Will the Internet of Things make us slaves to our lesser natures?

By James Robinson , written on February 17, 2014

From The News Desk

As we get further into the "year of the Internet of Things," breathless announcements of still mostly hypothetical products in development are coming thick and fast.

Today, Philips announced that in Düsseldorf, Germany it is piloting a “connected retail lighting system” in a single physical location. The rub of it is this: the lights in the store have built in beacons, a potential shopper can open up the store’s app and see a map of the store, tracking their location in real time and getting directions toward their planned purchase.

The company released a helpful infographic to explain the benefits it sees with this offering. You’re looking for ingredients to make guacamole, you open up a supermarket app and enter this in. The app suggests a recipe, guiding you through the store to what you need, pushing you out offers, suggesting complementary dessert items you might want to buy and maybe giving you a coupon for those too.

Seen from one angle, it is a direct attempt from Philips to cash in on the buzz Apple saw last year when it rolled out its iBeacon service in 254 stores, giving retailers the chance to push out sales information to shoppers from bluetooth beacons inside the store. A possible Android answer to iBeacon is already in the works.

Location based push notifications have the potential to be annoying, but they still make sense, providing retailers a chance to communicate with people in the physical vicinity of the store. Philips’ plan super sizes this, giving a store Internet-connectivity to provide shoppers with the option of completely outsourcing thought from their process.

No more idle-browsing. No more comparing. No more walking around a bit before inspiration takes you. Philips’ plan would bring the power of Google Maps and Yelp to the individual, micro-level shopping experience. It is as impressive as it is pointless.

As this new area of technology is developed it is walking a line between answering human need and outsourcing effort. If you’ve lived in regular society for a little bit, you know generally where things are in a supermarket. Are we going to reach for our phones to cure us of the minute we spend in an aisle searching for a specific product? I can’t see it. But what remains to be seen is whether the existence of the technology can change our behaviors. These new powers if embraced could make us very, very lazy.

Just because we can give it connectivity, it doesn’t mean we should. In my apartment building recently, the landlord made a  hullabaloo about the installation of new smart washing machines and dryers. The big deal was that if you take the time to register your phone online, you can program the machines to send you a text message when your laundry is finished. It’s a smart idea on paper maybe, but it’s had zero impact on my life. A load of washing goes for about how long it takes for me to get distracted doing something else and then remember about my clothes. If I’m ever confused, I just give it 45 minutes.

Future entrepreneurs need look to Nest as the benchmark example for the potential of the burgeoning Internet of Things. It gave its consumers mobile control over areas of their homes that were useful to them. People wanted easily accessible remote control of their thermostat to be able to make sure their homes were warm when they got home. The idea had traction and value.

But an egg carton that texts you when your supply is low or a coffee maker I can operate from the next room is small ball inventing. The Internet of Things can give us new remote capabilities and securities or it can be focused on endorsing laziness. The former with Nest and its $3.2 billion sale to Google has proven a winning strategy, whether the latter will work remains to be seen.

If I can turn a light switch on using my phone in the same amount of my time it takes me to reach over and switch it on, it doesn’t it make it more impressive that I used an app to do it. Progress isn’t always progress.