If This Toaster Could Talk

Narratives in the age of the smart object


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?

In Robot Readable World, Timo Arnall explores this idea of subjectivity through a montage of computer vision footage. He asks: “How do robots see the world? How do they gather meaning from our streets, cities, media and from us? This is an experiment in found machine-vision footage, exploring the aesthetics of the robot eye.” The scenes we see in this piece are familiar, but the perspective is profoundly alien, a different kind of sensing mechanism altogether.


While Robot Readable World invites the viewer into a distinctly unfamiliar experience, Hello, Lamp Post!, a collaboration between PAN Studio, Tom Armitage and Gyorgyi Galik, attempts to create a more playful relationship between participants and the everyday objects around them by facilitating conversations with street furniture (lamp posts, fire hydrants, etc.). Users can “wake up” items of street furniture from their slumber via text messages and the objects will immediately text you back with a question. “Will it be pleased to see you? Irritated at having been left in the rain? Or will it tell you a secret? The more you play, the more the hidden life of the city will be revealed.”

Hello, Lamp Post! brings the subjectivity of objects to the foreground, but confers a certain humanity upon them in order to familiarize the user’s interactions. One of the compelling aspects of this project is that the creators have appropriated the service codes that were intended to be used for management and maintenance -- highly utilitarian purposes -- and have extracted their poetic potential by using them as pathways into a conversation with these quotidian objects.

As we continue to build mental models for how our objects perceive the world, what kinds of stories might be told from their perspective? What kinds of conversations might we have? What sort of translation mechanisms become necessary?

Objects as oracles
While the previous examples and frameworks have all dealt with actual objects, there is a growing practice of designing and writing about speculative objects as mechanisms for peering into the near future. In the emerging field of design fiction, these notional objects are created in order to embody stories about the the social, cultural and ethical implications of emerging technologies. These objects are like fragments of a hologram: They contain the residue of a whole world frozen from one perspective. They don’t (quite) exist yet, rather they are artifacts extracted from potential futures that allow us to think through the emergent behaviors and unexpected repercussions of our current trajectories.

In Design Fiction as a Pedagogical Practice, Matt Ward speaks to the power of exploring unintended consequences:

Things that don’t work create interesting stories...Finding the uncomfortable haunting fiction that surrounds an object, the place where social life starts to break down and fracture is far more interesting than a world that ‘just works’.

A powerful example of exploring the seams where things break is in Warren Ellis’s Lich House, a crime story by Warren Ellis told from the point of view of a networked house that is being murdered. In discussing the piece, Ellis says that in “looking for the place where a society of networked matter breaks," he “went straight to ‘Where’s the crime story there?’” The result is both profoundly strange and deeply familiar -- technology doesn’t alter who we are as humans, but it gives us new expressions of those essential needs, desires, and flaws.  “Lich House” is part of The Institute for the Future’s short story collection, “An Aura of Familiarity: Visions from the Coming Age of Networked Matter," which contains quite a few examples of speculative object fiction.

From a more playful (though in some ways more disturbing) angle, Simone Rebaudengo has created The Story of Brad the Toaster, a film that introduces us to our potential future toasters: “Toasters that love to be used, toasters with agency and desires, toasters that get jealous of other toasters that are appreciated more. Addicted Toasters, which are connected to each other via the internet, don’t have owners but they do know how their fellow Toasters are faring. If you don’t use an Addicted Toaster enough, it will try to get itself transported to someone else that makes more toast.” These seemingly absurd quotidian objects simply extend the thread of trends in technology and consumer products until we find ourselves on the familiar/weird border of the near future, a landscape that encourages us to examine the potential consequences of our current trajectories.

Marc Wathieu/Flickr

These three frameworks -- objects as portals, objects as subjects, and objects as oracles -- propose distinct (yet related) structures for thinking about how connected objects might begin to contain their own narratives, seek their own history, develop their own perspectives, and become storytellers in a multitude of ways. These frameworks open up a whole world of creative possibilities, challenges, and opportunities. What stories do we want our objects to tell us? How do we move beyond utilitarian applications of new technologies to explore their poetic potential? What does it mean for an object to have a voice or a point of view? And how do we as authors inscribe our voices and narratives on the emerging world of connected objects and environments?