Samsung Family Hub: a smart fridge that shows the network moving into a usually passive object. Naomi and Ian went to see it at the Connected Home showroom inside John Lewis on Oxford Street, London. They found that shop staff had trouble answering questions around the security and privacy of the products on display. (Image: Ian Hutchinson/IF)

Objects help us build an identity

Objects play an important part in how we learn to be a human, how we get an identity for ourselves and build relationships with each other. Our relationship with physical things is changing, in two big ways.

The first is that we’re putting computer chips in everything, connecting them to the Internet. This is happening more and more as the cost of doing this falls. That means you have the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policies from the web in a thing. We know how often those change and fluctuate – that’s going to feel very new in objects that used to be ‘stable’.

Secondly, you can’t keep these things in the same way as before. They just don’t last. No-one’s going to be able to hand down an Apple watch. The hardware will get bricked, it won’t take the apps you want it to, it’ll be unusable. But it’s not just about heirlooms; more and more objects will be subject to the churn and obsolescence of electronic goods as they become connected.

Ringly, a company that makes jewellery with connected features. (Image: Laura James / IF)

Few companies are thinking about this

There are a variety of organisations and projects addressing these issues, in very different ways. We started to list the organisations and projects we came across, please do comment on the document to tell us about other examples.

Interestingly, the luxury market is responding to this. We’ve seen connected bracelets for women, connected rings, cameras the manufacturer is willing to upgrade over time and things like that. This is about trying to put the connectedness in a transitional object, an object that traditionally has quite a lot of emotional value and meaning to you as an individual. I’m not sure how successful that is, but we can see that emerging.

At the other end of the scale you have the DIY movement. Organisations like ifixit and The Restart Project – who are downstairs from us in Makerversity – publish wikis and manuals about how you can fix things and objects. Related to that is the modular design field, projects like Google’s Ara, where individuals build their tools to meet their needs. That’s a different way of emotionally investing in your technology.

Partly these projects are about sustainability and consumption, and partly they’re about control. Ifixit’s manifesto is based on the principle “If you can’t fix it, you don’t own it.”

But these aren’t mainstream responses. And, for me, they don’t address the most important aspects: this is about public safety and policy development.

The Restart Project run workshops that teach people how to repair broken electronics that would otherwise be thrown away. (Image: Heather Agyepong/The Restart Project, CC BY-NC)

Our relationships to things will start evolving

We no longer have a static relationship with things around us. Our relationship changes - we have a beginning, a middle and an end as the rules of engagement change with every software update or new app that we add.

As more and more things become connected, that’s an awful lot of things that we have different ‘rules’ or contracts with. It’s going to be very hard, if not impossible, to know what you can trust and what you can’t. And that’s when you’re the ‘owner’ of the product; what about the fridge in your friend’s house? What relationship do you have with that?

Consumer advocacy groups need to get to grips with all of this so they can make sure the legislation and policy of tomorrow is built for the way we use things and identify with them. That’s what I want to talk about in my next post.

This post is part of a series about the Future of Consumer Advocacy, supported by Near Now. Read the first part.

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