The New York Times today gives an extremely cautious and narrow defense of traditional, now denigrated as “dumb” devices: In an Era of ‘Smart’ Things, Sometimes Dumb Stuff Is Better. It listed a grand total of five examples:
A wristwatch vs. Apple Watch
A car mount vs. a smart car console
An alarm clock vs. Amazon Echo Spot
A kitchen timer vs. Amazon Echo
A piece of paper vs. a tablet
Mind you, these aren’t even “smart” versus “dumb”. The car mount versus smart car console are different implementations of smart devices.
Let’s start out with a smart device undershoot that seldom gets mentioned: e-books. E-book sales fell in 2015 and fell even more in 2017 as both paperback and hardback sales rose. Why? Readers can probably chime in, but print is still easier to read and navigate. You recall what you read better in print than in e-book form. And personally, I despised that my reader determined the e-book format. I found that I remember what I read where visually, and having all of the social science books I read appear in the same format meant that if I read several books on related issues, I could not recall which one was where I had picked up a particular factoid.
And today, both Bill B and Chuck L sent a story that will confirm the prior of any dumbphone user: The Feds Can Now (Probably) Unlock Every iPhone Model In Existence. NC readers had probably assumed the NSA had back doors to smart phones; this sort of thing makes that idea a smidge more official (the fact that the surveillance types can presumably obtain access isn’t the same as being able to get at it in a legal-looking manner, like unlocking it with a search warrant).
Some other areas where yours truly is a proud Luddite:
GPS. Not only do I refuse to carry a device which uses GPS, I don’t like using GPS while driving. It makes people stupider and less familiar with their environs. In addition, I’ve seen some major GPS fails. For instance, just last week, I was in a cab going from an airport to a hotel about 40 minutes away. The driver punched up the GPS directions. He decided he preferred going on the freeway (and I had seen per Google Maps earlier that that was the preferred route) even though the GPS was giving him a route via the streets. So he went to the freeway with Ms. GPS talking to him.
She refused to adjust her directions to the fact that he was taking a different route. She didn’t even try to tell him how to get from where he was on the freeway to her preferred path. She kept calling out her directions as if he had gone her way at an assumed driving speed. It became so comical we both laughed at it. At one point, on the freeway, she told him to take a U-turn. The driver joked, “She wants to kill me!”
Smart homes. As with GPS, I do not want my home spying on me. As many people have noted, IoT is terribly hackable, and on top of that, getting involved with a smart home provider makes you vulnerable to any software hiccups or worse, them going out of business.
Plus what happens in the event of a power failure? If you have your old fashioned thermostat set at a particular temperature, you have a high degree of confidence that when the power comes back on, it will come back on at its same old setting. With all of the weird interdependencies in these home systems, I would be concerned they would go haywire after an outage. And even if they didn’t, the worry factor would offset any convenience advantage.
Fit devices. Yours truly is a fitness enthusiast despite having no sports ability whatsoever save being predisposed to being strong. You could not pay me enough to get me to use one of those devices. First, even though there is research that shows that people who write down their weight training programs and record each workout get the best results, I like the mental discipline of remembering my program and what I did in my last workout (reps and weights). Second, no way would I ever let anyone get health data like my pulse rate and frequency of exercise, which is what you are allowing with these devices (I also go to some lengths to restrict my insurer’s access to my medical information by paying my bills myself and submitting for reimbursement). But third and probably most important, this level of self-monitoring makes people neurotic.
More generally, the branding of “Internet dependent” as “smart” strikes me as disempowering. This video parodies how we old farts look at this sort of thing:
But it is another manifestation of the sort of top 10% preening that Thomas Frank called out in Listen, Liberal, the fetishization of new, data driven techniques even when they aren’t necessarily well validated. That sort of thing gave us Robby Mook confidently dismissing the pleas of operatives on the ground in Michigan and Wisconsin that the Clinton campaign was in trouble and she needed to spend more time and money in those states. We know how that movie ended.
Similarly, the fetishization of big data has cooled a bit (but not enough for my taste) as more and more users recognize that they can easily turn out to be means for institutionalizing prejudice or simply bad decision rules thanks to less than stellar problem framing and choice of data sets. As Cathy O’Neil, author of Weapons of Math Destruction, pointed out, “Algorithms are just opinions expressed in math.”
Finally, and far from least important, using smart devices puts you at the mercy of providers who are very good at forcing obsolescence or overt price increases upon you
To return to the main thread, yours truly is so resistant to the marketing push to get us all to surrender to being surveilled even more in the name of “smartness” that there are no doubt many smart thingies that have their fans and detractors. What dumb devices do you prefer and why? And if you are keen on some “smart” tools, how do you regard the cost of loss of privacy and dependence?