Close Encounters is the best IoT movie of all time

June 11, 2018

IoT is really about meeting a new group of coworkers.

When you ask people to come up with the best movie about technology, many will snap back with 2001: A Space Odyssey. It featured a future where stewardesses walked upside-down and computers explained why they were trying to kill you. And on the 50th anniversary of that movie, you’re seeing a lot of articles comparing HAL to Alexa and the rise of IoT devices.

But when it comes to IoT, one film in my mind reigns supreme: 1977’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Here’s why:

1. IoT Is about linking many things, not one thing. For all his murderous efficiency, HAL turned out to be an army of one, and was disabled by removing his DRAM. It’s no surprise that HAL came from IBM: they created the single, super-intelligent device paradigm of computing.

IoT, however, is really about multiple, less-intelligent devices working in concert. In one of the opening

OSIsoft's Michael Kanellos

scenes of Close Encounters the aliens come to kidnap a child. Toasters vibrate off the counter. The mixer goes crazy. Cans fly off the shelf. Kudos to Steven Spielberg for both showing what life will be like when ordinary machines can act on their own and hinting at the integration and configuration problems to follow.

2. It’s a technology for everyone. In 2001, a few select chimps and astronauts were let in on the secret. And in the end, there’s really only one person left who finally figures out what’s going on. Pretty much the epitome of closed-room computing. In Close Encounters, Richard Dreyfuss plays a utility lineman. Utilities invested more than $66 billion in IoT last year, according to IDC. It’s one of the strongest growth markets. Coincidence?

3. The French were there first. Who tells Dreyfuss that he’s really not losing his mind? French New Wave film director-turned actor Francois Truffaut.

During the first dot.com boom, Minitel—an internet-like service from France Telecom—was the butt of jokes, the technological equivalent of the three-wheeled Renault. Minitel let users send messages, buy stock, make train reservations and do other tasks, including organizing protests. Minitel spawned multiple startups, but the big complaint was that it was a closed network and the graphics were clunky.

But here’s the important part: It was conceived in 1978 and started to roll out in trials in 1981, a time when one of the biggest U.S. tech stories was Nolan Bushnell’s founding of Chuck E. Cheese. Minitel later crashed, but they were way ahead of us on this one.

France, meanwhile, has been an early innovator in IoT through Veolia, Areva, SCNF, Air Liquide and others. French companies, in fact, have been some of the most active in snapping up Silicon Valley startups.

4. IoT is really about meeting a new group of coworkers. One of the best ways to think about IoT is that you’re bringing new “citizens” into your network. Sales has CRM. Your web team has analytics for looking at web traffic. In IoT, you’re essentially going to be interacting with your machines. Some of these systems have been around for years, but you really haven’t had many conversations, so to speak. That changes.

Now you are listening.

The challenge is that, at least in the initial phases, it will be somewhat confusing. A scene toward the end of Close Encounters—it comes at around the 40 second mark in this clip—depicts a situation you may have already had at work:

Researcher #1: “The only thing these phrases have in common is five, six and…”

Researcher #4: “I hope someone is taking this down.”

Researcher #3: “What are we saying to each other?”

Researcher #1: “It seems they are trying to teach us a basic tonal vocabulary.”

Researcher #4: “It’s the first day of school, fellas.”

That’s the state of IoT in a nutshell.

Michael Kanellos is senior manager of corporate communications and technology analyst with OSIsoft

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