In praise of dumb tech

The world and all the stuff in it is getting increasingly connected through the internet. But that’s not necessarily a good thing.

To clarify: People connecting online can be a good thing (unless it’s via places like Facebook and Twitter, which are literally fomenting negativity among its users by design). But things being connected online seems increasingly needless, and can in fact be bad news.

A smart themostat that I can connect to by my phone to ensure the temperature is ideal right when I get home from work? What a luxury!

A smart home system that allows me to control lights, window blinds, TV, even door locks of my house with a tap of my phone or by a voice command? So convenient!

A doorbell that’s also a camera that lets me know who’s at my door–and see them via my phone–no matter where I am? Interior security cameras that alert me when there’s movement when I’m not home? The future is here!

But there are potential downsides to all of those that none of the companies mention. In short: Anything that’s online can be hacked. Your phone, your laptop or iPad, your home router itself, CCTV cameras, cars, heart monitors… all hackable.

Amazon’s hugely popular Ring doorbell is a readily available means of public surveillance (which may sound okay on the surface for crime prevention but bear in mind that it’s not even clear pubic surveillance does that).

… to say nothing of Amazon Echo, Apple HomePods, and Google Home speakers. Super convenient, yes. But by their very nature, they’re turned on and listening to what you’re saying–and that’s all recorded who-knows-where (accessible for review by who-knows-whom) and processed to see if you’ve used the key words for it to “turn on” and immediately respond to you–all the time.

Some may call such concern paranoid, of course. What are the chances anyone’s interested in what book or gadget I’m ordering from Amazon? What are the chances anyone wants to hack my car or know the temperature of my house? What use is my heart monitor information to anyone?

Maybe you don’t particularly care about your privacy, or think such public monitoring is okay because you’re law abiding and have nothing to hide. (I mean, false anyway because everyone has something to hide, unless you don’t mind audio or video surveillance catching you and your family in your most vulnerable moments, or typing your banking information into a keyboard in view of others, etc., but that’s not the point at the moment.)

Edward Snowden, who knows a thing or two about privacy, said one of my favoruite quotes in that respect: “Arguing that you don’t care about the right to privacy because you have nothing to hide is no different than saying you don’t care about free speech because you have nothing to say.”

Preach.

I grant that the convenience of some things being online can’t be denied. But doing that by its nature opens up people to risks that wouldn’t be there if that (often slight) convenience isn’t used.

And even if things seem just fine with having this tech around at first, they can can go bad. Sometimes really bad.

What are the chances that’ll happen to you? That your Peleton bike will be hacked, or that someone threatening your loved ones could access your baby’s crib camera?

Insanely low, of course. Next to zero. But why have that possibility there at all? You know how likely it is that my family’s smart home or online home security could be used against us? Exactly zero. Know why? Because we don’t have that stuff in our house.

Smart phones are already a big enough concern for those of us who like our privacy. Snowden said that if he bought a smart phone again, he would physically cut out the microphone as a matter of course to ensure he couldn’t be listened in on. Granted, he’s got a bit more to be concerned about in that respect than most people on the planet, but the point remains: Everything that’s online can be hacked and the best way to ensure privacy is to remove these items as much as possible, or at least as much as practical, from your life.

But privacy issues aside, the Internet of Things (IoT) just seems an increasingly needless trend. In my currently-being-reno’d-house, we had an older model of programmable thermostat that let me set four temperatures per day, at times of my choosing, for a (cycling) week at a time. That makes for twenty-eight points a week where I could change the temperature in the house. Do you change your temperature twenty-eight times a week? I mean, no judgment (okay, some judgment) if you do, but the point is, I had that robust a control over the house temperature with an aging thermostat, with tech that’s long been available, and… I hope you’re sitting down so you don’t keel over with shock… that wasn’t online.

Programmable instant coffee makers–set them for what time you want your coffee hot and ready in the morning–have been around for decades. Same with programmable ovens, and light switch timers for when you’re on vacation… the list of examples goes on.

Were those “dumb”/not-online technologies so sadly outdated that an even more convenient solution was in demand?

Was it even in demand? I’d say it’s often far more likely sheer commercialism at play: Companies inventing a thing and then trying to convince us we should buy it, no matter how inane, or how big a potential danger, it may be.

Why do fridges need screens on them that content can be uploaded to, let alone be a part of a smart home system that can let me know… I dunno… that we’re low on celery? That the tapioca pudding in the back is past its prime?
What are we even doing here?

Samsung smart appliances are taking it a whole lot farther, as tech companies seemingly must do: “Customize your screen and run all aspects of your life directly from your fridge.”

Run all aspects of my life?

That sounds ominous at worst and vastly over-selling it at best.

So when my kid is a teenager and her grades are slipping because she’s trying to come to grips with recently discovering she’s bisexual and is attracted to three of her good friends, well, by golly, the fridge will know what to do! (“Listen, honey, I know this is a really weird and confusing time for you, but the good news is that the fridge says it’ll all be okay when we throw out the old garbonzo beans.”)

The upside, of course, is that if your smart fridge ever has a glitch and doesn’t report to you that you’re getting low on eggs–I mean how could anyone ever be expected to track these things?–you could always back it up with a smart egg tray to tell you instead.

What the hell is going on?

Is the world so out of problems that companies use non-renewable resources, and people burn calories and their limited time in this mortal coil, coming up with this nonsense to sell?

In looking for a new dishwasher online for upcoming reno’d house, I found that the dozens of units that one recommended appliance store had were close to evenly split between those with a wifi connection and those without.

Wifi.

On a dishwasher.

Who’s this for, and why? Are we streaming music or videos to our dishwasher now? And does anyone think wifi for a dishwasher should ever have been a thing, let alone an important thing, that people would want? (“Well sure, this one is whisper quiet and super energy efficient and uses less water than any other model and does a fantastic job of cleaning everything in way less time than ever before, but the reviews said its push notifications about the wash being done didn’t always work, so what else have you got?”)

Of course, some things should be connected online. It’s a fantastic option we now have for genuinely helpful areas, and its benefits to health and banking and science, etc., are countless. But in defaulting to connecting absolutely everything to absolutely everything else, we’re not just solving problems before they happen (which can be a really good thing to watch for), but we’re solving problems that would never have occurred. No one would ever have a problem with not having a screen on their fridge, or a dishwasher not connected to wifi.

For the love of god, just set the twenty-eight points of temperature you’d like in your house this week on a thermostat you actually touch and isn’t online.
Have your coffee hot and ready for you first thing in the morning by taking the, what, tens of seconds to manually set the machine to do so.
Count your eggs… I dunno… maybe when you’re in your fridge twenty times a day?

When did any of that kind of thing become a bridge too far? Why does my blender or toilet paper dispenser need to be online? (Think those are nutty, fictional examples I just came up with? Au contraire.)

Convenience and digital advancement is great, when and where it actually helps.
But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should. Putting everything in our lives online should be thoroughly scrutinized by the companies making it and the people who may buy it to see if it’s a) truly a benefit rather than utter nonsense, but more pressingly b) a potential privacy or exploitation risk–now and in the future–that this luxury may open us up to.

When convenience (at times to the point of supreme laziness; its own concern) comes at the expense of opening ourselves up to invasion of privacy or even danger, I’ll take a hard pass. And the more hacking that happens with everything defaulting to being online, the more society will see that we’ve gone way too far with it. My concern is that something really bad and really widespread will have to happen before people wake up and realize too late that having dumb tech is actually pretty smart.

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