Spinning Webs: People, Logistics, and the Internet of Things

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With how the election year in the U.S. is going–all the doom and gloom on the news, social media, and the Internet–it’s hard to not feel isolated. Current events aside, these feelings of loneliness and a lack of empathy from others have plagued humanity for as long as we’ve been around. But in that loneliness comes an intrinsic need to feel and be connected with others that expresses itself in countless ways.

Despite their sometimes-negative impact, things like the Internet and social media were designed in order to build connections with others. Even as Charlie Chaplin once said in his pivotal speech in the 1940 film The Great Dictator, “the aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in men–cries out for universal brotherhood–for the unity of us all.” Because of these inventions and their derived technologies, our world has grown smaller in comparison to the world of our ancestors.

If not for solely emotional reasons (such as streaming video conversations with loved ones), there are untold economic benefits to this urge to bridge distances. Picture, for a moment, a world without trains, planes, and shipping lanes; no Internet, no postal service, and no roads to walk on either. After all, what are city streets and bustling highways but physical connectors to make movement easier?

Aside from inconvenience to your own mobility, how would businesses even function? If you can’t physically see the store and have no means to get there, good luck trying to reach it. From the business side, without means of transportation or reaching customers, how do stores (and foreign goods) get outside their closed market bubble? In this sort of reality, you’d have to trek through the wilderness to get to any destination. But here you are again, trying to reach out and cut a path in the underbrush.

Spinning Webs: People, Logistics, and the Internet of Things

A desire line connecting the bases of a curve |
Image source: Paul Walsh Photography


Even if one added roads to this alternate reality, the human spirit pulls us in the direction of the easiest path. “Desire lines” as they’re called zigzag fairgrounds and college campuses; foot paths worn through lawn, cutting through greenspace as opposed to walking along an artificial cement walkway that borders it. Paved roads might be better to traverse than rough terrain (most wheeled vehicles can prove that). But even if a roadway was built for our convenience, we still have a knack for self-correcting travel routes to cover the least amount of distance.

Observe anything in nature–how lightning, osmosis, and even natural selection work–and you’ll find that everything (including us) obeys the Principle of Least Effort by default. Take, for example, the flow of water down the face of a rock wall. Where gravity pulls water down, the water itself will find cracks and crevices that expedite its movement. Given enough time, the water will begin to erode at the wall, making it even easier to trickle to the ground.

Additionally, lightning seeks the quickest route from the sky to the ground; osmosis seeks cellular equilibrium between salt and water content, having these substances move from high concentration to low concentration; natural selection favors animals whose genes better suit an environment while weeding out those who can’t compete.

Humanity, with our desire lines eroding paths through lush parks and far-flung fields, is fundamentally no different. We naturally seek out what’s easiest and requires the least amount of energy.


The Internet vs. The Internet of Things

Where the Internet is a digital network that has traditionally connected computers across the globe, the concept known as the Internet of Things (or IoT) is a bit different. IoT, as defined by German distributor DHL, is the networking of objects that, until recently, weren’t governed by mini-computers:

“A connected pallet, for example, can tell its owner the whereabouts and condition of their shipment. A connected truck can intelligently predict its own maintenance needs. A connected street light can sense the presence of cars and send environmental [information] to drivers. These are just some of many intriguing possibilities for IoT in logistics…”

Coupled with Internet-enabled smartphones, users can interact with other “smart objects” remotely. Even cooking pans are being fitted with electronics that monitor temperature and heat distribution within the food itself. Before your meal gets close to burning, the pan can send alerts to the user to flip, mix, or remove their food from the stove. This IoT trend even pervades increasingly within the medical field as devices both embedded in patients and used by doctors and nurses help promote efficiency and accuracy, in turn providing better treatment and transparency for everyone.

Spinning Webs: People, Logistics, and the Internet of Things

Image source: Pantelligent

Think of these inventions as digital desire lines used to link up our devices. Applying the Principle of Least Effort, a device like this pan removes the complexities of manual timing, observation, and traditional cooking techniques by doing all the heavy lifting for you. All you have to do is just flip and serve when your phone tells you.

With that in mind, our need for connection serves another purpose: efficiency. Going back to our example of a logistics-less reality, think of how much easier that life would be just with the inclusion of carefully planned roads. The point of removing uneven ground and obstacles is to make paths more accessible, letting users walk unburdened by boulders, trees, or thorns in the way. Technology like Skype, however, takes it a few steps further, cutting movement to connect with others out of the equation entirely.

While a close substitute to in-person face-to-face conversations, video streaming expends less energy and time than actually traveling to see that person. Where vehicles and transportation networks build physical communal connections and require you to get out of the house (to shop, travel, and do whatever else), the Internet of Things funnels everything to the individual.


Tailoring a New Reality

In a world of one-click purchases, same-day shipping, self-employed couriers, and customized interfaces, we now have the means to bring the entire world to us. So long as you have a data connection, you have more information and goods available to you than anyone could’ve hoped or dreamed of even as little as 30 years ago. Capitalizing on the trend of instant gratification, businesses and shipping companies take advantage of the Internet of Things through omnichannel retailing, finding as many convenient ways to reach out to their customers as possible.

Following these same principles, good business is less about noting desire lines and more about tapping into them. Just as some universities will wait a year or two before paving around green space to allow foot traffic to carve their own paths, then later paving those, it makes sense to follow your customers’ natural habits and build your model around them.

The recent Pokemon Go craze is a perfect example of tapping into habits. People love fun and games provide an escape akin to (and, in some cases, arguably better than) books or film. In two weeks, Niantic has accomplished what Michelle Obama has been attempting in the past eight years: getting people out of the house, exercising, and interacting with their communities.

While Mrs. Obama’s efforts to promote health and fitness have been valiant, people simply don’t like being told what to do. They especially don’t like knowing they’re doing something wrong (i.e. being sedentary which leads to weight problems and the myriad diseases associated with it), and thus, resist direction. Pokemon Go, instead, reaches people through play, hijacking something most want to do (have fun) while directing them to do things they otherwise might not want to (getting out of the house and walking for miles on end).

Mind you, it hasn’t been all good news surrounding Pokemon Go. While the game has plenty of health benefits like minimizing depression by encouraging people to get out, explore, and interact with other players, some people have gotten injured from being too immersed in the game. Most recently, a player crashed into a parked police car, having been distracted by the game. Accidents, stumbling upon dead bodies, and orchestrated muggings aside, the lack of awareness some players show for their waking reality speaks to how games like this grip us at an almost primal, subconscious level.

Don’t believe me? I dare you to name another game (or marketing campaign, for that matter) that has throngs of people running to public places at random:

It’s no wonder that savvy businesses are trying to capture their own prey. Instead of Pokemon, it’s droves of “trainers” (that is, Pokemon Go players) who can then be converted into potential customers.


Applying Precept to Practice

With all this talk on human nature and our innate drive to unify existence, you might be wondering how we can apply this to our trade in logistics. Whereas logistics is the physical expression of connecting markets, people, and goods, carving paths of least resistance, using the Internet of Things as a guide could channel new customers to your business. Phone apps and omnichannel retailing can build on habit and our intrinsic nature. In essence, you too would be hijacking consciousness like Pokemon Go. Aside from directly trying to bite into this market like many other businesses, it’s important too to understand the effect technology like this can have on people.

In our quest to shrink the world for the sake of accessibility to information and goods outside our communities, we must not forget our physical realm in favor of a digital one of our own creation. Having an app that encourages people to stop at your stores is one thing; sucking them in so much that they risk injury trying to get to your store because they’re so engrossed in that app is another entirely.

Though Chaplin’s speech talks much about how technology can bring us together, he also warned the very same need to improve our lives and connections (especially to only make a profit) can ruin us:

“Greed has poisoned men’s souls, has barricaded the world with hate, has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical. Our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little.”

Echoing his sentiment, “more than machinery, we need humanity.” As logistics professionals, we have an obligation not just to provide shipping and packing services. Through our work, it’s the company owners large and small and the carriers of their goods that build connections between customers, communities, and even nations.

You can build a road. You can set up all the channels in the world for your customers to access your storefront. But if they’re not seen as useful or nobody wants to use them, what good are they aside from reminders that you quite literally missed the mark?

By giving others the tools they need and the pathways to reach them, our success stems from theirs. In order to reach our customers, we need to remember who they are: people with needs to be filled and problems that need fixing.

As a businessperson with products to sell, you’re left with one of two options. Do you try to convince your customers you know better than them or help them realize you’re the solution on their own? Knowing how our ancestors once wandered the uncharted earth, the answer should come quickly.

Much like water down a rock face, let people move as they please. Situate your storefront in the path they’re traveling and soon, you’ll find yourself at the end of a few desire lines. After all, it’s easier to go with the flow (that is, the Internet of Things) than to fight it. All that’s left to do is to pave the way for your people.


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