The Internet of Things Won’t Work Because Things Don’t Work
The Royal Frontier > The Internet of Things Won’t Work Because Things Don’t Work
John Welsh

Most things don’t consistently work as it is. Trying to make them work together will create infinite iterations of failure.

Here’s the dream:

You walk up your front steps with your hands full, and the door automatically unlocks because it knows you’re there. It’s been a long day, and you need a snack, so you check the refrigerator door to see exactly how much turkey you have and when it expires. You eat a lot, and your smartwatch indicates that you’ve had more than your allotted amount of calories for the day, so it gently reminds you to go to the gym. Your car shows you that the road you usually take to the gym is closed for repaving, so you should probably go the back way. Arriving at the gym, you set your watch to show you the routine you have planned, complete with timers and water breaks. Your phone is playing ‘Toned Tan Fit and Ready,’ the collaborative gym playlist you share with your friends. When you leave, your phone automatically starts Bluetoothing to your car, and the display alerts you to pick up cold cuts on the way home, because you’re passing the deli.

Here’s the definite reality:

You walk up your front steps with your hands full, furious that the door isn’t unlocking. You put your stuff down and enter the 6 digit passcode on your phone that manually overrides the lock. The fridge door is covered in blinking alerts: TURKEY LOW; FRIDGE LEAKING; ERROR MESSAGE 7: UPDATE REQUIRED. You grab the turkey out of the fridge, and as you’re eating it, you close out of all the alerts. ERROR MESSAGE 7 seems to be stubborn, so you investigate further, and the fridge is telling you an update is required, because the egg counter only counts white eggs for some reason, but you got brown ones, and this update will fix that. You update the software, but in doing so, it reboots, and you have to manually enter everything that’s in the fridge again. Your smartwatch’s battery is dead, so it can’t tell you how many calories you ate, but you wanted to go to the gym anyway, so you change and leave. You get to the gym, but your routine isn’t showing up, because the fitness app on your phone is still throwing its display to the dead watch, so you go into settings to fix it while standing in the locker room surrounded by naked old people. You switch the display from ‘Phone & Watch’ to ‘Phone Only,’ and load up the playlist your friend sent you, but all the tracks are greyed out, and when you press one, it says ‘This track is not available offline,’ even though your phone is showing you four bars of service, and the old people are still naked. You work out in silence and leave. Once you get to your car, you see the display is showing a new SynCoupon, advertising a deal on cold cuts at a deli fifteen miles from you, but the deal doesn’t apply to the deli that’s on the way home. You try to close out of the SynCoupon, but a message box appears with ‘Add to SynCoupon Book?’ with two option buttons underneath it, ‘Buy Now’ and ‘Remind Me Later.’ You hit ‘Remind Me Later,’ and a new message box pops up asking when you want to be reminded, in five minutes, ten minutes, or one hour. The old naked people are now swarming around your car.

Modern convenience is incredible. Using only our voice, we can check if a specific movie is out yet, if it’s getting good reviews, and if there’s tickets available for the time we want to go. But all of the pieces of information that we gather are put into our human brains to interpret. We synthesize the input and make a decision, rational or not, using our mind as the control center. We weigh pros and cons, we change our minds, we change our plans.

Things, though, just don’t work. Unfortunately, the frustration – of trying to open the camera on your phone to capture something, but the slidey thing just bounces up a little bit and then falls back down, and you try again, and it happens again, and the moment passes, and you missed it, and you have neither the picture nor the memory to enjoy it because you were asking your phone to do something at that second, with no delay – is about to exponentially grow.

The Internet of Things is the inevitable future. IoT promises to connect our devices by collecting a staggering amount of data about our habits and routines. That collected data is used to make predictions and change a system’s behavior according to what it has observed our behavior to be. The system will become more efficient because it has learned the personality and rhythms of its master. Whole homes will be connected and controllable from one portable spot. It will make dumb things smarter, and make systems customizable to meet individual needs. This sounds incredible and like an obvious no-brainer.

But we are promised and shown a world where technology is gorgeous and streamlined and helpful and light and unobtrusive. We don’t live in that world. That world is a fantasy. The hope that the Internet of Things will allow us to be free from daily headaches and logistical errors is naive. There are too many brands and frequencies and methods of connection for this stuff to be feasible. Apple products don’t even play that nicely with each other – there is a lag when mirroring a computer to Apple TV, putting one song on an iPhone from a computer takes fifteen minutes and a surgeon’s precision to not erase everything on the phone, and you can’t have audio from one source go through two different outputs. And that’s after updating iTunes.

When Apple put out the update for iOS 8.1, it said it would ‘Fix issues with group texting.’ The issue was that the same group of people would create more than one text thread if some of the people were still running iOS 7. It is a very minor inconvenience. But why is there an issue in the first place? Why introduce the feature if it’s not going to definitely work all of the time? People talk about their phones doing weird things for some reason. Those around them offer helpful hints, such as putting it on airplane mode for a minute, closing out of the program, or turning the whole device off and turning it back on. These methods usually work. The hardware and software of smartphones are vastly complex, and sometimes things get crossed up and need to take a rest. So how can we ask them to work all the time, independently of human guidance?

If the complexities and bugs of one device are seemingly never ironed out completely, then asking more than one of these devices to talk to each other will only create headaches. Asking them to be seamless, reliable, habit-recognizing, and invisible is a very tall order. What if an interior display on a car windshield freezes for one tenth of a second, causing the outside world to be on a delay? Would you have to turn the whole car off and back on? What if the system that reports traffic is down, and you don’t know a road is closed? Would you be late to work? What if you don’t know how much turkey you have left? Would you be able to eat an appropriate amount of turkey? These are curmudgeonly questions, but they need to be asked.

Maybe I’m doing something wrong. Maybe I’m not keeping my products as up-to-date as I could be. But that’s mostly the point — I imagine a morning where I’m running late and the refrigerator door won’t open because I need to put gas in my car. My mistakes will compound and create infinitely many more mistakes because I thought I was done being asked to do anything. This sounds lazy, but to be clear, I don’t mean that I want to be free of tedium. I don’t mind tedium at all. I just don’t want to be told “All your tedium will cease, right after you put in your 4 digit passcode! Not your PIN, silly, your passcode!” Downloading an app to control my lightbulbs, adding each lightbulb to the app, waiting for it to pair, troubleshooting Lightbulb #3 because it’s not pairing, and then switching Lightbulb #1 and Lightbulb #3 to see if maybe that works? At that point, I’ll get up and turn on the light. If I forget to turn it off and I realize the next morning, I’ll try to do better next time. I’d rather get mad at myself than a(nother) machine.

I am, admittedly, a victim of the Nirvana Fallacy. Just because the IoT wouldn’t be perfect doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try. And obviously, those fat cats on Technology Drive aren’t going to listen to a cranky, privileged, guy who thinks his incredible WiFi isn’t fast enough. But I think the rate and volume of new technologies is so quick and vast it doesn’t allow for the perfection, or attempted perfection, of the foundational technologies upon which the future will be built. Why am I still dropping calls? Why am I still whimpering ‘HOLD ON, SORRY, I JUST, UH — ‘ while exiting a room to get service? How can we expect insanely complicated networks of machines to talk to each other and create a better tomorrow when I can’t order a burrito over the phone without repeating myself six times? The brittle sticks of the base should be strengthened before we sell the things that are being built on top.

Of course, I will eventually succomb to the societal, professional, and personal pressures to sync up, say, my dishwasher with my mailbox. Until that day, though, I will try to hold out as long as possible until I hear that every severed Bluetooth tendril is patched and every update is updated automatically while I sleep. I think I’ve reached my limit on things that both make me frustrated and try to sell me stuff. If I want to see well-intentioned, just-off-target ads on my fridge, I’ll pin up the things my mom clips out of the newspaper.

Also, who’s gonna teach old people how to use all this stuff?