Warren Ellis at Thingscon
In May of 2015, I gave an opening keynote at Thingscon, an Internet of Things conference. Given that the internet’s been fucked this week largely because a million crappy IoT products got hacked, I was reminded of that fun day in Berlin. And, well, I’m not cheerful today and I have a tv script to rewrite, so: here’s the text of that keynote. See you next week. Unless 2016 comes for me too.
Here we are at the beginning of a conference about things. Which sounds vaguely like the top of an episode of COMMUNITY. Ladders 101, Advanced Breath Holding, Conference About Things. But we mean the Internet Of Things, which is the phrase we use to point at the idea of networked environments and objects. This contains the idea of “smart homes.” “Smart” is a loanword for us, one of those invasive American things, like squirrels or a preference for anal sex, that’s sneaked into English off a cargo boat and eaten the native counterpart. Smart means clever now. Smart used to mean well-dressed, back in the days where living in crappy blue jeans and a t-shirt off CafePress was a sign of concern and a cry for help rather than a uniform for an entire class.
Language has taken a turn. The term “Internet Of Things” is a desperate attempt to make a pointer for a field that barely exists yet. We do this a lot these days. We use the word “television” to point at a field of industry that doesn’t particularly use television sets anymore. We use the word “telephone” for a class of mobile devices that we very rarely use telephonically anymore. And we act like the term “Internet Of Things” makes sense for the field we’re trying to define. And, unless the modern internet was originally biological in nature, it was always an internet of things. I always got my internet out of boxes of various kinds. Didn’t you? If you think Internet of Things is a good name, did you previously obtain your connection through whalesong or echolocation? Did you pour Soylent on your Internet Lobe to get online? Did you send your packets by raven? It’s always been an internet of things, and you people have never been any good at naming stuff, and that’s how we ended up with “tweets.”
I have to confess something. The conference organisers brought me here with the specific brief to shout at you. Probably because a lot of you are too interested in building crap. Too many of you just shrug when you hear that a smarthomes service has shut down overnight. You even use the word “service” without really understanding it. You don’t really want to have to handle customers, “customer” being the word for human beings who have expressed trust in your expertise and conscientiousness using their own money. Many of you have never done time in retail, and learned the principles of delighting the customer, nor utilities, where you will never hear from a customer until something goes wrong and the victory condition is silence. There’s no dopamine hit in utilities. Don’t do utilities if you want to be loved. Don’t do retail if you can’t handle having the insanity of the human race rubbed in your face every day.
Some of you are quite relaxed right now, because you have no intent of doing either. Some of you just want to build a gadget or a process, soft launch it, get your story on Techcrunch, wrangle the thousand people you’ve gulled into buying it via Get Satisfaction dot com and wait until someone buys you out. Look around. There are people in this room who are just doing it for the exit. And, when they get it, suddenly a thousand people will discover that their lightbulbs no longer work, or they can’t heat their home, or they can’t get into their front door.
These are perhaps minor stakes, to you. And, yes, there is probably something wrong with anybody who outsources the operation of their front door to three gormless children in a Mission District startup who spend most of their seed capital on Uber and artisanal toast. They probably got the idea over three of those awful IPA beers from Portland. Uber for front doors! Dude, we’re geniuses. Order more toast.
But they’re not minor stakes to the people outside this room. In order to pursue this field, you will inevitably be asking for entrance into people’s homes. You can’t just allow yourself to be invited in, and then fuck around in my fusebox for an hour, set the fridge on fire, take a shit on my floor and shrug and say “oh, well, that didn’t work out! Move fast and break things, right?” and leave. I mean, not without me murdering you and composting your body, crap t-shirt and all.
When my Internet Thing stops working, I can go downstairs, put some music on and read a book until it comes back on. When my Internet House stops working, that’s a different story. The stakes are exponentially higher than providing a web or app based service. “Buyer, beware” is a warning to the consumer about mindful purchasing, not an operating principle for a company to live by.
And, like I say, there are people in this room who don’t care. You will meet other people in the same general field who don’t care. They’re looking for the exit. And they will be the people who strangle this field in its crib. Same people who put Augmented Reality into a cellular coma for five years by using their skills to provide ways for estate agents to sell you houses. Have you noticed how the term B2B, business-to-business, has crept back after apparently dying in the bubble-burst of 2000? I did a tech conference panel in 2000 about online narrative forms – it was me and a guy from Aardman Animation – and someone stood up and said, “What are the B2B applications?” The moderator, bless him, said, no, we’re talking about storytelling. And that someone and about half the room stood up and left. That’s coming back. It’s easier than running a utility.
It’s hard. Don’t get me wrong. I know it’s hard. And Samsung and Apple and several other large corporations want in on it. On the bright side, that will give you lots of exit opportunities, and soon you could be drinking cocktails in Bali while Amazon deals with the backlash from the smart doorlock you sold them that still doesn’t work properly. And they’ll spend the money on iteration until the device either goes away or starts working properly, and the users will have to buy Amazon Prime membership for their houses. And then someone will hack your house through the buggy wifi thermostat you bought, and your house will start ordering DOWNTON ABBEY downloads and you’ll come home to find it’s 40 Celsius indoors and the sink is flooded and your fridge has been turned into a porn spambot and you’ll realise that your house is masturbating to DOWNTON ABBEY.
If you can get in the front door.
The state of the internet of house things is that most of it doesn’t work. It’s still easier to get up and operate a light switch than it is to operate a smart light from your phone, and, like most things that are interesting to me right now, special skills are still required to set most things up. And that’s an important point. If you are intending to think about and build networked home devices, they by definition are for the people who are not in this room. Nobody is going to learn to code just to operate their house lights. There is no necessary learning curve for lights. If I need electrical skills beyond plugging in a lightbulb, then I’m afraid it’s not me, it’s you. This is a traditional sticking point for the tech community, not least because there’s a traditional lack of understanding going on about how service industries work. When was the last time you ordered a coffee and the barista told you to come behind the counter and learn how to operate the coffee machines yourself because you need to understand the system in order to appreciate it? That said, this is Berlin, so that might have happened. STILL. I stand by the metaphor. As you go forward into today, be aware that people should not have to be Torvalds or Tesla to make your processes work.
You’re talking about entering people’s homes, today. That’s big. That’s complex. For most people, allowing new objects into their homes is a real decision. And if it makes living in their homes harder and more frustrating, they just toss that shit out. You all know that, because you do it too, but thinking about IOT can make you forget. And your expertise can lead you into the illusion that things that are easy for you are easy for everybody. We don’t let just anyone into our homes. We have to be convinced of their value and safety.
Imagine that we’re talking about an Internet of Homes. Let that focus you. The English word “home” comes from a proto-Germanic word that meant both home and village, and an Old Norse word that meant both home and world. Don’t be flippant about the move towards people’s homes. I’ve been flippant enough this morning for all of us. Making a world out of someone’s home is big, because their home means the world to them.
What you’re doing is big. What you’re doing is important, and we need it to work. The ideas you will bring to bear will change the way we live. This is a wonder. This may be the last thing in the current consumer technological cycle that has meaning. You are taking a position of bringing forth a future that really has only lived in science fiction, like the flying car or the jetpack, and making it concrete and wonderful and commonplace. You’re inventing an entire field and an entire way of living in private. That’s an amazing thing. When Edison iterated that tiny thing that changed the way we live, the cheap and simple mass-produced electric light bulb, people called him a wizard. He was the actual Wizard Of Menlo Park, and he turned the world on its head to the degree that, he said, henceforth “only the rich will burn candles.” You are gathered here today to do the work of wizards, and draw down a future where light switches will only be flicked by the servants of the wealthy as a sign of their fortune. Wouldn’t that be an interesting place to live? Where the way we live now was preserved only as a pretension of the aristocracy? A Downton Abbey of heaters that don’t know when you’re home and having to start the slow cooker by, my god, TOUCHING it like a fucking cave dweller. Archaic, museum-quality rooms that are so antiquated that they can’t even see you.
Being wizards, by the way, doesn’t give you a good reason to be arcane. Secret wizards are no use to anybody. I’m not going to sacrifice a chicken to my wifi router for you or anybody. Carry this with you today: most of your users will be as stupid as me. That’s a difficult bar, because I am really quite stupid. But that’s your challenge. Imagine a middle-aged man who wants to hit people when they say “playful learning” and views anyone who shows up with a breadboard and circuitry as either dangerous or deficient. Who scowls at his tv remote, on the rare occasions that he’s allowed to watch television unsupervised. I haven’t finished learning English yet, so I’m not going to learn Ruby. I get angry at vacuum cleaners. I own a tumbledryer so old that it is haunted. Laugh at me. Mock me. Understand that I have disposable income and am interested in your products and services. I am your worst nightmare: I am your most likely customer and I delete apps from my phone when they require more than three taps to achieve one action.
The glorious, valuable thing you’re going to do is invent this field and then tame it for the rest of us. Doing half the job is going to be much, much worse than not doing it at all. Most people, in most tech fields, only do half the job. You are going to do better. We need you to be brave in your thinking and engineering, but, more, we need you to be committed. And you’re going to. You’re here in the room. You’re surrounded by people who have, generally, the same goal. And the ones who don’t share that goal? You will detect them quickly, and together we can burn their bodies outside. We can murder them and burn them as an offering to the wizards of old, who just wanted to make the future so simple and affordable and ordinarily magical that everyone could have it and hold it and use it.
We need you to do that. We’re relying on you to get it right. So get to work.