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Feature Avoiding the Internet of Misinformed Things

By Glen Walter

More and more of the everyday objects we design have

the ability to send and receive information. In the coming
internet of things, how can we avoid adding to what is
already a surfeit of information? And how can we best
preserve our humanity in the face of an onslaught of
conflicting and biased bits of knowledge?

Avoiding the Internet

of Misinformed Things

veryday objects arent what they

used to be. There was a time when all a product
needed to do to be considered smart was to
solve a problem or answer a question and help us
get to the essence of the experience. A product
could be designed to slip easily into the everyday
lives of users, often understanding those lives
better than the users themselves. But now, with
the coming of the internet of things, everyday
objects are increasingly expected to be a different
kind of smart.
At Eleven, we have the good fortune to work
with many clients who share our human-centered
design valuesfellow travelers on a journey to
the core of peoples lives. They know that in order
to create a product that grows with penetrating
roots into those lives, we must understand them
at a near-molecular level. So we observe users
in their natural habitat. We question; we write
copious notes and take countless pictures. We
collect data to capture, in living detail, slices of
their lives. They extend beyond the small niche in
which the product is intended to nest.
It may seem like a contradiction in terms,
but designing with simplicity requires complex
information in high-resolution detail
information that must be collected, at least in part,
by a culture of design. This is a necessity, in order
for that information to be accurately portrayed

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Feature Avoiding the Internet of Misinformed Things

Figure 1
What was dreamed about in science fiction novels is coming true.
We, as designers, can help shoulder the responsibility to set the moral
compass toward human enlightenment.

in the creation of the product. To curate the

ideal feature set. To make all those choices with
empirical confidence that the end product is based
on the truth about the people who will use it.
But what if that truth suddenly isnt so true?
What if an outside force changes the way in
which the product is used or interpreted? What
if the product itself changes based on its use or
on information-gathering patterns? What if the
product causes a behavioral change in its owner
that makes it obsolete or utterly irrelevant in his
or her life? A wireless fitness tracker, for example,
will track your steps all day long. Some trackers
will track your calorie burn and others will
monitor your heart rate. But just think: The idea
behind all of these is to change your behavior to
the extent that you no longer actually need them.
Welcome to designing everyday objects for the
internet of things.

More and more of the everyday products we
designcoffeemakers, microwave ovens,
watches, and thermostats, to name a fewnow
have the ability to send and receive information.
They communicate with us. They communicate
with each other. They communicate with their
environment. Theyre burning up the networks
with trillions of messages every day.
They are connecting ideas and actions into an
intricately woven fabric of information and tasks.
There is an astonishing amount of movement
in the Why and What of a smart device: With
a host of possible sensors and processors, they
have a degree of artificial intelligence. It enables
them to detect and react to events or changes in
their environment, or even adapt to patterns of
use to instantly turn information into action.
When were designing these products, we need to
be just as flexible. We need to be psychologists,
ethnographers, envisioners, product designers,
communication and interaction experts, business
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Feature Avoiding the Internet of Misinformed Things

The ability to modify and synchronize collective

actions with speed is increasing. The interplay
among devices, and between them and us, is in real
time and extremely complex.
strategists, technologists, and more. We need all
these skills to move beyond the precise definition
of the truth about a product and its users to a
more-fluid approach thats capable of rendering
the truth in all its varying shades.
Labeled as thinking and learning machines,
some everyday objects even mimic aspects of
our biology, most of which are currently beyond
algorithmic computation. Implanted heart
defibrillators have two major componentsa
power generator that monitors the heartbeat, and
the lead, which transmits data from the heart and is
used to send a high-energy jolt of electricity when
a patient develops a potentially fatal heart rhythm.
(We can create algorithms that mimic a beat, but
currently, we cannot match the rhythm of love
that emanates from the heart. But just you wait
and see.) What was dreamed up in science fiction
is coming true. Boundaries are fading fast. How
close can algorithms poke at biorhythms before
becoming indiscernible and essentially invisible
to humans? The ability to modify and synchronize
collective actions with speed is increasing. The
interplay among devices, and between them and us,
is in real time and extremely complex.
The possibilities are joyous and intimidating;
the potential repercussions are many. Its a big
responsibility we designers need to help shoulder,
by setting the moral compass in the direction
of human consciousness and enlightenment.
However, if the first 20 years of the internet
teaches us anything, its how badly we need to
increase our ability to absorb, synthesize, and
deploy information.

make things more complicated, the origin of

much information is now global, and often out
of context for those not directly associated. How
do humans and the intelligent everyday objects
we create come closer to human, emotionally
digestible truth, as well as digital, factual truth?
Everyday objects must strive to deliver
the truth; but do they? When Apples Siri or
Amazons Alexa is asked to solve a problem or,
for instance, deliver the news, where do they
get their answers? In general, the more truth
you detect in your information, the more likely
your consequent decisions or actions will be
honest, rational, and tethered to something
bigger than yourself. When our emotions
are based on untrustworthy information and
unverified personal truths, our confusion and
frustration increases. Knowledge that is based
on a superficial or false support system builds an
amplified level of mistrust.
Moreover, the overwhelming quantity
of information we receive is likely to result
in generalities and a relatively shallow
understanding of many subjects. In other words,
when we react to a lack of depth and connection,
we often entrench emotionally in order to
compensate, which further results in a lack of
patience, discourse, and tolerance.
Globally, we are experiencing an amplified level
of mistrust: political, economic, educational, and
environmental. In order to cope with an onslaught
of information, we leave the details behind, basing
our decisions and beliefs on emotionally driven
constructs. We begin to shift our ideals toward
larger, simpler concepts as the details become
Knowledge and truth
overwhelming, confusing, andso oftenbiased.
All good design starts with unbiased positive
This trend moves us further and further from
knowledge and then moves on to imagination and the truth, based as it is on input that leaves out
creativity. However, the ever-increasing amount
the details and ignores any overlap or reasonable
of information available directly or subliminally is dialogue on which to base our opinions. The result
not only overwhelming but also often superficial, is concepts that define people so generally that
emotional, and editorialnot delivered by
they never really get to a truthful Why.
those close to the intricacies of a given situation.
Our next great design challenge will be to create
It tends to be steeped in biased analysis and
ways to supply and deal with information that puts
delivered through varied levels of expertise. To
us in the best possible position to make truthful
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Feature Avoiding the Internet of Misinformed Things

Figure 2
Our next greatest design challenge
will be to create ways to supply and
manage information that gets us
closer to the truth.

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Feature Avoiding the Internet of Misinformed Things

Its almost as if most everyday objects are striving

to become connected; but the result is that the
reverse is happening to human beings.
The machine-human connection is quite often
replacing the human-human connection.

Figure 3
Currently, our biology is
beyond algorithmic definition
and therefore non-computable
in the usual sense, but how
close can algorithms poke at
biorhythms before becoming
indiscernible to humans?

and educated decisions. When we are confused in

our own knowledge base, we are not at peace. When
humans are closer to finding the truth, they feel
more in control and more satisfied with themselves
and their lifestyles. Will everyday objects help
us get closer to the truth, or will they become
cynical and biased, driven by non-altruistic and
manipulative causes acting as digital lobbyists?
In order to create evolving everyday
circumstances and interactions that move us

closer to the truth, we as a capitalistic society

are essentially hanging our hats on technology
to deliver information that (we hope) is
collectively good for mankind. What have we
done with it thus far, though, to ourselves and to
our environment? Have we created genetically
modified grains/foods, antibiotic- and steroidfilled meats, and pesticide-laden agriculture,
while creating processed foods that are filled with
sugar, fat, and chemicals? Have we built landfills
of useless objects that dont decompose, while
creating atmospheric change that may be raising
the temperature of our planet? We, as a people,
are more obsessed with accumulating everyday
objects than with having credible dialogues about
the protection of our children and our planet.
Will everyday objects eventually inform us and
directly save us, or will we save ourselves with
their nudging? Given the dissonance of amplified
information, can everyday objects do a better job
of deciphering the truth than we can?
First, people need to know themselves, but
how will they hear their own voices through all
the noise? Its almost as if most everyday objects
are striving to become connected; but the result
is that the reverse is happening to human beings.
The machine-human connection is quite often
replacing the human-human connection.

Designing a platform
Our challenge will be to create simply connected
platforms that bring people together and
allow them to find themselves happily in the
background and not on center stage. In other
words, there would be no need for the constant
checking and digging into your smart phone
because data would be transparently delivered as
an everyday object in your environment.
Assuming that we create credible sources of
information that is collected by input devices,
globally well need an appropriate infrastructure
in place. The race is on, of course, to develop
a successful universal technology reference
architecture that will allow for pliable operation
and ease of use. Companies like Google and
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Feature Avoiding the Internet of Misinformed Things

Amazon are working hard to establish a platform as

the building block for all consumer-based objects
and their software. Indeed, all the major players
have similar strategies for creating standards.
So far, digital applications that create
experience-driven social connections based on a
business strategy have gone the farthest toward
addressing needs. But everyday objects in the
consumer markets lag behind. Even with all the
possibilities, we still see companies working
hard to figure out the most basic interactions.
They are stuck in the same information glut
consumers are, with too many choices. How, for
instance, should they market the ability to turn
on a light bulb while the customer is away? Is that
any better than using a mechanical timer? Many
attempts at designing everyday objects that offer
help to the consumer have been rejected as adding
unnecessary complexity. The need to know the
Why for everyday objects, as well as for the
humans they serveis key.
Having access to everyday objects captured
within the internet of things makes the idea of
collecting data possible. It is viewed as closing the
loop: consumer input goes back to the products
maker, collecting tremendous amounts of data
that can be transformed into useful information
and further insights. This makes decision-makers
feel comfortable in the hope that quantity will
even out the extremes and get them closer to the
truth. Everyday objects do make this possible, but
the question is: does a larger quantity of shallow
emotional understanding translate to a deeper
analysis of meaning?
The opportunities are vast and unpredictable.
The convergence of manually operated controls
within a smart phone, for example, is so
condensed, labor-intensive, and all-consuming
that the enabling features may eventually be
transferred into the everyday objects that
surround us. Fostering a digital human-to-human
connection may be an honorable and great start,
if we can heed and analyze the growing pains
associated with being so easily and intimately
connected with one another. As designers, how

should we understand and further develop the

human-machine connection so that it never loses
sight of the human-to-human connection?
By the year 2020, it is estimated that there
will be 50 billion devices connected to the
worldwide Internet: everyday objects that listen
to you, that learn your routine, that control
your environment. There will be more and more
objects that allow us to monitor from afar and
limit our forgetfulness: driverless cars, robots,
virtual assistants, smart drones an endless list,
interesting to national governments, as well as to
product manufacturers.
The foundation of intelligence, whether it is
digitally based or comes from a notebook and a
pen, is the integrity of its actionable information.
A heartbeat that can be interpreted falsely through

Figure 4
Digital truth might be defined
as concepts or directions helping
us make decisions or take direct
action based on some measure of
factual information that is good
for ones soulwhile helping,
or at the very least minimally
harming, our collective souls.

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Feature Avoiding the Internet of Misinformed Things

Figure 5
We, as a people, are more obsessed with accumulating
everyday objects than with having credible dialogues
around the protection of our children and our planet.

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Glen Walter is a co-founder and
managing member of Eleven, an
international design studio with
offices in Boston and Manhattan.
As a human-centered, designoriented cooperative, Elevens
designers manifest meaningful
brands and design the products,
packaging, visual communications,
business strategies, and experiences

hardware or software or biased reporting does not

help the hearts owner and offers nothing to science
either. Our goal must be to find the Why behind
the What by listening and letting the human voice
take the lead. We will need to let everyday objects
have some control by proving to the individual and
to society that their usefulness is based upon a
journey to find truth and build trust. The objects
that survive will be products that meet appropriate
needs and offer simplicity, robustness, and a
seamless fit into a larger network; these will be
able to help the humans with which they interface,
and they will also improve other objects by sharing
relevant information.
Designers may need to forfeit control, shifting
our design process toward the collaboration and
nurturing of everyday objects instead of a precise
definition. It is time to evolve the way we think
about our associations with objects as physical
interfaces turn into digital systems. They will
evolve on their own. We will have to step back
from the detailed physical, allowing objects
to evolve and change as we provide guidance,
nurturing, and care. This adjustment places a
greater emphasis on the Why, the reason for
being, the informational input sources and the
context in which the resultant actions take place.

that connect with those brands.

Walter is the son of an elementary
school teacher who bordered on
evangelism in her approach to
new and creative methods of
learning. His father was an artist
who imbued every action with
skill and every journey with the
goal of excellence. Walter has been
published often and is a popular

guest lecturer presenting at MIT,

Harvard, Babson College, NYU,
Syracuse University, the Design
Management Institute, IDSA,
APDF, Pira International, and as
a special guest to the Government
of Ireland. He graduated from
Syracuse University.

emotions, your love, your friends, your family

to the intricacies and seductions of a digital
reality. Dont look back to find that your life was
virtual; make sure it is based in reality as much
as is humanly possible. Design everyday objects
that do play digitally and work for you, but then
get back to realityplaying, building, loving, and
learning from nature. Nature has already gone
through an evolution and has dealt with much
more complexity than we are facing globally
within a single organism. Search within!
Design thinking is coming of age, but dont
rest on your laurels; we have just begun. Those
who feel that traditional design is the final
weapon in a crowded frontier of goods and
services only see one sector of a bigger picture.
The internet of things will create a vast network
of information with the capacity to inform,
sense, learn, entertain, secure, and save. We must
transform ourselves in order to be aware and
capable enough to begin to unravel some of the
riddles of our global connectedness.

You are not an everyday object

At Eleven, we have created a culture of design
based on consumer anthropology, global research,
futures, and trends. We try to amplifyvisually
and emotionallyeverything we do, from digital
landscaping to market landscape analysis; and we
think a lot about the future, because we have an
entrepreneurial bent and are always interested in
growth opportunities, patent creation, and earlystage business development. We are trying to see
it coming.
Its up to us to save our world for those
who come next. Dont become an everyday
object. Dont lose your intuition, your truthful
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