What is the lived experience of increasing home automation? I’ve been thinking about this since reading the Popular Mechanics article “I Automated My Apartment — And It Kind Of Creeped Me Out” and “The Plug-and-Play Luxury Home” from The Wall Street Journal. Is it a relaxing techno-utopia where needs are anticipated, security is improved, and tedious tasks are automated? Is it a nightmare of intrusive technology gone wrong or leaving us weak and helpless? As with most things, I suspect reality is somewhere in between.
I tend naturally toward naive optimism rather than cynicism in this arena, perhaps the result of childhood vacations gawking at the “future” scene in the Carousel of Progress at Walt Disney World. I want automation to simplify my life and I believe it can. Yet when I think about some of the devices already in my home, the results are mixed.
For example, the DVR. I was an early TiVo adopter and I’ve had a digital video recorder for about 14 years. Life changing! Far more than VCRs, DVRs allowed us to snip the restraints of network program schedules. We could watch programs that were slated to compete against each other, rather than choosing one or the other. The DVR I have now allows 4 non-HD programs to be recorded simultaneously, which we use to full capacity on Sunday nights even with some creative prioritization. It is a treasure in an era of split seasons and staggered start dates, like having a media butler who obediently records “Robot Chicken” though the previous episode was eighteen months before. But, it’s not all wine and roses. The DVR uses metadata about each program provided by the network, and if the data is flawed or incomplete, the DVR appears unreliable. Because of lousy metadata, my DVR kept recording Masterpiece Theatre even after the last episode of Sherlock aired, until I remembered to delete it from the schedule. Forget recording anything that might be delayed; the DVR isn’t smart enough to recognize that a football game has finally ended and “The Amazing Race” has begun. As a technology, DVRs have played a role in fragmenting popular culture (along with cable television, the Internet, satellite radio, and mobile devices). Now we try to watch the most surprising shows or spend the next day dodging spoilers, but I’m old enough to remember when everyone could talk about the previous night’s big shows. Of course we all watched Magnum, PI on its debut night, not because of shocking spoilers but because that was the only time to see it until summer reruns (remember those?).
There are two Nest thermostats in my house and I’ve really enjoyed them in the past few months. Enjoyed thermostats? Yep. We had programmable thermostats before that and had our heating and cooling on a schedule, but life is rarely so predictable. Our energy bills made my stomach hurt. The Nest takes some active attention and that awareness has an interesting result: there is an element of game-playing that encourages the user to adjust the Nest to save energy. I’m the Nest controller in my household and more than once, I’ve turned the temperature down an extra degree to see the green leaf “saving energy” symbol appear.
Motion-sensitive lights seem to be gaining popularity for home use and many of us have experienced them in offices or public restrooms. How convenient: saving energy without stubbing your toe in the dark. Maybe they work nicely for many people, but as someone who works quietly at a computer much of the time, these result in the Light-Activating Flail, flopping my arms around like an inflated man or Dee when the lights turn off and leave me working in pitch black office. It made me frustrated and ill at ease, anticipating the next moment I would be left in the dark. I’d rather not have the same experience when trying to relax in a hot bath. I’m sure motion-activated lights are a good solution for some, perhaps for hallways, laundry rooms, or other places where we don’t spend a lot of time. We have one light on a timer, but that requires regular intervention too: manual resets as the seasons change.
I also think about our reliance on electricity for all of these things and how we behave when we don’t have it. Backup batteries will keep a biometric entry switch working for a while, as long as they have a charge, but I feel more comfortable with analog options for core functions. The power grid in the US is unreliable and where I live — amid 100 year old trees, high winds, and above-ground power lines — losing electricity is common in any season. I think I’d rather have backup power supplies for my appliances than have them communicate to each other (why the hell would I want my refrigerator to send a recipe to my oven, as mentioned in this article? Skip that effort and move straight to the replicator.) Having a high-tech home means keeping the low-tech stuff around or being helpless, not just in event of emergency but in the event of temporary inconvenience. Most days I watch movies on a big TV, connect to the Internet with numerous devices, and fall asleep to the glow of my Kindle, but I’m still comfortable lighting an oil lamp and pulling an old favorite book off the shelf. For me, living a Jetsons life feels more secure if I keep some Flintstones skills.