Hardware, Software & the Internet of Things
June 23–25, 2015 • San Francisco, CA

Thing Theory: Making sense of IoT complexity

Sally Applin (I.E.E.E)
5:25pm–6:05pm Wednesday, 06/24/2015
Location: Southside Theater (Bldg D)
Average rating: ****.
(4.14, 7 ratings)

Prerequisite Knowledge

This talk is non-technical, but is aimed at developers and managers who are or will be implementing their particular parts of the IoT. Attendees should have a general understanding of the IoT and a capacity to follow ideas about its underlying mechanisms. While specific technical implementation is not addressed, certain forms of applied logic will be presented and discussed in a general way.


Engineers, developers and designers will bear the brunt of constructing IT relationships within the Solid world, making sense of big data outcomes, and managing relationships between people and technologies. This talk discusses enabling more robust messaging to support these IT relationships, through Thing Theory, which describes a way to add socially aware software agents applied in carefully considered contexts.

Thing Theory is inspired by the Addams Family’s “Thing,” a disembodied hand that navigates between boxes in different rooms in the family home. Over time, Thing has developed relationships with family members, while managing processes and information in the background. As a result of this trust and knowledge, Thing is able to contextually deliver objects and information to particular family members at critical times. Thing also negotiates on behalf of the family with external parties. In this talk, Thing Theory (Applin and Fischer 2013) is introduced to the Solid audience as a way to manage and negotiate the complexities of the IoT.

Information flows are becoming more complex as the mobile market has increased. People are managing multiple messages, on multiple apps, from multiple vendors, though single or multiple devices in real or delayed time. We’re getting overloaded. People are creating adaptations to try to cope with the onslaught by changing the way they send messages, such as sending late night emails or texting while waiting in lines to save time, and by using social media to broadcast messages as a shortcut. Often these messages aren’t received, read, or understood.

For successful human cooperation, messages need to be interpreted and understood in a compatible manner by all parties. When there are too many messages, the risk of meaning going missing increases. This is less of an issue when one is missing meeting up with a friend—but becomes a much more critical issue when the messages that must be interpreted will actively manage critical systems such as heating or cooling systems, life-support healthcare computers, autonomous vehicles, drones, and power and transportation systems. 

The IoT is expected to create an installed base of over 40 billion active wireless connected devices by 2020. Much of the growth between now and the end of the decade is forecast to come from non-hub devices: sensor nodes and accessories. Successful message interpretation from 40 billion devices within an already complex and overloaded messaging system will be a challenge for developers.

Thing Theory is an approach that uses software agents applied in well-thought-out contexts to help with the organization and interpretation of the messages that these devices will be broadcasting and exchanging. Understanding areas where trusted software agents can be applied, and how to design software agent systems to manage part of the load of complex messaging, will help to alleviate at least part of the complexity, ideally enabling more connected communication and thus more cooperation.

Photo of Sally Applin

Sally Applin


Sally Applin is a Doctoral Candidate at the University of Kent at Canterbury, UK, in the Centre for Social Anthropology and Computing (CSAC) where she researches the impact of technology on culture, and the consequent inverse: the reifications of Network Space in Personal Space. Her research is focused on Maker culture, leading technologies, and the outcomes of network complexities as modeled by PolySocial Reality (PoSR). Sally holds a Masters degree from the graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program (NYU/ITP) within New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, and a BA in Conceptual Design from San Francisco State University. Ms. Applin has had a 20+ year career in the science museum design, computer software, telecommunications, and product design/definition industries working as a Senior UX Designer, Senior Consultant and Ethnographer. Sally is a founding member of AnthroPunk, a movement that examines how people promote, manage, resist and endure change and is also a member of IoT Council, a think tank for the Internet of Things.