My Smart Home’s Not That Smart
When the spring broke on the garage door, we had it replaced. But it wasn’t good enough — the spring was too tight, and it pulled unnecessarily on the garage door tracks, which in turn caused our garage door opener to stick, forcing a kind of premature tug. It became a reaction game — hit the button, wait until it jammed, stop it quickly, push the button again, over and over, until the crack of light under the door became smaller and smaller and finally disappeared.
So we finally bought a new garage door opener. It has wifi. I didn’t understand why, and, for the most part, I still don’t.
All I Want is Dr. Dre
We own at least a half dozen smart home appliances, but I never think of them as smart home appliances because we are nowhere near using them to their full potential. Our Sonos system isn’t some kind of Alexa-powered super system of sound, where our every whims are catered to, where the dream of unending music is finally realized. Our Sonos system is … a stereo. Wireless speakers that we happen to access via an app on our phone. There’s nothing smart about it, other than it knows about the saved accounts we’ve provided. It knows, through APIs and other streaming technology I’ll never begin to understand, that I have a playlist called “Hip Hop Workout,” and it knows that “Nothin’ But a G Thang” is on that playlist.
When I yell “Hip Hop Workout” into the room, however, I don’t get a Hip Hop Workout.
I get quizzical looks from my kids. I don’t get “Nothin’ But a G Thang.”
We’re on the cusp of something great, I’m sure. I’ve seen the dream of the smart home, and it’s filled with a special kind of beauty — a chicken coop that regulates its own temperature based on the number of eggs that have been laid, or a refrigerator that measures its contents and creates a shopping list on the fly, or a thermostat that knows which room you’re going to and pre-heats accordingly.
Everything automated, because it can be. The dream of never thinking about anything every again, because someone’s got it covered.
We’re not there. Just not yet. My smart home’s not that smart.
Tin Foil Hats
We should probably talk about security.
Haha, just kidding. You should know that I don’t care about security. I’m not one of those people who puts tape over the camera on my computer, or searches Amazon through foreign IP addresses or anything like that.
This is going to sound naive, but I figure if someone wants to go after me, they will. I do the fancy password things and the two-factor authorization, and I try not to tell everyone when I’m out of town, but to spend my time worrying about how my Kitchenaid is going to betray me? Eh.
(This will surely be my undoing. I will be taken over by my Sonos system, my voice recorded and used against me as my bank accounts are all cleaned out by a robot in a secret agent cave in Russia, probably, and one by one my family will fail to recognize me, because it turns out our Nest has, slowly and surely, every day since it was installed, replaced my face with the face of another via hologram technology and at just the right time it turns out I was turned into a cyborg from Grenada, probably, and now I am lost in a sea of garbage, floating alone next to thrown out Minidisc players and 720i televisions.)
Features for Features’ Sake
Our new wifi-enabled garage door opener has three real functions. It can open and close the door from the app. It can alert you when the door has been opened or closed for a long period of time. Or, it can allow you to schedule a time for the door to be open or closed.
Two of these things are useful, if used in concert.
First, we scheduled an alert to tell us whenever the garage door is open for longer than an hour. This is very cool, because I am very forgetful and lost in my thoughts and so hahaha oops the garage door is left open.
Second, once that very good reminder message is sent, we can jump into the app and close the garage door from afar. This is something akin to magic.
The third thing is something different. I still don’t understand the use case. At what point am I going to want my garage door to open right at a specific time? When in my life am I going to say, you know, that it’s very important for my wellbeing and my convenience that my garage door opens Monday through Friday at 5:10 PM?
There’s this idea that our homes — and our lives, and our workflows, and everything, really — should be micromanaged and accessed through technology, but, like many new experiments, this kind of technological advance has little actual real-world benefit. Like many new experiments, smart home technology is a perceived convenience masked as a wild hair — it’s advancement because we can, not because we need to.
So while we wait for marginal technological advancements to grow through puberty, pushing through periods of questionable application toward some kind of world-saving tipping point, we have to live through these years of extravagance. Where our garage door can welcome us home with a song and valet service, but it can’t connect to any of the other apps that might need it. We roll our eyes about garage door wifi, but future generations are going to wonder how we ever lived without it.
Extravagance for Nerds
And that’s really the thing, isn’t it? Extravagance for gadget nerds with too much money on their hands. For some of us, these fallow periods of questionable utility are a view into the future, so of course we’re going to drop some cash to put a television in our fridge. Why wouldn’t we, I dare say.
Ultimately, the market dictates whether or not these kinds of smart features are worthwhile, and right now, the market for these kinds of things are either people with too much money or people who mistake automation for convenience. The excitement of connecting things is outweighing the actual functional use of the connections we’re making.
(Oh, god, are you blaming capitalism on your garage door wifi?)
Haha, of course not. I’m not that smart. I’m just shaking my head at the silliness of our technological requests. We get some pretty silly stuff. We get excited about things that don’t actually save us any time. We treat the world as if it would be perfect if only there was a handful of new drivers to update.
I remember these problems. I was there, in the old days, when our technology required more manual service. I still remember what things were like with old word processing programs and computer games that required seven CD-ROMs and the delicate coercing of data from one unstable box to another.
It’s all still programming. Sometimes programming is done for no reason, and sometimes programming doesn’t work right, and most of the time programming doesn’t work well with other programming. We want the future, but the future is still growing. It doesn’t work correctly, yet, and we look past it until the tipping point when we complain. When we ask for the world and the world comes in seven separate boxes.
What I’m saying is this: our remote garage door opener is fun, but when it doesn’t work (and, often, it doesn’t work) what are we left with? The same thing we had before, except with an extra layer of unfulfilled promise.
If I wanted to, I could put a button on my dryer that allows me to instantly order more dryer sheets. In other words, if I wanted to, I could test fate with two children in the house. I could see how long it takes to deliver 435 jumbo-sized packages of Downy.
If I wanted to, I could teach the lights in my house to change color when I’m most likely to be home. To turn blue when the sad parts from The Office come on, probably.
At this point, if I wanted to, I’m pretty sure I could do anything I wanted with my house. I could turn it into an automated disco, playing songs based on my body temperature. I could have it make coffee for me when I got home. Coffee for me and my garage door. Best friends forever.
To make these things work, though, takes a lot of patience. A lot of money. The slow connection of services that are begrudgingly sharing airspace in the name of larger marketshare is dampening the technology we could be enjoying. The fact that my thermostat and my garage door and my motion-activated lights all connect is wonderful, until we discover the $300 hardware required to get them speaking the same language.
Things are getting really smart on their own, but they’re still struggling to interact as a community — the promise of a smart home falling short because our appliances can’t draft a cohesive constitution. What’s more, we ourselves are struggling to modulate our reaction to these gadgets. We’re getting excited about automated lights and pretending the future has already come.
If I wanted to, I could outfit this house like the Millennium Falcon and fly away, guns blazing, garage door singing, cameras broadcasting our coordinates to every Alexa-enabled device in the tri-county area.
If I wanted to, I could do that. The question, of course, is whether any of it’s actually helping make our lives better in the first place.