This article is the first in a series that will explore the connection of IoT to consumerism through a few different lenses.
The Amazon Dash button has gone largely unnoticed by the internet giant’s massive cache of users. It has been ridiculed by those in the media who say that the product is nothing but a fad, nothing but the latest in a string of products designed to make America lazier and more dependent on a constant cycle of consumerism.
But, in fact, this consumer-consumable integration is nothing but the first in a series of long overdue steps to automate the mundane parts of our daily lives. It is remarkable that in this age of autonomous drones and smart cities, that we still have to take time out of our daily lives to purchase essentials that can essentially be deemed “household utilities.” These products, which must be continually replenished, barring purchasing a lifetime supply, are distinguished from shopping for pleasure solely by the term “errand.” It shows err in human judgement that people continually accept this an an unavoidable reality in the modern era. This is the problem the Amazon Dash button and other products aim to solve.
This, of course, is but the first in a series of steps in automation of the boring, monotonous parts of our daily lives. Amazon itself is already working on the next phase of development through its Dash Replacement Service (DRS), essentially the same thing as the dash button but built into appliances which automatically sense when products are running low and reorder, without any required action from the consumer. According to The Wall Street Journal, Whirlpool is working on a washer and dryer, Brita on a pitcher, Brother a printer, and Quirky a range of products, all of which will automatically reorder their various consumables through Amazon.
Now, the technology behind these things is not very complicated—in many cases it already exists. Refrigerators already remind people when to change their water filter. There’s already sensors that can detect when fluids are running low, namely in automobiles. It’s a simple matter of making them an internet connected device—a component of an IoT network–to make use of their full potential.
As part of their Concept Kitchen 2025, IKEA has presented a concept for an even more integrated system, a kitchen which, among other innovations, automatically reorders food based on sensors directly integrated into shelving. IKEA calls this “‘Casual technology’—unobtrusive, embedded, yet aware, helping us to save energy and food waste.” This is an apt moniker not only for this specific instance of future IoT technology, but for any type of “screenless” tech. As Dieter Rams states in his fifth principle of good design, “Good design is unobtrusive.” This type of casual technology is all but nonexistent in the modern world–in fact, we are frequently faced with the converse—a technological arms race dictated by the desire for bigger, faster, thinner gadgets. That said, it seems as if this type of technology will be disappearing in the near future with the advent of more deeply integrated, more interactive technology, which is really incompatible with existing screen infrastructure.
This level of automation frightens many, but those fearful of change fail to realize the amount of time the will be saved thinking about and executing these routine chores. After all, time is money, especially more literally in today’s sharing economy. Likewise, there are broader societal implications to all of this change.
One of the pinnacles of being upper class is having spare time. As was touched on before, the Internet of Things will democratize spare time. As Thorstein Veblen states in his 1899 treatise “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” “in itself and in its consequences the life of leisure is beautiful and ennobling in all civilised men’s eyes.” In other words, a life of leisure is as desirable as material goods and spare time is as desirable as more money.
Creating a system in which shopping is a pleasure, rather than a chore, is no small task. In theory, the time saved by all people through this system will be able to be spent doing more pleasurable things—in short—it will democratize spare time.
Lower-income people will especially benefit from this added spare time. It is cruel that a single mother working two jobs just to survive has to spend her day off shopping rather than being with her family or otherwise enjoying life. According to Chatzitheochari et al., “overall, working women experience multiple and more severe free time constraints, which may constitute an additional barrier for their leisure and social participation.“ This is a core issue in escaping the cycle of poverty.
When those who make the least have any degree of additional free time, it will directly impact quality of life. It has been proven repeatedly that stress leads to poor health, and thus the more downtime, the more opportunity to experience joy, a person has, the healthier they will be, not only mentally but physically. When the working class is made to be more equitable with the “leisure class,” this benefits everyone. Decline in economic inequality directly translates to decrease in crime, through widespread decreases in anger of the populace.
Now, this may seem like a stretch, which is understandable. None of these things will necessarily be direct consequences of widespread implementation of IoT “casual technology.” However, when examining broad macroeconomic patterns, they are the logical conclusions.