The Internet of Things or "Is Your Marmite Watching You?"

By Rebecca Stafford on 1st Sep 2014

This is the question we were presented with at the start of a unique 1hr show looking at the Internet of Things. Hosted by the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas and led by Professor Chris Speed of the Design Informatics Research Centre, the show explored a world where everyday objects around us – including food items – can communicate with each other and us.

In the future, virtually everything will be online. From watches to chairs to jars of marmite, anything that can be assigned an IP address will have the potential to wirelessly transfer data over a network and therefore communicate. Indeed such objects are already available in the marketplace, from Fitbits and Smart Watches to British Gas Home Hubs, fridges and televisions. The trend is already happening; ‘things’ are getting on the net.

In between the somewhat surreal comedy the show raised valuable questions over the benefits and potential risks associated with this new technology. Smart packaging on food items can tell us when food has gone off and point out the nearest food recycling centrehelping to reduce food waste. Sensors in street lamps can feed back information on air quality, weather conditions and UV radiation. So far, so fantastic, but where does this take us?

This technology is being designed to change our behaviour in a good way but who decides what is good or bad?

New technology is being designed to ‘nudge’ us, to send some kind of physical reminder (noise, vibration etc.) for us to act in some way. For example, if we haven’t reached our exercise target for that day, we can be ‘nudged’ to encourage us to keep going until we have. This technology is being designed to change our behaviour in a good way but who decides what is good or bad? Who sets up the value data frame?

Additionally big corporations are starting to invest in this technology. Both Google and Apple have come under fire for tracking and collecting personal data. If such companies invest in household items which connect to the internet does this simply give them greater opportunities to gather our data? If technology is changing our behaviour and patterns of thinking who is really in control of it, the users or the big companies? In a bid to make our lives more efficient are we blindly buying into increased corporate influence and control?

The internet of things raises many concerns (in particular a large focus of audience questions was on the use of these technologies for marketing purposes). However, as Professor Speed pointed out, the application and use of the Internet of Things is only limited by our imagination. Imagine a world where someone with diabetes has their life saved because their fridge can monitor the sugar content of the food being consumed, or where the heating /cooling system automatically adjusts based on the body temperatures of people in individual rooms – reducing unnecessary deaths in the elderly. These are just two examples of where the Internet of Things offers powerful benefits. If there is one thing this Fringe show highlighted, it was that the possibilities are endless.