Against the smart home
How do you plan to spend your Thanksgiving? Talking with your uncle about how much money he is saving on his home insurance by installing four different cameras and a set of WiFi-enabled locks? Comparing spreadsheet data about your respective heart rates with your cousin? Letting your insurance company know how fast you took that last corner on the way back from the movie theater? Talking to a robot cube about paper towels? Using your iPhone to change the temperature on the slow cooker from your toilet seat?
I have a really hard time believing that people in real life actually use any of these so-called "smart" technologies. But it is even more difficult for me to figure out why.
For one thing, it's not clear to me that many of these gadgets are actually any good at performing their core functions — heating water for tea, keeping your leftovers cold, washing your clothes. It is an iron law of engineering that the more resources are devoted to ancillary features, the fewer will be left over for what is essential. Last year my mother-in-law had to throw away her coffee maker, not because it was no longer capable of making coffee but because the LED screen with which it was necessary to interact in order to initiate the brewing process went out. I might not be able to activate my old diner-style Bunn machine from my smartphone while I am 4,000 miles away, but it will probably outlive me.
I also wonder what exactly people who come to rely on WiFi for everything from setting the thermostat — heaven forbid anyone actually perform a task as onerous as moving a physical knob a fraction of an inch — to entering their sheds plan on doing if there is an internet outage that lasts longer than five minutes. A few years ago I lost my cellphone and found myself unable to access my email and my online banking because I had enabled two-step verification. Imagine if I had locked myself out of my house and my fridge as well.
But I have other, more serious concerns. At a time when we are all supposed to be terribly concerned about online privacy, why are we expanding the definition of "online" at such a breathtaking pace? Is it really sensible to hand over control of everything from the operation of your vehicle to the lock on your front door to precise and detailed information about your bodily functions to whoever happens to have the right password? I am old enough to remember when sensible Democrats protested the fact that the Patriot Act could potentially require libraries to hand over records of what books a patron had checked out. What happens when someone is suspected of a crime and a secret court grants a warrant that allows the authorities to know exactly where the accused is at all times, between his smart watch and his smart car regardless of whether he has allowed the battery on the phone that is meant to control both of them to die? This is to say nothing of the very real possibility of the FBI or whomever simply walking into his house after the feckless data mining venture masquerading as a home security firm unlocks the front door for them remotely. (It would be amusing to see a 2019 episode of The Sopranos in which the feds waltz into Tony's front door after hacking their way in via Anthony Jr.'s Playstation.)
These worries should extend beyond the criminal classes and terrorism suspects. You might think it's neato that you can save a few pennies on your auto insurance premiums by letting Allstate know exactly where you are going and how fast and at what angle every time you get behind the wheel. But this is not going to be a voluntary program for long — I fully expect that in the next decade, unless you are willing to pay what will be described as a hefty "penalty," you will have to submit yourself to 24/7 corporate surveillance. Instead of a discount, you will receive a rate based on what a computer thinks your unseen decisions say about you.
All of these are of a piece with a wider range of concerns about the roles that we have allowed algorithms to play in our lives. How much longer, I wonder, will it be before those applying for life insurance will be told that, alas, their second cousin signed up for one of those idiotic DNA tests and according to their records he is 2.7 percent above the risk threshold for some horrible disease? Feel free to tell me that all of the above sounds like unhinged raving from a Luddite who doesn't get how cool and convenient having a female C-3PO order you takeout is. But don't pretend that you're shocked in five years when it turns out that all of the information about your favorite brand of underwear has been sold to a Chinese marketing concern, who accidentally gave it all away to Russian political hackers-cum-political consultants. While senators in both parties denounce the perfidy of our technological elites, I will be laughing from behind the secure doors of my non-smart house.
I have mentioned only a few examples of the vast range of new technologies that are becoming ordinary, unremarkable features of American life. It may well be the case that no one else minds living in a bad parody of The Jetsons, but I do think we should at least consider the implications of what we are doing when we decide that everything from cooking a turkey to rolling through a yellow light must be an internet-abetted activity.
In our unrelenting quest to be smart, it's important that we avoid being dumb.
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