If This Toaster Could Talk

Narratives in the age of the smart object
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The cultural conversation about the Internet of things has tended toward a highly functionalist, utilitarian set of ideas: Connected objects can make smart homes a reality, where toasters will talk to alarm clocks so your toast is ready when you awaken, and fridges will know when you're out of yogurt. Connected objects can turn an environment into an ambient data utility, where the color of your lamp reflects your stock portfolio’s performance or your bracelet’s color lets you know how active you’ve been.  Connected objects can optimize health habits by giving continuous readouts of activity levels, arousal, weight, blood pressure, and more.

While these scenarios, and others like them, are certainly useful, plausible, and rife with challenges and opportunities, there is a whole world of narrative and poetic potential embodied by the Internet of things that has yet to be fully explored. Even the phrase “Internet of things” can evoke a drab sense of utility and hyper-efficiency. Perhaps, for our purposes here, it might be more expressive to use David Rose’s term “enchanted objects” -- objects that can transform, conjure, and invoke.

As more of our objects and environments become actuated, connected, and data-enabled, these enchanted objects are developing the capacity to contain their own stories. An object can remember its history, can understand how it is used, can talk to other objects around it to understand its environment. As these capabilities evolve, objects no longer become inert backdrops to our experiences, but active participants in our world that can share stories about themselves and us.

What does it mean for those narratives to exist? Who gets to author those stories? Who wants to listen to them and in what contexts? Do objects become storytellers themselves or do they require human authorship and interpretation?

In investigating the kinds of stories objects may contain, I've identified three frameworks through which we can explore these questions and better understand an object's role as a storyteller. Each framework is also supported by examples of creative works that illustrate the narrative potential inherent to that approach.

Objects as portals
The first is the construct of objects as portals -- objects that can be used as totems or touchstones to draw you into a story, to transport you to another time or place through the locus of that object. We currently infer the history of our things in broad and abstract ways, through the quality of scratches and wear, through the patina of age, through markers and labels and signs of personal possession. But what if that history became more literally inscribed, either recorded by the object itself or written to the object by an author?

In this way, objects can become lenses through which to look backward in time, to tell a story about their own histories or the histories of their environments. For example, as part of the New Museum’s recent “1993” exhibit, one could call a number from any payphone in New York City and would be greeted by a recorded oral history of someone telling a story that takes place in 1993 in the neighborhood from which the caller is calling. The phones acted as time machines, transporting people back to the same location in another era (not to mention that the phones themselves have practically become artifacts from another time).

Adrian Nier/Flickr

Objects as portals also have the potential to collapse space, to become doorways to another place or a distant person. In John Kestner’s project Tableau, a nightstand quietly prints photos it sees in its Twitter feed into its drawer. When new photos arrive, the knob on the drawer gently glows, and the table’s owner opens the drawer to reveal a missive from another person, from a distant place.

Objects can also be portals to some undefined dimension, a totem that conjures ghosts from elsewhere. In Cabinet of Curiousness, Janet Cardiff  has embedded the drawers of an antique card catalog with recordings of voices and music. By opening a drawer, one activates the sound contained within. Multiple drawers can be opened at once, layering different voices, stories, and moods on top of one another.

Where might we want our objects to transport us? What mysteries about an object’s history might be unearthed or imagined?  How might our things connect us more deeply with one another?

Objects as subjects
The second framework is what I call “objects as subjects” -- the idea that as objects begin to interact more with the world around them, they can be seen as having a point of view, a subjectivity that allows us to perceive objects not as silent props for our experiences but as new kinds of participants in a shared existence. Once an object begins to perceive, to react, to respond, it may not be alive, but it is active and engaged in a new way. This isn’t anthropomorphism, but rather a way of understanding the unique perspective of things and machines. How does the sensor perceive a person? How does the camera recognize a car?

In some ways, this perception of subjectivity is already developing with regard to systems that are explicitly computational. When we interact with voice or gesture recognition systems, for example, we have a mental model (correct or incorrect) about how the system understands us, how it “hears” or “sees." Not only do we begin to perceive the machine’s subjectivity, but we also adapt our behavior in order to best converse with it, making subtle changes in the way we enunciate or the way we move. How does this mental modeling and behavioral adaptation evolve as sensing and interactivity move beyond the explicitly computational sphere and into our everyday objects?

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Alexis Lloyd is the creative director of The New York Times Research & Development Lab.

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