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Internet of Things and the Work of the Hands

by Thomas Wendt
8 min read
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Looking to philosopher Albert Borgmann and the wood-burning stove, we see that the Internet of Things must create meaningful interactions in order to succeed.

My father has always worked with his hands. I was born in the city where he worked as a roofer, but eventually, my dad started his own company and moved the family out to a rural area.

Our house had a wood-burning stove in the basement, and in a spark of characteristic pragmatism, my dad brokered a deal to obtain free firewood. He started heating the house with the stove to save money on the electric bill. He made a special room in the basement for firewood and made sure to keep the fire going all day, even waking up once or twice during the night to go downstairs and add a couple more logs.

This went on for years. It never really struck me as unusual, even when, every now and then, dad slept through the night and the fire burned out resulting in a chilly walk to the shower in the morning. After years of my mother’s complaints about uneven heat and freezing cold kitchen tiles, he eventually grew tired of his arduous process and began using electric heat.

Years later, when my dad was forced into early retirement, instead of fully embracing the relaxation of retired life, one of the first things he did was to start heating the house with wood again. This always confused me. Why would he want to worry about the seemingly unnecessary and burdensome task of acquiring firewood, chopping it, stacking it, and using it to continually maintain a fire? Not to mention that a wood stove heats a house unevenly, causes dust, and requires constant maintenance.

Dad, Meet the Internet of Things

My shortsighted solution was to purchase my father a Nest thermostat. Nest has become one of the poster children for the Internet of Things—a smart device that constantly monitor conditions to regulate indoor temperatures, accounting for user preferences and allowing remote control using mobile app. Even without the use of the latter feature (Dad hasn’t adopted the smartphone yet), I reasoned that Nest would help maximize the value of electric heat with a minimal amount of effort on his part.

The Internet of Things (IoT) is interesting for a number of reasons. But perhaps ironically, I don’t think any of these reasons have to do with the Internet or even necessarily with things. IoT is interesting because it forces us to rethink the interaction paradigms we have with objects—that is, something is different about our engagement with a smart object versus a “dumb” one. It’s our job as interaction designers to understand what that something is. The best way to begin is to go back before IoT came into being and look at previous conceptions of technology.

This conversation could easily turn in to something massive, so, in order to contain myself, I’ll focus on one key thinker in the philosophy of technology: Albert Borgmann.

Borgmann and the Device Paradigm

Much of Borgmann’s analysis of technology revolves around what he calls the “device paradigm,” which holds that devices, as distinct from things, function specifically to obscure the user’s engagement with them. The device hides the machinery of function.

Instead of using a block of ice within an enclosed box to keep food cold, we have invented an intricate system of pipes, chemical agents, and machinery to maximize food life and minimize the work needed to maintain it. But the user sees none of the inner workings when she or he inserts or removes food; the refrigerator’s outside structure hides the machinery inside.

Think of a particularly simple and familiar example: a website. The front end of the website is there specifically to prevent users from dealing with the complexity of the back end. In the early days of computers, it didn’t take long to realize that there was opportunity to extend computing to the “everyday user,” which called for a less “machinic” (or at least more user friendly) interface than the command line. Clicking a button on a website is much like opening the refrigerator door; it sets in motion a series of events that lead to the attainment of a goal, whether it’s grabbing last night’s leftovers or paying one’s credit card bill. As users, we are able to enjoy the luxury of simplicity. As UX designers, our job is to facilitate interactions between a user, the device facade, and underlying machinery.

We can think of the same type of concealing and revealing in relation to my dad’s combustion activities. It seems almost too convenient that one of Borgmann’s favorite examples is the wood-burning stove:

“[The stove is] a place that gathered the work and leisure of a family and gave the house a center. Its coldness marked the morning, and the spreading of its warmth the beginning of the day. It assigned to the different family members tasks that defined their place in the household. The mother built the fire, the children kept the firebox filled, and the father cut the firewood. It provided for the entire family a regular and bodily engagement with the rhythm of the seasons that was woven together of the threat of cold and the solace of warmth, the smell of wood smoke, the exertion of sawing and of carrying, the teaching of skills, and the fidelity to daily tasks. These features of physical engagement and of family relations are only first indications of the full dimensions of a thing’s world.” (Borgmann, 2009)

The thing becomes a catalyst for surrounding relations: familial structures emerge around it, roles and responsibilities are laid out, pain and pleasure are experienced as a group, and teaching skills becomes an everyday practice. Contrast this to Borgmann’s conception of the device: “The function of the device, on the other hand, and the commodity it provides are available and enjoyed in consumption. The peculiar presence of the end of the device is made possible by means of the device and its concealment.”

Devices are defined by their ability to conceal the work involved in their outputs and the consumptive enjoyment they provide. Subsequently, the device erodes the users’ bodily engagement with an activity. In the case of the stove-thermostat relationship, the thermostat conceals the machinery of wood and fire, or natural gas and flame. It allows enjoyment derived from turning a dial or setting a number to produce heat. Heat becomes a commodity to be consumed.

We can see a distinct pessimism and almost a Luddism evolving in Borgmann’s thought. If devices dissolve our bodily relationship with the world and result in the mere experience of commodities, are we in a position to make a moral judgement in terms of devices vs. things? Are devices leading to further and further abstraction from the “real” world? I don’t think Borgmann’s work necessarily needs to lead to this dualist conclusion. While it might be the case that devices drive us away from bodily engagement with things, it does not necessarily follow that digital devices produce a wholly separate reality. In the end, it is the designer’s responsibility to account, insofar as it is possible, for the potential interpretations and results of the device.

In other words, we must go beyond veneer:

“[T]ools and implements that humans have forged to engage their world have, beginning with the industrial revolution, divided into an impenetrable machinery and an opaque and colorful surface that conceals the machinery. Designers have failed to live up to the responsibility of their profession first by allowing this division to proceed across the board and then by affirming the result through the confinement of their work to the play with surfaces.” (Borgmann, 2001)

Borgmann is certainly making some major assumptions about what constitutes design. A large part of what user experience designers, information architects, interaction designers, and the like do is to intentionally conceal systems in order to increase usability, and in many instances allow the system to be used even at its most basic level.

Complexity begs Concealment

Only the most profane bastardizations of design would assume that surface layer embellishments are the sole outputs of the craft. Our products have become much more complicated than the wood stove, and concealment is necessary for use. This idea harks back to Heidegger’s notion of concealment as simply a part of the technological experience. As experience designers, we are always trying to balance utility with pleasure. So with regard to Borgmann, it is crucial to extend his thoughts on design to design practices.

Whether or not IoT ever lives up to its hype and is adopted by the mainstream, it is clear that “smart,” connected objects offer new possibilities for interaction compared to “stupid” objects. On one side, it is easy to conclude that smart objects drive us even further from worldly things that require bodily skill. Widespread connectivity allows automation to the point where we can imagine many daily tasks executed without conscious awareness. Menial work tasks are handled in the background while workers concentrate on more creative endeavors. On the other side, IoT also allows for deeper engagement with everyday devices. One can interact with automated systems to customize experiences, as with Nest and its remote control capabilities. The relationship between IoT and the device paradigm is perhaps a way to reframe rather than dismiss the potential for bodily interaction with technology, as we can observe in connected health devices and the quantified self movement.


Neither of these possibilities was the impetus to buy my father a Nest thermostat. My naive assumption was that he went back to heating with wood in order to cut costs, as any retirement money he was collecting was certainly lower than what he made while working. Therefore, Nest would help him regulate the heating bill and still enjoy the luxury of electric heat, avoid extraneous work, and not have to worry about something as simple as heat.

The Internet of Things will only be successful if products are designed with purpose

I wanted him to embrace the commodity. Of course, what soon became quite obvious is that he is not reverting back to the wood stove because of money; he maintains the stove because it gives him the opportunity to focus some energy on working with his hands, to take an active role in household maintenance, and to use as a bonding activity with my young brother. Not only did he start using a fireplace insert in the living room to burn wood as opposed to the stove in the basement (thus reducing required work), he also started having chopped firewood delivered and stacked on the side of the house. It’s likely that he now spends as much on firewood than he might with electric heat.

One of the biggest issues IoT devices need to address, apart from what problem what actual problem they are solving, is how to foster and maintain skill, craft, and the work of the hands. One assumption the industry seems to be making is that pleasure comes from the reduction of work, an increase in leisure time, and automation. But sometimes pleasure comes from work.

My father is far removed from early technology adopters; his attitudes and behaviors are very different from the majority of people walking around with Glass on their face and Jawbone on their wrist. Nonetheless, the implicit meaning behind his actions point to something found in all of us: the need to take an active role in the world, to shape and design things, and to form rituals around activities. This is not to say we can’t do these things with smart objects, but it does underscore the importance of conscious, embodied interaction with things. The Internet of Things will only be successful if products are designed with purpose.

Image of firewood and axe courtesy Shutterstock.

post authorThomas Wendt

Thomas Wendt, Thomas Wendt is a consultant based in New York City, specializing in user research, experience strategy, product strategy, and innovation. Thomas is part theorist and part practitioner, firmly believing that theory and practice need to learn how to play nice if we’re ever going to be truly innovative. He comes from a background in psychology, philosophy, and literary studies—all of which have a strong influence on his design and strategic processes. He strives for a deep understanding of the relationship between people and technology, as this relationship is what shapes product design. He frequently teaches, writes, and speaks, on a variety of topics including intro UX, strategy, context-aware computing, philosophy and design, mobile UX, knowledge work, lean process and theory, and semiotics. His articles have been published in UX Magazine, Semionaut, UX Booth, and the Journal of Information Architecture (forthcoming). Presentations have been delivered both nationally and internationally at conferences such as Interaction 14 (forthcoming), LeanUX NYC, UX Cambridge, MidwestUX, FutureM, and a variety of smaller events in the NYC area. Thomas also teaches classes through General Assembly and independently for clients on topics such as Intro to UX, UX for Strategists, Research Methods, Design Thinking, and Product Ideation Methods. Thomas lives in the NoLita neighborhood of Manhattan in a tiny, modernist-by-default apartment with his lovely wife, Niki. In his spare time, he enjoys seeing how many books he can fit on his shelves and lusting after furniture he can't afford.


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