Liz Cormack

Stripping Back the Internet of 'Things'

Liz Cormack

We're building a connected device that grows food in your home. Our goal is to reengage the American people in the growth, sourcing, and preparation of their food. 


“There are two spiritual dangers in not owning a farm. One is the danger of supposing that breakfast comes from the grocery, and the other that heat comes from the furnace.” Aldo Leopold, author of A Sand Country Almanac

Aldo Leopold would probably not own a Nest thermostat. Nest – the seminal example of connected devices – does many things incredibly well, but spiritually connect you to the source of your heat is not one of them.

Whether you own a connected device at the moment or not, it’s undeniable that the dawn of the programmable world is upon us. From wearable technology to smart furniture, cars and appliances, our relationship with things will never be the same.

This begs some thought on the part of the consumer. Some leaders in the maker movement, like littleBits’ Ayah Bdeir, argue that we can’t allow the Internet of Things to take hold without fully understanding how it works. Heidegger’s argument, conversely, was that concealment (or “enframing,” as was the name of his theory) is simply a part of new technology coming into being.

Albert Borgmann, a tech philosopher, laid out a rather pessimistic dichotomy between ‘devices’ and ‘things.’ In his view, the Internet of Things might contain no ‘things’ at all. In The Internet of Things and the Work of the Hands Thomas Wendt explains that to Borgmann, “devices are defined by their ability to conceal the work involved in their outputs and the consumptive enjoyment they provide. Subsequently, the device erodes the users’ bodily engagement with an activity.”

In Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life, Borgmann used the same example of the stove to lay out his argument that concealing the inner workings of a thing makes it a ‘device,’ disconnected from the human experience:

“[The stove is] a place that gathered the work and leisure of a family and gave the house a center. Its coldness marked the morning, and the spreading of its warmth the beginning of the day. It assigned to the different family members tasks that defined their place in the household. The mother built the fire, the children kept the firebox filled, and the father cut the firewood. It provided for the entire family a regular and bodily engagement with the rhythm of the seasons that was woven together of the threat of cold and the solace of warmth, the smell of wood smoke, the exertion of sawing and of carrying, the teaching of skills, and the fidelity to daily tasks. These features of physical engagement and of family relations are only first indications of the full dimensions of a thing’s world.”

In Wendt’s words, “the thing becomes a catalyst for surrounding relations: familial structures emerge around it, roles and responsibilities are laid out, pain and pleasure are experienced as a group, and teaching skills becomes an everyday practice.”

Let’s get back to Aldo’s warning about your breakfast.

Here at Grove Labs, we’re constantly thinking about how to give our users the full experience of the ‘thing,’ while designing an intelligent, easy to use product. There’s little precedent for the kind of interactions we hope you’ll have with your Grove.

As a thing and not a device, your Grove will not shield you from the organic origins of its ultimate purpose: growing and eating food. That concealment, unfortunately, has already been done for you. If Aldo Leopold saw a danger in leaning too much on our grocer, he’d be shocked to find us ordering our food on Instacart.

We have designed some new paradigms for what it means to grow food – taking nutrient tests in the fish tank, setting the photoperiod of your LED lights – and yes, turning a dial on your phone will perform a task in your Grove in much the same way that turning the dial on your thermostat performs complex tasks that detach you from what once was a stove the whole family gathered around. And we’re pumped about that!

But we can’t digitize eating for you. We can’t conceal the beauty of smelling fresh tomatoes or inhaling oxygen-rich air, we can’t automate the growth of an arugula leaf as it reaches upwards toward the light. We can’t automate the harvest – you should probably put your phone down while you cut lettuce, kale, and cilantro and pick your broccoli for the evening meal.

Ironically, this digitally connected thing will strip back the layers of anonymity, convenience and packaging that currently stand between you and your understanding of your food. Birch and bamboo will conceal some of the inner workings of your Grove – but swing open the front door, and you’ll see water swirling around your roots, pumped from the reservoir to the herbs on your top plot.

Your fridge is a device – I know I don’t understand how it works, or know what’s happening behind the shiny metal plating when I open the door to pull out chilled vegetables.

We hope you’ll explore the inner workings of your Grove. You’ll understand what’s happening in every inch of your new ecosystem, from the bio filter to the motherboard. The complexity of these new paradigms may be hidden, but not concealed. We’d love to explain them to you!

The core of the experience – growing and eating your food – is now yours more than ever before. If Aldo Leopold were alive today, I hope he’d own a Grove.

“One assumption the industry seems to be making is that pleasure comes from the reduction of work, an increase in leisure time, and automation. But sometimes pleasure comes from work.” Thomas Wednt in UX Magazine.

Graduated with a B.A. in Communication Design from Emerson College. Studied Product Design in Startup Insitute Boston's inaugural class. Marketing Manager at The Tap Lab, a mobile gaming startup focused on location & augmented reality. Founder of Colab Boston, an AIGA Design for Good partner. Raised overseas, uncomfortable with familiarity, lover of live music, skiing, Bourbon Ales, black coffee and weird food. Current favorite topics: The Internet of Things, serious games, data visualization and epic burgers.