ThingWeek and the (Very Old) Magic of Smarter Things

May 16th marks the beginning of the first ThingWeek here in Portland. What started as an effort to create a simple hackathon has blossomed over months into a city-wide week of events all focused on connecting people and advancing the conversation around the Internet of Things.

So far much of this conversation has been dominated by a sense of exuberance and experimentation — an industry trying to understand how exactly it fits into culture at large. But while the energy is clearly there, what’s not immediately clear is what’s fueling it. Rather than the sort of rapidly expanding bubble of wealth we saw with the birth of the web, the IoT space seems to be growing without the need for clear success stories. Even relatively successful IoT products, like Nest, are hardly ubiquitous outside those already predisposed to either cutting edge technology or tinkering. Yet despite the lack of obvious successes that would seem to validate the promise of IoT, there remains an undeniable enthusiasm surrounding its very premise. Even the naysayers are naysaying with a passion that suggests importance.

Our reaction to the Internet of Things — both positive and negative — seems to come from somewhere more instinctual. There is a spark of inevitability to it all, but where does this energy come from?

Magic Light Bulb

The second act of Disney’s Fantasia opens with a shot of Mickey Mouse, cast as the apprentice to a sorcerer, laboring to carry two buckets of water up a flight of stairs. He pauses for a moment to wipe his brow, looks over to his boss, and watches as the wizard waves his hands over a glowing skull and conjures a cloud of smoke. Pouring his buckets into a well, Mickey turns again and sees the smoke take on the shape and then the colors of a butterfly. Then, just as its form is fully resolved, the sorcerer waves his hands and the butterfly dissolves into colored fragments flowing back to the magical skull.

Satisfied with his display of skill, the sorcerer yawns, removes his hat, and retires for the evening. As he does, the camera pulls in on the hat and the skull and it’s made clear: these objects are the source of his powers.

Mickey, left alone in the chambers, wastes shockingly little time before donning the hat, pushing up his sleeves, and summoning a broom to life. Animated, and given arms, the broom proceeds, without complaint, to take over the work of lugging the buckets of water, freeing the mouse to put his feet up and relax. The hat, the skull, and the brooms of Mickey’s adventure all represent a desire of the human psyche that spans both millennia and cultures: the idea that we can imbue the objects around us with a sort of magic, that we can make them smarter and give them at least some of the qualities usually reserved for the living. Contained in the nucleus of today’s Internet of Things is an idea that has been part of our collective imagination for thousands of years. What’s so instinctively captivating about today’s smart objects is that once we strip away the pretense of technology and IPOs and even the contemporary notion of “innovation” — we’re left with something even more fundamentally human: our desire to know a world in which we’re surrounded by things that are somehow more than things.

Our storybooks and myths are of full of these objects. Rings that can bring wealth, pendants to create love or preserve beauty, simple stones with the power to ward off plagues and curses, tablets that render foreign language understandable, or allow us to see into the future. In nearly all of these stories, the objects shares a similar position as not entirely inanimate, but not fully animate either. In this state, each seems also to possess its own code of ethics — offering tremendous power to their owner, but turning those powers on their head when used without insight, patience, and skill.

Magic Watch

Here again, Mickey proves instructive.

Satisfied he’s shifted his duties to the broom, Mickey drifts to sleep. He dreams of himself as a powerful wizard, able to control oceans, only to awake to find the broom has filled the well to point of overflowing. Unable to stop it, Mickey chops the broom to bits with an ax, not realizing he’s made his problem exponentially worse: Each piece of the broom reanimates and what was a single problem, becomes an army of them. In no time, the brooms, marching with bucket after bucket of water, have flooded the room and Mickey, searching frantically for a spell to put an end to this, is powerless to stop the chaos. Just when all hope seems lost, the sorcerer emerges into the scene and immediately goes to work. Raising his hands again and again, he pushes the water away until all that’s left are lifeless brooms and a waterlogged mouse. In the end, the magical objects of the story — the hat, the book of spells, the skull — may be a source of the power, but skill and experience are the means to its effective use.

What makes the Internet of Things so interesting is not just its power, but its accessibility. Never before has this much technology been available to this many people. Spurred on by cheap electronics, and new technology like 3D printing, we’re in the midst an era of product creation unlike any we’ve seen before. At no other time has any single person been able to leverage more technology or bring it to more people than now. But as Mickey found, this is not without its challenges. Access to power is not the same as mastery, and the ability to create something in new ways is not the same as the ability to create something useful.

Part of this challenge may also be that we’ve yet to fully understand how the technological power we have fits into a broader cultural context: We have the hat, we know we’re tired of carrying the water, but we’re not entirely sure what the right solution is or how we’ll know if we’ve found it. Or maybe it’s more than that. When we look back into history we find the ideals contained within these myths were both deep and intrinsically human: the objects of the past were imagined to hold the power to create profound change - to protect life, to deepen love, to bring about peace. More than simply easing our daily burden, we imagined a world rendered fundamentally better by our ability to capture and to master the power of these mythical objects.

It makes sense then that as we sit on the verge of possessing the ability to create something like these mythical objects that our collective excitement and trepidation would feel instinctual and deep on a fundamentally human level.

Magic Dog Collar

And so, here we find ourselves at a sort of crossroads, a point at which we must focus on both the concrete possibility of technology, and the broad understanding of how we map that technology back to humanity.

It’s at this intersection that we at Uncorked find purpose. It’s where we strike a balance between full-throated celebration of the spirit of tinkering, of exploration, and of inventing something for no other purpose than to see if it can be done — and the need to work with intent. To know that our work must be based on something more than simple novelty if it’s to be of benefit to the world around us. To know that our greatest calling is not simply to innovate, but to innovate towards betterment. Towards those moments when an idea becomes an intuitive truth. Something so obvious and effortless and useful we wonder how we didn’t think of it until now.

It’s to this intersection that we want to bring everyone participating in ThingWeek too. As much as we hope this collection of events and gathering of people will serve to bring together the spirit of uninhibited invention, we also hope it starts the deeper conversation about how we use this new power we’ve found in the service of the broad cultural importance we all know it can be.

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