trojan horse sculpture in public square
PHOTO: Ayca Wilson

While many tech-savvy people are trying to lessen their information load, Google and Amazon are trying to pile it on. 

Anyone who's seen one of the recent Google Home Hub TV commercials should know what I'm talking about. These personal assistants are the last thing you need this holiday season. It’s bad enough the first thing you pick up every morning is your mobile phone. Now with these assistants, you have a chatty internet "friend" annoying you before you even pull off the covers. 

So I guess now it's confession time. Though I am intensively sensitive to technology intrusions into my personal life, I am ashamed to admit I now own an internet-connected kitchen appliance. How on earth did this happen?

'Smart' Device? Define Smart

After days of mind-numbing shopping for a new oven, I caved. I agreed with my wife that it might be a good idea to be able to control our oven while we were out of the house. Why we couldn’t simply set a timer eludes me now, but at the time, it sounded like a good idea.

Within a few days the oven was delivered, and a technician came several days later to install it. Installation basically involved plugging the oven into the electrical socket and trying to sell me needless accessories. Unfortunately, the technician was unable to connect the oven to the internet, because while he knew how to connect the plug to the wall socket, he didn’t know much about IP networks. He didn’t know a whit about WPS, nor did he know how to open port 443 or 8080 on my home router. Eventually, I got a network technician on the phone, and within no time, the oven and iPhone app were happily united. 

My oven and I have been conversing for a whole week now, and based on this extensive experience, I would like to share some observations and recommendations for anyone considering buying one of these ‘smart’ devices:

  • Every time someone turns the oven on or the program ends, I get a notification on my phone. When I am at work, at the gym, or in transit — a notification. This is great, because one of the most important things I need to know during the day is that someone is home warming bagels in the oven.
  • When I was considering a smart oven, one point somehow eluded me: when you want to cook something, it turns out you also need to insert the food into the oven, so a person must be close by. So, the app’s remote start function isn’t really any better than the timer my previous ‘dumb’ oven had.
  • When a program ends, I get a message on my phone asking me if I want to continue the program or turn the oven off. If I am on the treadmill, how could I know if I want to continue the program or not? On the other hand, if the oven incorporated a camera or sensor that could show me the state of the item in the oven, this function might make sense.

At the end of the day, I don’t think this oven is any different than any other smart device. A smart washer or dryer still requires someone to load and unload the clothes, and don’t even get me started on an internet refrigerator that tells you what to buy when you are out shopping. What’s interesting to note is this is not the first time manufacturers have tried to sell us smart devices. Perhaps we can learn a thing or two about how it went the last time.

Related Article: The IoT May Change Customer Experience, But Not in the Ways We'd Expect

There’s Nothing New Under the Sun

During the late 1970s, computer chip manufacturers invented voice modules to convert text to speech. Initially used in the first text reading machine, marketers quickly realized speech could also be added to a host of home appliances. One example was a microwave oven that spoke when a control key was pressed, saying things like ‘Start’ or ‘Defrost’ or reading out the length of the cooking time selected. Another example was a talking vending machine which would say things like “Insert a coin and make a selection” when you stood in front of it.

By 1980, the price of voice modules came down to about $5 per unit, making it economically viable to add speech to just about every kitchen and office appliance. Speech was added to everything from dishwashers to pill organizers and tape measures. Initially, these devices were a novelty, but the excitement faded fast. In less than a decade, folks were fed up and these appliances disappeared from the market. A number of articles appearing in the New York Times in 1988 summed up the zeitgeist: one woman’s response was typical, “My husband talks back to me. My kids talk back to me. I don't want my dryer talking back to me.” Another consumer remarked, “I know I don't respond very well when a car tells me what to do. My first reaction is to punch it."

Related Article: Overloaded, and it Feels So Good: How Information Overload Affects Us Today

Who's Getting Smarter?

Sure, a big part of the frustration from the last generation of talking devices was their sheer stupidity. The devices lacked any real smarts. One woman’s experience with her microwave oven was typical: “When we first had it, it was a really wonderful experience to punch it and have it say, 'high' ... but the problem was it only told you the temperature. It was like a roommate that didn't work out.”

This time around, manufacturers are integrating their appliances with the aforementioned personal assistants, like Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant. For example, Google Assistant today controls over 10,000 different devices from over 2,000 brands. Alexa claims to control even more. With integration to personal assistants, today’s smart devices do more than just speak, they also process voice commands. And in some cases it makes sense. It’s easy to see why controlling home security appliances is important — for example, remotely turning lights on and off, and accessing security cameras when you’re not home.

But controlling things like ovens, refrigerators, washing machines and dryers is pointless … unless vendors have an ulterior motive. The product description for a $59 Alexa-enabled microwave oven might provide a clue. The device claims to:

  • Defrost vegetables, make popcorn, cook potatoes and reheat rice. Quick-cook voice presets and a simplified keypad let you ask Alexa to start microwaving.
  • Automatically reorder popcorn when you run low.

And here is the rub. While Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri are all purporting to make our lives easier, they are also a Trojan Horse we are inviting into our homes, so vendors can sell us more stuff. More music, more laundry detergent, and yes, more popcorn.

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday soon upon us, if you are among the tens of millions of people considering buying a personal assistant this holiday season, you might want to think twice about why you really need these devices. 

<DING> Gotta run … my oven just told me it’s finished cooking. If I was only home to take the food out.