Edison’s phonographs and the Internet of Things

When the first Edison phonograph recordings came out – so the story goes – many were freaked out. You could here the voices of the dead, speaking, singing. Audio recordings bridged time. We could hear the past in a way that had not been possible before.

The image His Master’s Voice, showing a dog listening to his deceased master’s voice, still reminds us of the curious effect:


His Masters Voice Image: His Master’s Voice (source: Wikimedia Commons)


Fast forward through the development of telephones and all the way to the mid-2000s. Skype video calls enabled us to share live presence remotely. Not just listening, but active engagement with the not-here. This bridged space much in the same way that Edison recordings bridged time. After a brief moment of wonder, remote live presence felt natural. An extension of ourselves, a more permanent connection to our loved ones. Today we take for granted that we can video call from a powerful microcomputer in our pockets at any given time through Skype, Facetime or Hangout.

The Internet of Things (IoT) ushers in the next big step along the vector outlined above. As we connect large chunks of our environment – making it more responsive – we find our communications framework and cognitive model changed yet again. We communicate with things. Listen to them signaling to us or each other. Send them orders to execute, or more precisely to actuate).

The IoT does not necessarily let us listen to the dead or share our presence with the not-here (although it could do that, too). Rather, it lets us actively engage with the non-living, with things. Concretely, with things that have an agenda, encoded in their software and not necessarily transparent to us.

I’m not entirely sure what the specific gap is the IoT helps us bridge – maybe a particular kind of physical-to-non-physical? – but it sure sure feels like the rules of communication, and with them our awareness of ourselves in relation to our environment, are changing yet again. If we do it right, likely it won’t be too long before it feels perfectly natural.