From one to many

How single artifacts can become many networked artifacts by adding communication capabilities.

The idea that things are networked and exchange information is not novel. In fact nature uses that mechanism extensively to orchestrate its complex organic system. In a recently published paper 1 researchers discovered that neighboring plants are interconnected through an underground fungal network. The plants are able to warn each other from upcoming insect attacks by sending signals through the network. With that information the other plants can activate their chemical defense system and fight the intruding insects. Also our human body houses millions of cells that are interconnected and communicate with each other through chemicals. But rather than just preventing harm to the individual cells, they work together and enable the system – the human to exist as a whole. In both examples the things are networked and act as a community to achieve higher goals that go beyond the capabilities of a single plant or cell.

Today, our environment is full of artificially made objects – artifacts, that we use everyday to get things done or entertain ourselves. Most of those artifacts have no communication capabilities like a chair or football and thus provide a limited set of usage options. On the other hand we have desktop computers, tablets and smart phones that are full of communication capabilities and heavily networked. In certain situations those devices are even fully dependent on the network as their whole existence is defined by having constant access to the network. However, at some point even computers have been ordinary computational artifacts, but the modern telecommunication technologies let the computer slowly become a networked artifact with the ability to exchange information.

Collection of Artifacts

From these examples we can learn that the becoming from one thing to a system of many is always accompanied with introducing some form of communication. While a single plant is exposed to attacks by insects, the networked plants, that exchange information using their fungal network, can organize themselves and provide each other with information to defeat the threat. Also the computer, which was just a calculator in the beginning, became a networked device that is most commonly used to access its own network – the Internet.

Obviously, the computer is a very general and advanced networked artifact. This is due to the focus on the Web as the virtual content of the Internet. While the visible computer as one kind of networked artifact is mostly static and mostly just provides an interface to interact with the network, the Web itself is very dynamic and changes day to day. But the advancements in miniaturizing these connectivity components, created the possibility to add digital connectivity to any artifact. This means that soon functionality that has been implemented virtually in software, can be exposed as a tangible artifact in the real, physical world. Sharing photos using for example Instagram on a iPhone might become obsolete when interconnected cameras, picture frames and photo albums are available and provide a similar service without requiring you to understand computers, operating systems and the web itself.

Student Exercises

  1. What networks of things do currently exist?

Go out and look at your current environment and search for systems of networked things (organically, mechanical, digital, …) and document them. Find at least 2 different systems and take a photos of each.

  1. What is the communication mechanism that allows them to become connected and to become more than one?

Take the examples you have found and evaluate the communication mechanism. Write a short description and draw a simple graphic 2 that explains it.

  1. Babikova, Z., Gilbert, L., Bruce, T. J. A., Birkett, M., Caulfield, J. C., Woodcock, C., et al. (2013). Underground signals carried through common mycelial networks warn neighboring plants of aphid attack. Ecology Letters, 16(7), 835–843.

  2. Title illustration by Fabrice Spahn, interaction design student at the Zurich University of Arts.