Once, in a galaxy far, far away (or a cartoon about a family named the Jetsons), a woman walked into her home. First she told the home to cool the temperature. Then she told the home to start the oven for dinner. Then she took a phone call without ever picking up an actual phone. Finally, she asked her home what the time was in a city halfway across the world, and the home answered. If you’re a “bad sci fi” geek, then you probably also saw a sequence just like this on the television show Extant, starring Halle Berry. But the reality is that the current generation of youth will likely grow up in a world in which their adulthood operates something like this. And unlike current early adopters of this type of technology it will feel entirely normal to them. The backbone behind it is called the Internet of Things. And not surprisingly it’s loaded with some well-oiled consumerism. Today, we’ll explore that relationship (and where it may go in the future).
What Exactly Is the Internet of Things?
The Internet of Things is a series of physical devices that enable the flow of data between or among them and use that data to manifest physical outcomes. That’s a long sentence and a bit of a heady concept, so a list of examples may be easier to digest. The most common example (and one we’ll talk about later) is the internet enabled thermostat systems. These thermostats collect data from your home (the temperature) and then transmit it via a wireless network to a central hub, where decisions are made (by a computer algorithm) about what the thermostat should do. Should it disable itself and let the room temperature adjust naturally? Should it increase effort? The same thermostat also takes orders via a wireless network from its owner’s smartphone. This means that the owner can tell the thermostat to turn the heat or air conditioning on or off as the owner is leaving work so that the home is already temperature controlled by the time the owner returns home.
Of course, thermostats aren’t the only example of the Internet of Things. Heart-monitoring chips, cars and vehicles with built in sensors and remote-information sensing washers and dryers are all examples of ways that the world is advancing its use of the Internet of Things.
The Internet of Things Does Have Advantages…
We certainly don’t want to come off sounding as though we’re against progress or as though we think that there aren’t benefits to the Internet of Things. For example, the wireless enabled thermostat we mentioned above has been shown to increase home energy efficiency dramatically. That means better energy conservation for both the home and society as a whole, and that’s important if we want to save the planet. Many of the most innovative Internet of Things inventions help to improve health, such as the heart monitors mentioned above, or create sustainable food (electric clam farms). The point of our discussion here is not to bash the Internet of Things. The vast stores of information available on the networks of society these days can and should be put to good use – and the Internet of Things is certainly doing that more than the nine hundredth version of a dating app. But as with all innovation, there’s a healthy dose of unhealthy consumerism thrown in.
Pro Tip: Confused about the difference between innovation and marketing? We’ve discussed it here.
The Consumerist Element of the Internet of Things
The thing about the Internet of Things is that it involves, well, things. Obviously, examples like the heart monitor and sustainable food solutions aren’t aimed at the consumer market. But items like the thermostat (you’ll likely be aware of the brand name Nest), the washer and dryer example and the latest offering from Amazon, the Echo, are all leveraging the technology of the Internet of Things to create consumer products. And where we have consumer products, we have consumer marketing.
Do you need, using the Echo as an example, a voice activated internet search with voice delivered results? This is a great tool for the visually impaired, but the average person doesn’t need it. However, Amazon has already sold thousands of units backed by a slick marketing campaign, lots of database marketing and the desire to be trendy. While we love anything that gives people access to knowledge, the campaign behind the Amazon Echo is strictly for consumer profits.
It is, however, an incredibly fine line. As we’ve pointed out, the Internet of Things comes with many great potential benefits for people, society and the planet. The more we move to a digital world, the more we’ll be able to reduce waste and physical consumption (though digital consumption has its own challenges). At what point are you purchasing a Nest thermostat because it will improve the world (and your energy bill) versus purchasing it because somebody told you that you need it in order to be “on-trend?” In the end, if the product improves the world, does it matter that you purchased it because of addictive consumerism?
We’d argue that it definitely matters if you purchased an item because of addictive consumerism regardless of the benefits of it to the world. Why is that? Because society’s addictive consumerism is a damaging affliction that won’t stop at the purchase of a useful item from the Internet of Things. The end goal has to be to overcome addictive consumerism regardless of the type of product being purchased. However, as the technology of the Internet of Things becomes increasingly applied to consumer products, marketers are leveraging their understanding of consumer behavior to profit from those “things.”
What can you do? Simply be aware. The Internet of Things is truly powerful technology that can improve your standard of living. But if you’re buying it because of consumer marketing campaigns, then it’s time to reflect. We’re hopeful that we’ve given you the tools at Postconsumers.com to tell the difference.
Did we miss a way in which the internet of things may impact the playing field of addictive consumerism? If so, tell us about it on the social media channels below.
Photo Credit: Pierre Metivier via Flickr