Computer vs. Thing: a Philosophical Razor

by JP Norair on 26 May 2015

in Digress

There should be a simple distinction between a “thing” and a “computer,” in order to assist marketers who may be over-eagerly branding products for the “Internet of Things.”  The Internet of Computers already exists.  The Internet of Things is slowly emerging.  Therefore, I present a philosophic razor of three criteria with which, I believe, “thing” and “computer” may be judged.  I’m sure we could come up with additional criteria, but so far these three, I think, are sufficient.


1. Evidence of Functionality:

A “computer’s” primary job is to run software that takes human input and produces human output.  What is happening behind the scenes might as well be magic, because it is not evident at all to the user.  Most cellphones these days are computers.
A “thing’s” primary job can be one of many things, but its job is not something abstract, like software I/O.  People like to use a toaster as an example.  The toaster cooks bread.  You put in the bread, and it cooks it.  It is plainly evident that bread is being cooked.  A Thermostat is another example.  It is plainly evident that the thermostat is controlling the room temperature, even though you might not know how it does this.

2. Evidence of computing:

A well designed “thing” has no evidence of computing.  There is probably a computer in your thermostat, in fact, even if it’s not a fancy, internet-connected one.  However, there is no evidence it is taking time to compute.  There is no “spinning beach ball” or anything of the sort.  Most cable set-top boxes, and many modern TVs, blur the line between thing and computer because they often give queues to the user that they are “starting up” or “shutting down.”  Indeed, internet connected TVs and set-top-boxes are more “computer” than “thing,” and users even treat them as such, now.  20 years ago, TVs were “things” (so were phones).

3. Evidence of holism:

If I wanted to connect my toaster to the internet I could duct-tape a smartphone to the side and build a toaster app of some sort (or use a Raspberry Pi or some such thing).  Now I would have a “thing” with a “computer” connected to it, not a single “thing.”  A thing must be holistic.  The computer inside the thing must be fundamentally dedicated to the thing.

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