My Conceptual Toaster


Summary

Conceptual things are a modeling method we need to embrace as we build out the Internet of Things.

If you look at myThings in SquareTag, you'll notice that I have a toaster there. I've circled it in red so you can't miss it:

myThings with a toaster

The idea of SquareTag and myThings is that I'm starting to build a collection of the things in my life that I care about for some reason.

The reason I bring this up is to illustrate a point that I've been pondering lately. In reality, there are two different things I mean when I say "my toaster." One is the physical piece of hardware that happens to be sitting on the counter right now. The other is the idea of a toaster. My conceptual toaster represents the fact that I have a toaster in my life and allows me to think about it without thinking of the physical thing. English distinguishes these with the articles "a" and "the": "a toaster" is conceptual whereas "the toaster" is specific.

Clearly people have concepts of things that are different from the things themselves. We all talk about toasters and understand their basic properties without having to talk about specific models. In fact, the implementation of a "toaster" has varied widely over the last 100 years without having to update the idea of a toaster.

You may think I'm merely making a philosophical point, but it's more utilitarian than that. I'm making a point about modeling. Suppose that I have in myThings a conceptual toaster that has, in turn, links to the various toasters I use at work, at home, at the Computer History Museum when IIW is in session, and so on.

Having a conceptual toaster in my model of my world allows me to do things that are otherwise difficult:

  • I can associate toaster expectations and preferences with the conceptual toaster rather than a given physical instantiation of it. This allows me to more easily configure toasters I may come across, judge toasters that I may consider buying and so on.
  • I can use the data in my conceptual toaster to express my intention to buy a toaster much more easily than I can do so from my physical toaster.
  • The conceptual toaster allows me to attach functionality to all my toasters my merely attaching it to the concept. That way I can update a class of things all at one time with schema changes and so on.

Conceptual things are a modeling method we need to embrace as we build out the Internet of Things. By adding concepts to the Internet of Things, we make the model much more flexible.