The things that surround us are changing. This change is easier to understand when your mind has been trained by drinking wine at art openings. As the internet reaches out to our things to equip them with sensors and data (thereby turning itself into an ‘internet of things’), our things change. The objects gain a certain autonomy from us—their subjects—as well as a new agency. And both of these qualities we have so far located with artworks.
Of course, the autonomy things gain, when they become connected to the internet, is not the one we discussed in relation to an artwork. But so far we only approached things in art with the expectation that they have something to say. If things speak, they surely say things that are trivial. But it is not trivial that in speaking their role is shifting. My vacuum cleaner informs me that it is stuck and that I need to “move Roomba to a new location.” The self-service checkout, common here in London, advises me to put an item “in the bagging area” and calls loudly for the assistant if it thinks I might have nicked something. And on my phone Apple’s Siri pops up to tell me that he communicated with the lights but some of them are not responding.
That things have something to say has always been suspected. Heidegger famously enlightened us about their agency thereby losing himself in a jug. The lecture called The Thing was presented in the Bayerische Akademie der Schönen Künste and ever since, when trying to understand the agency of things, we have mostly turned to art. From Bill Brown’s cultural Thing theory to Alfred Gell’s anthropological approach, we discuss the agency of things by looking at art—we all know contemporary art as a sphere in which objects escaped the functions intended for them. Now this escape is becoming the new norm: That communication mostly means to misconceive what has been said, seems to be the same for humans and things. The worry with our things, however, is that this misunderstanding will only last as long as their digital communication is in training. Soon they will function seamlessly and stop exhibiting their thingness. Informed by more and better data, they become personalized things that function perfectly. And with that, our things will have changed.
When personalized things are answering individually to specific situations, their sameness is not a given anymore. Informed by their specific location or their specific usage, their individuality becomes stronger and their seriality fades. This is worrying—according to Hannah Arendt, it was their seriality which provided sameness to our world: “The reality and reliability of the human world rest primarily on the fact that we are surrounded by things more permanent than the activity by which they were produced, and potentially even more permanent than the lives of their authors. In other words, against the subjectivity of men stands the objectivity of the man-made world.” Will the objectivity that Arendt related to the sameness of things fade, now that we live in a world of personalized things? And is it just by chance that the rise of fake news occurs at the same time as the rise of the internet of things? From our personalized things, we learned that the most important criteria is that they fit our world. Lucky us there is a solution to oppose this: to continue drinking wine at art openings.