hideous Bay Area vox-pop internet video in which each mini-interview concluded with the interviewer asking "Whaddaya think of Web 2.0?" A few years before that, I was invited to a panel at a digital conference with someone from Aardman Animation to talk about storytelling, only to have someone stand up and ask what the B2B applications were. B2B stood for Business to Business, and represented the idea that businesses could sell other businesses their worthless crap and somehow not need actual customers at all. It was the full sequence of the Human Centipede as a business model, basically.
Some pundits are saying that's all coming back this year, because one huge bubble-burst wasn't enough. The same sort of utter cultural tone-deafness that led one Marc Benioff, back in 2011 to declare that "entrepreneurs" should listen to Occupy Wall Street and its many business lessons in order to learn how to "Occupy the Enterprise." This is the sort of thing that's emboldened Marxists to start talking in public again about "late capitalism" in the last ten years. When Marxists, who are marginally more annoying even than a toaster that tweets for some fucking hippie to rescue it, begin to sound like they might have a point, you know you're living in the shit years.
The ground this group of Next Internet Stuff stands on is shaky enough that people are trying to disrupt them before they start. Military theorist and resilience pundit John Robb is pitching the idea of Dronenet: using drones to deliver goods so quickly that using and buying a 3D printer becomes a hassle and a worthless extravagance. He calls it an Internet of Drones, which seems to me to be essentially indivisible from an Internet of Things.
An Internet of Things is in fact a wonderful idea. A world where devices report, learn, remember, and aid. But it's also a world spawning a desperate "entrepreneurial" class born of stern austerity and sociopolitical upheaval. In the Human Centipede Business Model, why not try to crush 3D printing while using a wondrous possibility to re-invent Amazon next-day shipping? Why not think very hard to find ways to keep things as half-useful and basically shitty as your standard TV remote control? Why not pedal as fast as you can to go nowhere?
Welcome to 2013.
Follow Warren on Twitter: @warrenellis
Image by Marta Parszeniew
Previously: The Acceptable Cost of the Right to Bear Arms