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A middleclass shlub like me


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I’ve always been a bit of a technophile, I have a below average sense of privacy, and I’m pretty lazy – but I just don’t get the smart home dream. The reality seems so, so far from that hope of the “tech-mediated Downton Abbey” aspiration the article jokes about.

I try to think of worthy “use cases”. Smart thermostats, I guess I see. It’s easy enough to forget to turn the thing down at night, that wastes energy, and it wouldn’t take too many smarts to do a better job. Or the odd wifi security camera, that makes some sense – as long as it’s pointed facing away from your home, right? (i.e. free of the “naked pictures on the cloud” problem the article mentions)

I think of the classicly cited examples, like the smart fridge that’s enough to order milk for you when it sees your low. Man! What a mix of laziness – having to keep an eye on things, the horror! – and desire to be coddled and shielded from even minor inconvenience. Is that sacrifice of autonomy and dignity worth it? To be actually worthwhile that smart-fridge would have to know so much about your life – be integrated with your calendar, say, so it doesn’t order up milk when you’re on vacation. Or to order a smaller amount because someone in your house is experimenting with being lactose-free. Or anything, really – and I think we’re learning that we haven’t really invented good AI… and the AI we do enjoy gets most of its brains from the cloud, and so is always serving two masters, you and its corporate makers that its still in constant contact with.

Or these smart speakers… we’ve had smartphones for a while now, and the ability to use them as a conduit to fill our houses with music (with (usually) increasing levels of convenience – audio jack, dock connector, bluetooth, streaming) has been available for as long as the phones have. I guess what’s interesting here is trying to transition from smart items to smart spaces. Our smart items tend to be personal, and with more or less clearly defined “off” states when we’re not interacting with them. But ambient computing – it’s like we’re trying to take the subtle shinto-esque spirit our homes have and replace it with a cyborg equivalent that actually gets work done…

Sometimes I think what people want is a decent robot butler, that could help us keep track of our lives and embodied in such a way that it could use the affordances (light switches, drawer handles, etc) designed for humans. But this 3CPO dream is even further off than fully autonomous highways, and the smarthome path seems like a spooky yet poorly realized substitute.

I have childhood memories of my dad joking that he’d aspire to be so ostentatiously rich that he could afford to hire a person whose sole job was to draw the curtains in the morning and lower them at night. Now that that kind of service could be offered to a middleclass shlub like me – I’m not sure I’d want it.


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