The Internet of Things Is Finally Mainstream

By Rich Handley

The IoT has been dominating news headlines in recent years, and while some of the coverage has been negative, a lot of it lately has been encouragingly optimistic.

You can tell something's become a mainstream topic when a lot of people complain about it or express their fears regarding it. One need only conduct a quick Google search for the terms "vaccine," "5G" or "Game of Thrones' final episode" for proof of that. The more people become aware of a topic, the more they find reasons to be angry about it—even if, in the case of vaccines and 5G, their ire is irrational and based on fearmongering rather than on any inherent problems with the actual innovations. (When it comes to the Game of Thrones finale, you can decide for yourself.)

That's not necessarily a bad thing. When the fearful complain about things they don't fully understand, it is true that it can negatively influence others to follow suit in forming their opinions—but it also allows those with more knowledge to set the record straight. That's the beauty of discourse: amidst all the ranting and manipulation, there is an opportunity for education and enlightenment. Bringing the public's anger, fear and misinformation out into the light provides teaching moments, and it can lead to people setting aside irrationality and accepting new things.

"If man were meant to fly, he'd have wings" isn't something we hear much these days, for example, nor does the average person fear being irradiated by their television or their microwave oven anymore. That wasn't always the case, as the masses have always feared new innovations (see  12 Technologies That Scared the World Senseless), and that fear can pervade for years or decades. When I joined the RFID Journal team in 2005, it was pretty frequent that we would receive emails claiming RFID fulfills the Biblical prophecy of the Mark of the Beast (this, I'm sure, was not helped by the fact that RFID Journal's founder is named Mark Roberti). Radio frequency identification technology was nothing new at the time and could be traced back to Léon Theremin's listening devices in 1945, but that didn't stop people from buying into the fearmongering hype.

When I scanned the news headlines this morning, I saw the following warnings about the dangers posed by new technologies: "Internet of Threats: IoT Botnets Drive Surge in Network Attacks," "Millions of IoT Devices Vulnerable, New Report Says," "100 Million More IoT Devices Are Exposed—and They Won't Be the Last" and  "When the Internet of Things (IoT) Is Armed as an IoT Botnet." Those in the Internet of Things sector might worry about such articles, since they can scare readers into fearing the IoT despite its enormous usefulness for businesses and consumers. But that isn't the bigger picture here.

The fact that headlines of this nature regularly come up in Internet searches shows how far the Internet of Things has come. News outlets choose to cover topics they believe their audience will understand and care about. Consider how few news sites bother to mention the extraordinary breakthroughs being made in the physics world, for example. It's not that quantum computing, exotic compact objects, fluid mechanics, dark matter, muon-magnetic interactions and Higgs boson particles aren't interesting—because they are—it's simply that those reporting the news don't think readers will tune in.

That means they do think people will tune in when it comes to the Internet of Things, and that is the good news here. It means journalists know the IoT has become so mainstream they no longer need to worry whether or not readers will understand the term "Internet of Things" or how the technology applies to their daily lives. It means they know today's audience is knowledgeable enough to understand what phrase like "smart home," "smart city" and "smart products" refer to. And it means they believe readers will not only comprehend IoT-related headlines, but actually click through and read the articles.

In other words, it means the IoT has arrived—and it's why I also saw the following encouragingly optimistic headlines: "This Is What 5G and the Internet of Things Can Do to Create a Sustainable World," "Old Samsung Phones Can Now Turn Your Homes Into 'Smart Homes', Here's How," "How Walmart Adapted Its IoT Strategy to the Pandemic," "Apple Introduces the AirTag, Technology Meant to Stop You From Losing Your Keys," "How the Internet of Things Is Shifting the Digital Age," "How Will Adoption of the Internet of Things Facilitate the Logistics Sector?," "2021 Internet of Things 50: The Bright Lights of IoT" and  "The Revolution of the Internet of Things, a World to Discover."

In fact, the number of articles I saw praising and promoting the Internet of Things this morning far outweighed those warning against it. That represents a tonal shift from the headlines of, say, five or six years ago, and it's all part of the natural trend. People are typically fearful when it comes to embracing something new. They worry that letting innovation into their lives will put them in danger—and they shout those worries at the top of their lungs, panicking others. I'm sure that when the earliest humans harnessed fire, created wheels and fashioned crude tools, there had to be others standing nearby, telling them man was never meant to have campfires, ride in carts or bang things with rocks. When the first human suggested cooking antelopes instead of eating the meat raw, someone else no doubt shouted "Fake gnus!"

When I was a child, my mother even worried that my watching Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies would make me jump off a cliff or drop a bolder on someone's head, just like Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner did. Keep in mind that cartoon animation was hardly a new thing in the early 1970s. She'd grown up watching Tom and Jerry, Woody Woodpecker and Betty Boop decades before that, yet to my knowledge she'd never emulated those characters' actions. Still, she'd read as an adult that watching cartoons could negatively influence and harm children, so she believed it for a time. She also thought my Atari 2600 video game console would rot my brain.

Eventually, my mom read more and realized how baseless her fears were. Cartoons engage the imagination, while video games foster hand-eye coordination, yet people were wary of both innovations for quite a while. These days, both are widely accepted and embraced. We needn't be held back by fear of the unknown. We can learn more and we can grow smarter. Just like the Internet of Things.

Rich Handley has been the managing editor of RFID Journal since 2005. Outside the RFID world, Rich has authored, edited or contributed to numerous books about pop culture.