Response: Why Things Matter

January 28, 2012

Why Things Matter by Julian Bleecker discusses the “Internet of Things,” a theoretical space where networked objects become citizens, asserting their own insights and discourse about the world we live in. More specifically, Bleecker presents the notion of the “blogject,” or an object that blogs. These blogjects act as agents in the Internet of Things by archiving their location, the things around them, and their status – ultimately presenting meaningful data relationships to help form or develop a discussion.

Bleecker emphasizes the idea that his so-called blogjects maintain their own agency in a socially networked environment. While he frequently draws parallels between human agency and blogject agency (they both contribute to discussion, present new ideas, and create meaning), I would argue that blogjects couldn’t truly carry agency. I’ll use the example Bleecker notes, The Pigeon that Blogs by Beatriz da Costa, which he describes as an early example of a blogject. The piece equips several pigeons with devices for GPS tracking, sensors for detecting the status of air toxins, and wireless Internet connectivity to report back on the status of our environment. Bleecker claims that this data develops a discussion about our world, and awards these pigeons a “first-class citizen status.” These pigeons don’t have any agency, however – at least not in the context of the role they play as blogjects. They are simply carriers, whereas the sensors mounted on their backs are measuring devices – they are no more culturally relevant than a thermometer.

While I remain skeptical that Bleecker’s blogjects can have agency – even if that agency comes in a form distinct from that of human agency – I do agree that these kinds of networked objects have potential to open up doors to fascinating discussion. Blogjects can be meaningful, and not only present empirical data on the world around us, but also cause us to question our own behaviour. Bleecker uses the Kundi project by Michael Naimark to demonstrate how blogjects can create relevant meaning in the physical realm, not only by reporting data, but also prompting behavioural adjustment. In one instance, a “Kundi Cam” is placed in an area where rape and murder commonly occur. While anyone on the network can view this camera feed online, by installing a screen with the number of viewers watching above the camera, those under surveillance in the physical space may choose not to commit any crimes. Although crime could simply be diverted to an area without surveillance cameras, this example shows that blogjects do have the capacity to be more than “sensor reporters.”

The idea of networked objects acting as agents (of some form) in the social web is an idea that intrigues me. As networking tools are changing our behaviour even today (for example, I may tweet on my smart phone about the sandwich I just ate), there is no question that networking devices can create social change. Maybe we just won’t call them “blogjects.”