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How scary can a fridge be?

Recent news of a spamming fridge highlighted some of the oddness in store for us as the Internet of things comes online. Putting computational smartness into our things will change our relationship with them in fundamental ways. For most of us fridges have never been particularly scary. The worst experience you might have had would be uncovering some particularly long out of date fish product hiding in a corner. Now as our fridges become nodes in the network their capacity for scary ‘independent’ activity feels like it is on the rise.

Design that communicates smart functionality

On some levels it feels a bit wrong to carry on calling web-enabled things by their original ‘inert’ names. Is a fridge that can send spam still really a fridge? Should it be re-named a ‘chilling computer’? Matt Webb, founder and CEO of tech pioneers Berg Cloud talked about the challenge of communicating the true nature of web-enabled things in a Cass Business School talk last year. He explained how the design of Berg’s web-enabled ‘Little Printer’ was informed by the desire to communicate the printer’s smart functionality more clearly.  So Little Printer prints a face whenever it is in rest mode and lights up when it is connecting to the web. The faces and the light highlight the fact that Little Printer is different and at a basic level signpost the fact that it is not inert. Interestingly when Berg remotely re-set Little Printer’s ‘face’ to include heart shaped glasses for valentine’s day a minority of users became upset at what they saw as an intrusion on their product and their property. This minority did not like the fact Little Printer was acting in what seemed like a more independent way despite the humour and warmth of the execution.

Who is in control?

The story of Little Printer and the talk of spamming fridges highlight underlying shifts in our relationship with tech and the degree to which people feel more or less in control. When Google CEO Eric Schmidt talked about technology and robots’ potential to undermine the jobs market over the coming decades he touched on long-established fears around tech’s capacity to overwhelm us as much as support us.

Where is my web enabled butler?

It is no surprise that these ideas of control and security come to the fore in people’s homes. People want to feel safe in their homes and they want to feel like their appliances and their things are well within their control. With this in mind the fridge makers and IoT evangelists might do well to take a leaf out of Little Printer’s book and make communicating their objects’ smart functionality integral to their designs. I probably wouldn’t want a ‘Chilling Computer’ in my home, but I might make room for a fridge shaped butler that politely informed me when my fish stew leftovers were about to go toxic.