Welcome to the future, are we too dumb for our own good?
Last night started out perfect enough. Having opted for a quiet night in with my girlfriend while avoiding the legions of hipsters descending on Austin for the annual SXSW convention, we decided that a bottle of wine and a home-cooked steak sounded perfect.
Oh how wrong we were.
My condo, having been built around the same time as me in the early 80’s possesses no end of charm, but nevertheless is still lacking in a few areas, most notably, a hood-vent above the stove.
I already knew what was coming before it happened, but it was too late to reverse course, the wheels were already in motion: smoke was starting to barrel off the steak, it was too late to re-think the sin we were committing.
From the corner of my eye I see the red orb from my downstairs Nest Protect smoke alarm start to pulsate. And then it happens — she announces her presence in her eerily deadpan tone.
The hair stands up on the back of my neck…
Heads up, there’s smoke… Downstairs.
Ex Machina is real, and it’s here to protect me.
Warning, the alarm will sound… The alarm... Is loud.
I frantically swing a clip-board and notepad at this futuristic glowing orb, trying in vain to dissipate the delicious NY strip infused smoke from its mechanical lungs before it unleashes its blood-curdling scream. I resign myself to the fact that this innocent bystander, a note-taking device from a bygone era, is no match for the omnipresent overlords whom I have enthusiastically invited into my own home. Defeat is unquestionable as my Orwellian protectors sound their eardrum shattering alarm in perfect synchrony throughout every room of my once peaceful home.
In a last-ditch effort, I risk life and limb standing on my tip-toes at the top of the stairwell, wielding my mighty clip-board as a sword in this battle to depress the “hush” button in the center of this monster’s ominous glowing red eye.
This alarm cannot be hushed.
NO!!!!!!! What do you mean this alarm cannot be hushed?! I distinctly remember purchasing you on the internet, taking you out of your friendly looking box, drilling you into my ceiling, and unleashing your batteries while unwittingly dispatching my sanity, a truth that only hindsight has revealed. You most certainly can be hushed.
I have failed. The sear is perfect, but my pride has been defeated.
The problem as I see it, is that we have collectively assumed that we are too dumb for our own good, that we cannot be trusted to make our own decisions. In a different time, I would have had no problem swatting the boring $10 smoke detector off of the ceiling; perhaps I would have even relished in my triumph over its inconvenience while watching it shatter into a pile of cheap plastic on the floor. A device I paid $150 for however? A device that I spent time setting up, connecting to my WiFi and assigning a name of its own? It’s simply too much to bear.
It doesn’t have to be this way. These devices are supposed to make our lives easier, more enjoyable, less stressful. I want a smoke alarm that will notify me peacefully with a push notification when its batteries are getting low instead of chirping randomly in the middle of the night. I like the peace of mind knowing that I will be notified if something goes wrong while I’m away. But I also want a device that works for me, that respects my wishes, that doesn’t treat me like a child. If I manage to miraculously grow to 8 feet tall and depress the “hush” button, then it should follow my orders immediately, it shouldn’t talk back as if it knows better.
As a software programmer by trade, I am intimately familiar with the most sacrosanct of truths that when you instruct a computer to do something, it does exactly as commanded, regardless of the outcome. I have no doubt that the engineers responsible for the Nest Protect software felt a sickening feeling when they were ordered to write software that would overrule ones own desire to “hush” their screaming smoke alarm. No doubt there were significant regulatory hurdles that Nest had to overcome for the privilege of reinventing a tired old technology, and I’m willing to bet that the blame lands squarely on some mindless bureaucrat for deciding that the helpless masses need to be protected from themselves.
I can’t help but think however how incredibly stupid this decision was.
I can only imagine the experience that either of my two brothers with their small children might have had during a real emergency. Instead of super-dad quickly hushing the alarm after it had dutifully served its purpose before dashing down the stairs to swoop up his small children and carry them to safety, this insane device continues its blood curdling scream terrifying everyone, and making an already trying experience exponentially more traumatizing.
I have no doubt that my brothers, like any parent, would respond with exceptional skill during a true emergency, but do we really want to live in a world where our smart devices purport to be smarter than our own instincts and judgement?
For our own sake, I hope we are smarter than that.