Must All Things Pass? Designing for the Afterlife of (Internet of) Things

Paper published in The State of Responsible IoT 2020: From Good Things to Good Systems

Sunrise doesn't last all morning

A cloudburst doesn’t last all day… 
All things must pass

All things must pass away

George Harrison’s 1970 song ‘All Things Must Pass’ could easily be seen to be his sonic lament to the passing of The Beatles. Heavily indebted to Timothy Leary’s 1966 transcendental poem All Things Pass – itself adapted from the pages of Lao-Tzu’s 6th Century B.C text the Tao Te Ching – Harrison’s track is in fact a meditation on the ephemerality of the physical world (Allison, 2006). People, animals and plant life – human and non-human existence is significant but momentary in the long history of time. Like flora and fauna, we humans are subject to Mother Earth’s order of things, what could be described as natural obsolescence. Despite our physical impermanence, we leave legacies. Our progeny, possessions and sometimes even ideas will carry on without us.

The lifespans of Internet of Things (IoT) objects are also designed to be brief. However, it is not the planet but designers, manufacturers and tech firms who control the order of Things. Unfortunately, in their current incarnation, human-made Things are having an increasingly detrimental effect on the Earth’s natural processes. Globally, there are said to be around 27 billion networked Things, with this number projected to increase threefold to around 76 billion by 2025. Many of these Things are composed of materials that are finite, like precious metals and minerals, and non-recyclable such as thermoplastics. The use of glues, hidden seals and force fits in their design means that it is challenging to repair, modify and reuse Things. Their lifespan is further reduced by their limited capacity for software updates, while Things proprietary nature makes them difficult to ‘hack’ and reprogram. As recently seen with Philips and Sonos devices, Things can quickly become ‘bricked’ – unsupported and redundant. Ultimately, most Things are unsustainable, and many will end their lives at a landfill site in the form of electronic waste (e-waste).

In our paper Must All Things Pass? Designing for the Afterlife of (Internet of) Things published in in The State of Responsible IoT 2020 we use Design Fiction to consider how AI might be used to allow things to ensure their own repairability and maintainability.