Among the board of hot buttons to push, the relationship between efficiency and quality began to glow bright as I drove from Smallmart to Walker late last month. It was Feb. 25, and my radio was tuned to NPR. “The ultimate Smart Home vision is a home that basically runs itself,” announced Alexis Madrigal, a visiting scholar at Berkeley’s Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and Society, on the evening program “All Tech Considered.”
I wasn’t even out of the neighborhood market’s lot by the time I’d manically decided that the homemade vanilla Bluebell could return to a tub of sweet milk in the back of my beetle for all I cared. Neither the ice cream nor I was leaving my car’s heated seats until Madrigal finished his slot on the program.
What was this bewitchment? The Jetsons revived from the televised grave? Sliced bread is not going to be the “best thing since” anymore? Oh no. Wonder Bread’s loyal pop-up toaster, two words for you: watch out. After skeptically listening to two minutes of Madrigal’s vision for the self-sustaining home, consideration of practical utility eventually became accounted for in some logical hemisphere of my brain. After all, the art of efficiency playing out through advancing technology in the current “modern home” is not an idea of innovation.
I’m not Amish. Engineers and inventors have been dreaming up and implementing designs that have left typical household tasks to the machines for centuries. “Lifting a finger,” in the last decade, has become a term that can now be taken as quite literal. “All I have to do is push a button on a screen and something happens out there in the physical world,” Madrigal says with regard to the term app. The Smart Home will be run by the touch of your finger to the screen of your smartphone.
I was stationed like campo outside of Walker, eyes wide and ears erect at Madrigal’s generalization. Bye-bye, Bluebell.
“At this point,” he said, “the reason to use smart appliances is not that they are better than standard machines at a given job, [though more efficient], but that they make everyone’s favorite device—the smartphone—more fun and powerful.” Pardon me?
The pace of society runs parallel to technology. We go, go, go—praising efficiency in areas like the workplace, restaurants, schools, public transport, hospitals and especially in communication. Communication is instantaneous. It is efficient. But what happens when communication has become so efficient that even in our homes, the smartphone becomes the translator between us and the simple tasks that instill utility in our daily private lives? Is it truly beneficial to allot such power to a lifeless device? It depends on the stewardship of the individual.
I myself am a Konstantin Levin. I enjoy exertion, not that doing my own laundry is the same as hand-hacking 20 acres of wheat, but you get the point. I don’t like the idea of “town” creeping into the relational respite of my own private countryside. Daily, I look forward to slinking around in my socks. Simple as that. This is the time when I can enjoy the process of slowing down, like waking up in my childhood home, making a pot of fresh coffee and watching the fog break. The household tasks that we call “chores” often give my mind a place to be quiet—something I need. For such chores, I neither want, nor need, a middleman of communication, and frankly, I enjoy washing the dishes in warm bubbly water.
The quality of these quiet moments can never be touched by the amazingly engineered smartphone. Technology may powerfully enhance the efficiency of life’s tasks and become our favorite new toy, but the quality of a home, enjoyment of life and utility of time run on a different circuit. So stay brave, little toaster, I am sure I’m not the only one with forefingers who doesn’t mind enabling you to do your job. I am certain I am not the only adrenaline junkie who enjoys the anticipation of your jack-in-the-box “pop” after enjoying two minutes to hand pour and quietly sip a cup of coffee. Then again, maybe I, too, will soon be considered as belonging to the island of misfit toys in this progressive technological age. Pack up the buggy, we’re heading to Penn-Dutch country.