My light bulbs sometimes go rogue. Invariably, this happens at some inopportune moment, like at midnight, when I walk into my bedroom and discover that to turn on the lights, I first need to install a software update to an app on my iPhone.
The porch light periodically misbehaves, too, refusing to automatically turn on, despite the schedule I diligently added to that same app. I could flip the switch like normal people do, but what would be the fun in that? These lights are supposed to be Smart, with a capital S, responding to my whim as all Smart things do.
If I wanted to get super smart, I could connect the bulbs to an Amazon Echo and shout at Alexa, commanding her to flood my room with light, or dim it to a sultry glow whenever the mood strikes.
Of course, there’s a chance she might feel lonely, and randomly decide to talk about the weather, as she does in the middle of the night with Sarah Coffey, an editor for Dow Jones Newswires, who lives in Maplewood, New Jersey. “I don’t understand why Alexa is speaking to me at 3 in the morning,” Coffey, 44, said. But she is.
We could blame Coffey’s husband, Ben Berkowitz, 39, a vice-president for digital at WNBC in New York, for turning the family’s home into a techie wonderland. Along with that Echo, the family has Google Home, digital home security, a lock with keyless entry, and a Nest thermostat that insists on keeping the internal temperature at a crisp 62 degrees even when people are home.
Coffey has so many apps on her phone monitoring her home that she has lost track of all the things they do. “I appreciate his efforts to computerise our house,” she said of Berkowitz. “I just wish I could turn on a light without having to ask my phone to do it.”
For as long as we’ve been imagining the wonders of household gadgets, we’ve been struggling with them. No sooner did people have TVs in their homes than Zenith invented a remote control, calling it Lazy Bones, in 1950. These little rectangular boxes were intended to make our leisure time more leisurely, but as they have become commonplace, they have contributed to our growing waistlines and marital discord (except, of course, when they are lost in the couch cushions).
Even the Jetsons, the fabulously futuristic cartoon characters from the early 1960s, struggled with their digital devices, as automatic bed ejectors, digital breakfast makers and robotic toothbrushes caused more chaos than convenience in the cartoon’s first episode.
Yet our love affair with stuff smarter than us continues. Roughly a third of US households already have smart gadgets, and by 2022, more than half of all households will, according to the research firm Statista.
Light bulbs are just the beginning. I could get a Colgate Connect toothbrush to map my mouth and give me pointers; a Roomba vacuuming robot to clean up after me; or a smart refrigerator to warn me that the milk might curdle. I could swap out my doorbell for one with a camera, delivering me live footage of the UPS driver dropping off a Bluetooth-enabled Instant Pot that can monitor how quickly the rice cooks.
All those sleek boxes and digital keypads carry the promise that, with just one more purchase and a swipe right, our lives will be easier, and our homes will run more smoothly. When we are at home, “our desires are right up front and we want those desires satisfied,” said Paul Levinson, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University and the author of New New Media. “That is the basis for all these things that we have in the house.”
Would my life be easier if I could keep track of dinner on my iPhone? I don’t know. But it probably would be more monitored. Even as we are in the midst of a collective freakout about the data that Facebook has been gathering and sharing without our permission, many of us are busily installing equipment that potentially bugs our homes and tracks our movements, conversations and routines.
“Pretty much anything that I say in my living room could be recorded and could be transferred somewhere else,” said Craig A. Shue, an associate professor of computer science at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, referring to devices with speakers and microphones like Google Home and Amazon Echo. “The risks are substantial.”
Last December, a Gizmodo reporter turned her one-bedroom San Francisco apartment into a smart home, connecting as many appliances and belongings to the internet as possible, including her mattress and coffee maker. While she found the experience mostly annoying, another reporter kept tabs on all the data that left her apartment. Not a single hour went by when her router was quiet — at all times, at least one gadget was communicating with its home server.
All that data mining has given some people pause. Seventy per cent of consumers worry that hackers might access their smart devices at home, and 58 per cent fear a lack of privacy from manufacturers that have access to their data, conversations, voice patterns and search history, according to iQor, a customer service outsourcing provider.
But anxiety alone hasn’t been a deterrent, since we keep buying the stuff. We rationalise this uncomfortable truth because smart technology does have the potential to make life easier and, perhaps, safer.
Affix a smart sensor to your water heater and you could be alerted to an impending flood. Install a smart lock on your door and you could remotely let a neighbour in to feed the cat, or get an alert at the office when your teenager gets home from school.
As for me, I live in an old house with few overhead light fixtures. It seems like a banal problem, but filling my bedroom with lamps that turn on with an iPhone means I don’t have to call an electrician to drill holes in my ceiling and walls to install permanent lighting. I certainly enjoy the convenience, and savings, even if it means I have yet another reason to stare at my phone.