Smart Houses, Dumb People

“That man is richest who’s pleasures are the cheapest.” Henry David Thoreau

The world of technology is constantly changing. Change can be hard on many folks especially us old duffers. I may be a curmudgeon but I am not a complete Luddite. I know that many of the gadgets that clutter our lives are useful. Some of them even make life better. But sometimes I think many technological “advances” happen only because we can. Because microchips can do lots of stuff we feel a need to do lots of stuff with them. Whether any one wants, needs, uses, (or even has time to learn how to use) the cool features or “apps” is irrelevant.

Interactive refrigerators connected to the Internet are an example. The hucksters of these “innovative” appliances suggest you should “rethink the refrigerator.” It’s not just for keeping the beer and milk cold. The fridge can tell you if you are out of milk, create shopping lists, and order groceries for you. They integrate family schedules, share photos, and send messages to your phone. The modern family apparently talks to the refrigerator rather than to each other.

Do we really need all this crap? Is it that hard to glance in the box to see if you need milk? Are we too dumb to write a shopping list? Have we become so lazy we can’t do the simplest life tasks without a robot? Is it worth the cost? What about the cost to the environment of more junk that needlessly eats more resources?

Refrigerators aren’t the only appliances. Smart washers and dryers send messages to your phone when the laundry’s done. The machines will supposedly alert both you and a repair technician if the link filter needs cleaning. We certainly couldn’t clean a lint trap on our own. This is basic maintenance you should do every time you empty the drier. Do you really need an “app” for that?

This is part of the trend toward “smart houses.” These are regular houses that connect electrical equipment to a computer system. Advocates say this eliminates manual switches and controls. It allows you to access the house systems remotely to adjust the temperature, turn off lights, turn on the alarm, or lock your doors. You can get alerts about water in the basement, mail in your mailbox, or the home security system. Unless, of course, the water is there because of a power outage meaning none of this junk will work when it is most needed.

There are some useful aspect of this. The advocates claim increased energy efficiency. Programmable thermostats do save energy and don’t cost much. But talking to your refrigerator is a complete waste. The claims of environmental gain do not calculate the cost to the earth of mining, transporting, and manufacturing or disposing of all the stuff needed for our convenience. I doubt the average consumer would really get much use out these systems. It is probably more conspicuous consumption than real value.

I suspect other basic energy conservation measures would return more bang for the buck. Caulking widows, adequate insulation, high efficiency appliances or simply smaller, better built houses would be much more cost effective. Simple timers can turn on and off lights when you are on vacation. Turning off the water when you leave prevents accidents. Taking two minutes to adjust the thermostat cost a lot less than some high tech remote access. Are we too lazy, or incompetent, to remember to lock the door?

Then there is the cost. It certainly cannot be cost effective for the average person. Average cost of a “smart “home system can be $450 to $2000. Smart appliances can be double the cost of a base model. These are toys for the well off and not something us plebs can actually afford. Yes, even the poor in this country have cell phones, cable, big screens, etc. But that is not because they can actually afford this stuff or would have them if they were practicing rational financial management. Unfortunately they, like most of the population, are susceptible to the advertising hucksters. Our addiction to “convenience” is not good for most of us.

Given the number of people living in trailers or substandard housing in this country, “smart” houses are not the real need. My observations, over many years, are that many houses in this country are very poorly built. We build housing too big and as cheap as the building codes will allow. Most people are not even aware of health hazards like radon, lead pipes, indoor air pollution, or mold in the heating ducts that exist in many homes. Even middle and upper middle class folks would be better off with better rather than smarter houses.

Scientists tell us our brains are getting smaller. Early Homo sapiens had to navigate a dangerous world, identify hundreds of edible plants, and be creative to survive. They say the modern brain is getting smaller because we do less with it. Medical research indicates mental activity can help prevent Alzheimer’s in older folks. Using our brains playing games, playing music, doing math, and reading is a good therapy. But it seems like the American commercial culture wants to dumb down everyone in the name of convenience.

I am reminded of the song, Their Brains Were Small and They Died by Mark Graham (Google it on YouTube). The song uses the demise of the dinosaurs to talk about the fate of humans.

And when we’re gone our works they’ll start to crumble

Until nothing can be found.
In ten million years some other guys may stumble

On our fossils, then some expert will begin to expound,

In some scientific study to his cockroach science buddies,

How the evidence can never be denied—

They were big, dumb and slow, they couldn’t go with the flow

Their brains were small, and they died.


Smarter appliances and houses may be cool but smarter people could save us from extinction.