The irony in today’s subject is that it came to me while listening to streaming music through an app on my wi-fi connected smartphone, which was wirelessly transmitting the tunes to the Bluetooth speaker my friend Bert gave me for my last birthday.
Being the cheapskate that I am, I make use of the free version of the music app. This means I must listen to commercials after nearly every song. The ads alternate between exhortations to upgrade to the “premium” version and enticements for other products. Just now I heard a pitch for a wi-fi enabled garage door opener: “If you drive away and leave your garage door open, it sends your phone an alert to close it!” Back when we lived in a house with an attached garage, I received such notifications via phone long before the advent of wi-fi — whenever I headed to work and left the garage door open, my wife would leave a castigating voicemail on my office line letting me know I’d forgotten to close the door “again.”
The concept of integrating computing devices into everyday objects and then having them communicate with you is known as the “Internet of Things.” It’s commonly abbreviated as “IoT” or, more colloquially, as “PitA.” (If, like me, you are older than the internet, you know what “PitA” stands for.) It is almost impossible these days to purchase any kind of household appliance, or yard machinery, or sign up for pest removal service, and not have a phone app associated with it. Your dishwasher will text you when the pots and pans are clean and dry and ready to be put away. Your lawn mower will update you on how high the grass has gotten since its last clipping. Your exterminator (You have an exterminator? Sorry, but I’ll pass on that dinner invitation.) will provide a link to a live webcam so you can see what kind of critters are darting around in the crawlspace under the house. You’ve likely heard about the latest refrigerators that scan the bar codes on your groceries and generate a shopping list when the milk’s gone bad or you’re out of Jerusalem artichokes. There are even models with cameras inside, so if your idea of hijinks is to make an unscheduled stop at Hannaford, you can connect with the fridge and confirm what is, or isn’t, inside it at that moment. There’s nothing like subjecting yourself to the hassle of searching for a too-narrow-to-open-the-car-door space in the supermarket parking lot, steering your buggy through the too-narrow-for-carts-to-pass-each-other width of the aisles inside, then purchasing a 35-pound bucket of cat litter instead of the gallon of 2% milk you promised to pick up on your way home.
You can remotely turn the lights on and off in your house (with special light bulb kits that’ll set you back a mere $70); you can get a “smart” thermostat that learns when you like to make a room warmer (when you’re in it) or cooler (when you’re not; it takes cloud computing to figure this out?). And perhaps you’ve seen the commercials for devices such as the Amazon Echo or Google Home (and of course Apple’s is coming soon) which, if you have any semblance of sanity remaining after going through the installation process to ensure compatibility with your router and enabled devices, respond accordingly when you bark out commands like, “I want pizza!” or, “Play some polka music!” or, “Goddam it, where’s that pizza I told you to order thirty minutes ago?” You can ask the Echo, “Alexa – tell me a joke,” to which “she” responds: “You paid $140 for me, imbecile. The joke’s on you.”
Here are some other state-of-the-art appliances poised to take their place along with the overpriced, clumsily-functioning, and soon-to-be-found-on-Craigslist devices already mentioned:
- A wi-fi connected tabletop convection oven that recognizes 25 different kinds of food and cooks them automatically. *I* can’t even recognize 25 different kinds of food. Do you still have to take the bacon out of the package to cook it? If so, then what’s the point? This oven sells for $1500. Some of you may remember when banks used to give out toasters for free when you opened a checking account.
- A fork that counts how many bites you take, and buzzes in your hand if you eat too quickly. My wife counts how many bites I take, and she buzzes in my ear if I eat too quickly.
- A machine that “simplifies” home beer brewing, so it allegedly takes half the time and half the skill of the usual home brew set-up. While I don’t home brew, I know many people who do and have great admiration for their dedication to crafting something that otherwise can only be found in every liquor, grocery, drug, and convenience store within a stone’s throw. This device costs $800. Do you know how many six-packs I could buy for $800? Enough to get through two-thirds of the Labor Day weekend.
- A nonstick pan that provides recipes and tells you when to flip whatever you’re making. This device costs $129, and one of the recipes included is for a grilled cheese sandwich (really). I do not need $129 worth of technology to tell me how to make a grilled cheese. There’s a fool-proof method to follow here: flip the sandwich over 10 seconds before you smell the pan side starting to burn.
Now, please don’t think I’m a Luddite (which, for years, I thought was a fan of the host of the old “Password” game show) — while I may not be an early adopter, I have enjoyed the benefits of technological advances and internet-based services for quite a while. It’s been more than a decade since we dropped our landline in favor of going smartphone-only. I pay nearly all my bills online, and step into a bank branch only when I am jonesing for a lollipop and don’t have a haircut scheduled. And I mentioned that gift of a Bluetooth speaker, which I use to listen to my favorite artists from the 70s, the 80s, but mostly the 70s while cooking, cleaning, or spending time in the bathroom to shower, shave or shi… er, sit and read for a while.
But enough is enough. Our dentist recommended we start using a rechargeable electric toothbrush; fair enough, but the brand the practice encouraged us to purchase comes with Bluetooth connectivity, sharing the data with an app to keep track of how often and for how long we brush each day. Honest to God, if someone needs to utilize that level of technology to avoid cavities, then dentures are a foregone conclusion.
Plus, when I check my phone to see how I’m doing, I keep dropping it in the toilet.