Novelist Philip K. Dick anticipated by four decades the Internet of Things, a phenomenon touted loudly by the press from this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Internet-aware automobiles, toothbrushes, mattresses, infant monitors, fitness trackers, pet collars, tennis rackets, lightbulbs, toilets, bathroom scales, “wearable” tech, tricorder-like medical sensors, and more have arrived or are on their way.
Dick, ever the dystopian, recognized that one man’s technological boon is inevitably another’s bane, and expressed this view most bleakly in his Ubik. The novel, published in 1969 but set in the early 1990s, posits a world populated with nearly sentient appliances. Joe Chip, the novel’s protagonist, is so broke he’s in arrears with the robots that clean his apartment, and they have reported him to a credit agency as a deadbeat. One morning, upon attempting to exit his apartment, the smartdoor blocked him, saying “Five cents, please.”
“I’ll pay you tomorrow,” Chip promised after searching his empty pockets.
The door isn’t having it, and refused to open. “What I pay you,” Chip said, “is in the nature of a gratuity; I don’t have to pay you.”
“I think otherwise,” the door said. “Look in the purchase contract you signed.” Chip did as told, retrieving the contract and reading it.
“You discover I’m right,” said the door in a smug voice.
Using a knife as a screwdriver, Chip started to unscrew the bolt assembly.
“I’ll sue you,” the door said as the first screw fell out.
“I’ve never been sued by a door. But I guess I can live through it,” Chip responded.