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Here Be Dragons

Has Smart Tech Forgotten That It's Built for Humans?

The assumption of the tech industry is that more is self-evidently better—more data, more screens, more computing devices, more connections. The trouble is, most problems are pretty simple.

by Martin Robbins
Jun 26 2014, 7:50pm

Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Nothing makes you ignore what’s in front of you like Google Glass. The world fades into blacks and whites as you move your head around in search of the best contrast, fixated on what looks like a shitty version of a phone screen strapped to your face. To onlookers, you look like a slack-jawed moron, eyes raised up toward the great search engine in the cloud.

In the lead-up to Google Glass launching in the UK this week, many pointed out that it isn’t really a consumer product. If you want something that provides a simple body-mounted interface to your phone, smart watches like the Pebble are far more convenient. The only time you need a head-mounted display is if you can’t use your arms or hands, and that’s a pretty specialized case; it’s no surprise, for instance, that Oakley has pitched its smart goggles at skiers, or that surgeons featured prominently in early Glass demos.

Google’s goggles are merely the latest in a long line of ubiquitous computing devices—"smart" mobile, wearable, or embedded products aimed at gobbling up information and shoving it in front of our distracted faces. Two assumptions drive these technologies: that more data is better, and that we want that data to be as visible as possible. The trend is more data, more of the time. If you could burn the current status of every home gadget onto people’s retinas, an engineer at a tech start-up with a stupid name like Squigloo or Globblee would be pitching the idea as a product to some venture capitalists.

Some of these smart devices are more useful than others. Smartphones are bloody amazing. I can’t even remember how I lived before I had one—presumably because my life was so awful without my iPhone that I’ve blanked it all from my memory. Smart watches are still pretty cool, but not quite in the same league. Having a wrist-mounted interface to my phone is handy for checking texts and canceling calls, or displaying information from RunKeeper, but it’s more of a luxury than a must-have. Smart glasses—you’ve lost me.

Over the last few months I’ve been using two "smart home" products, Loop and Cosy. Loop, which I bought for £30 (about $50) from Amazon, sits underneath my electricity meter and monitors my apartment's electricity usage, storing data in the cloud and warning me if my usage goes over my weekly budget, recommending alternative energy providers I might want to switch to. Cosy is a smart thermostat that controls my central heating, providing various settings and schedules and allowing me to control my boiler from the internet or my smartphone. (I received a free test unit from the kind folk at Cosy, but they've reached their Kickstarter goal, so there are presumably more on the way.)

What strikes me is how little I use them both day-to-day. Leap gathers all kinds of data about my patterns of electricity usage, but I learned everything useful from it in the first week. Once I understood how much energy my apartment was using, and which devices were having the biggest impact, what else did I need to know? I could sit and watch it like a hawk every day, asking it to send me alerts every time I climb ten watts over average, but I’m not sure it’s healthy to obsess about your energy usage and I don’t need an email to tell me that turning on the washing machine is using electricity. I can literally see myself doing it.

Cosy suffers from a similar problem. The interface is beautiful, in terms of both the physical device itself (which you can carry around the house with you) and the sleek web interface. Again, though, once I’d set up a schedule that worked in the first week or so, my interactions with it tailed off. That said, the one huge advantage it does have is that I can turn the heating on from under the bed covers on a cold morning—that alone is worth every penny.

Monitoring your body is a bit more interesting than watching your utility meters, and activity monitors by Fitbit, Jawbone, Withings, Nike and a host of others have proven popular. However, like my smart home products, the volume of data produced greatly exceeds the amount of useful information, and the usefulness declines over time.

An activity monitor is great if you’re trying to change your lifestyle, but once you’ve worked out how to do your 10,000 steps and stuff the correct amount of calories in your face, what’s the point? And if you haven’t managed to change your lifestyle—well, you’ve spent a hundred quid on a little bracelet that tells you how crappy you are every day until you dump it in a drawer.

How smart do we actually want or need any of these things to be? The assumption of the tech industry is more is bettermore data, more screens, more computing devices, more connections. The trouble is, most problems are pretty simple. I don’t need a massively over-engineered WiFi bulb to light my apartment, and while a web-enabled thermostat is kind of cool, it doesn’t solve any problem that I actually have in the real world.

Then there’s our fixation with data. It’s very easy to fit devices with all kinds of sensors that can record a dizzying array of variables in real time, but more data doesn’t necessarily mean more useful information. Having a fancy chart showing you the quality of your sleep minute-by-minute may be very interesting, but ultimately it doesn’t tell you much beyond “you got enough sleep” or “you didn’t get enough sleep,” and the chances are you already knew that. All those hundreds of data points translate into precisely no useful intelligence.

I love data and I love technology, but sometimes it seems that they’ve become the ends rather than the means. That’s not to say that it’s all BS—all of these devices have their place, and all of them have the potential to be useful to people. There’s no doubt a long, interesting, and profitable future for smart gadgets, wearable devices, and even computers strapped to your face. I just wonder if we’re getting a little too obsessed with speed and quantity over substance—whether we’re in danger of having all the data we want, but not actually knowing anything at all.

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