When You Give a Tree an Email Address

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Officials assigned the trees ID numbers and email addresses in 2013 as part of a program designed to make it easier for citizens to report problems like dangerous branches. The “unintended but positive consequence,” as the chair of Melbourne’s Environment Portfolio, Councillor Arron Wood, put it to me in an email, was that people did more than just report issues. They also wrote directly to the trees—everything from banal greetings and questions about current events to love letters and existential dilemmas. “The email interactions reveal the love Melburnians have for our trees,” Wood said.

These sorts of initiatives encourage civic engagement and perhaps help with city maintenance, but they also enable people’s relationship with their city to play out at the micro level. Why have a favorite park when you can have a favorite park bench?

It’s a dynamic that is playing out more broadly, too, in concert with a profound shift toward the ubiquity of interactive, cloud-connected technologies. Modern tools for communicating, publishing, and networking aren’t just for connecting to other humans, but end up establishing relationships between people and anthropomorphized non-human objects, too. The experience of chatting with a robot or emailing a tree may be delightful, but it’s not really unusual.

The move toward the Internet of Things only encourages the sense that our objects are not actually things but acquaintances. This phenomenon isn’t entirely new: The urge to talk back to devices and appliances dates at least to the broadcast era. (As television ownership became common in the 20th century, newspaper columnists marveled at the new national pastime of shouting back at the television set.)

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Internet of Things Teddy Bear Leaked 2 Million Parent and Kids Message Recordings

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As we’ve seen time and time again in the last couple of years, so-called “smart” devices connected to the internet—what is popularly known as the Internet of Things or IoT—are often left insecure or are easily hackable, and often leak sensitive data. There will be a time when IoT developers and manufacturers learn the lesson and make secure by default devices, but that time hasn’t come yet. So if you are a parent who doesn’t want your loving messages with your kids leaked online, you might want to buy a good old fashioned teddy bear that doesn’t connect to a remote, insecure server.

Smart Doesn’t Always Mean an Easy Home

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There’s a reason they call them Smart Homes, not Easy Homes…  Smart devices address household problems great and small. For Adam Justice, a vice president of Grid Connect, the ConnectSense outlet made by the company ended a perpetual spat. “It solves the problem of my wife and I both being in bed and arguing over who is going to get up to turn out the lights,” he said. “So you could say it solves marital problems.” …Even so, that’s not enough, Mr. Dumas said. If you follow a predictable routine, he explained, “After a few times, it should ask, ‘We notice when you get home and it’s dark out, you turn on the hallway light, then turn on ESPN; do you want us to do that?’ ”  But that’s easier said than done.

“It’s so simple to comprehend the internet of Things 2.0, and people think we are there, and we aren’t,” Mr. Dumas said. “We are at 1.0, and there is a lot of value there, but 2.0 is where we need to go.”