We Need Safe Homes, Not Smart Homes

Andrew McDiarmid | February 8, 2018 | 9:38am EST
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Smartphone connected to smart home devices (Screenshot)

The race for domination in the digital assistant market means getting hardware into your home is a top priority for Big Tech (the collective name for Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon). All these companies are fighting for market share, but it's Amazon's latest ad campaign that caught my eye. The online retailer couples its family of Alexa-enabled Echo devices with the boast "Smart homes start here."

The Echo is a Dolby-powered wireless speaker connected to Amazon's AI assistant Alexa that lets you speak a variety of commands out loud to play music, order a pizza, call or message someone, set an alert, ask a question, control other connected devices such as thermostats and lights, and, of course, order items stocked by Amazon. Complementing the Echo product line is the smaller room add-on Echo Dot, the Echo Plus with built-in smart home hub, and the Echo Show and Spot, both of which sport screens.

With the Echo line, Amazon wants to be an omniscient, invisible, always-on presence in your home, listening for commands and ready to give you anything you might want or need. All you have to do is speak it. Like royalty. Say it and it will immediately be done. But is that what makes a smart home, as their advertising suggests?

What Smart Actually Means

It's interesting that the word smart has come to refer to connected technology and artificial intelligence like smartphones, smart TVs, smart thermostats, smart door locks, smart lights, smart blood sugar monitors, smart scales, etc. The list is growing every day (I recently noticed a smart jump rope in the Apple store!).

The word smart has several definitions. As a verb, it means a source of sharp, local, and often superficial pain, as in a physical wound or wounded feelings. It can also mean to feel shame or remorse. Indeed, the word extends from Old High German smerzan, originally meaning "to bite," and from the Greek smerdnos, which meant "terrible." This is probably not what the tech companies were going for with their devices!

As an adjective, however, smart can mean having or showing quick intelligence or ready mental capability, being impressively neat in appearance, witty, sophisticated, brisk, and even saucy. Yes, this is how they want us to view the Amazon Echo, the Google Home, the Apple HomePod, and, later in 2018, the Facebook Portal. But do we need these devices to make our home smart? What does a smart home really look like? And does our home even need to be smart?

If smart means having ready mental capability, neatness, sophistication, and efficiency, these are positive qualities that many of us would want for our families. But if 19th century entrepreneur and tea baron Sir Thomas Lipton was correct when he said in his autobiography that "home is the laboratory of character," then the qualities of smartness we might want in our home are actually only part of the end result of years of training, learning, correction, messiness, and trials. Sophistication, capability, and efficiency are well and good, but they should not be held in higher regard than the homely virtues of love, compassion, diligence, patience, and temperance.


Home as Sanctuary

Up until the early years of the 20th century, most companies and institutions abided by the unwritten rule that the family home was a private domain that should not be intruded upon by the marketplace. In his book “The Attention Merchants,” author Tim Wu recounts the history of the modern-day scramble to get inside our heads. "[B]efore 1930 ... there remained a divide between the highly commercialized public sphere and the traditional private one. A newspaper or leaflet might be brought inside, but otherwise the family home was shielded from the commercial bombardment to which one was subjected in public. This, however, was soon to change ... By means of new technologies, advertising and its master, commerce, would enter what had been for millennia our attention's main sanctuary—the home."

Fast forward to 2018. Not only have we let advertising and commerce right into our living room through the television, we have allowed them in through our computers, tablets, and smartphones. Today, there is hardly a place in our house that isn't connected to the public sphere. And the access is 24/7.

Gone are the days when the TV channels we watched would come to the end of their programming, put up a closing message, and go dark. No more physically dialing onto and off the internet via a 56k modem. No, it's a plethora of always-connected devices, constantly updating, suggesting, and advertising to us. And now come these digital assistants, governed by algorithms, ready to bring the world to us.

Enough is enough. We need to reclaim our home. It's our base, our sanctuary, our training ground, a shield from the outside world, a safe place, if any, to let our guard down and practice being ourselves, the place to recover from and reflect on the barrage of messaging and information we experience every day at work, at school, and in the public square. If we fill our homes with smart devices and digital assistants, we are effectively bringing the world right back into our living room. Where is the privacy? Where is the boundary between our private lives and our public lives? Where can we safely disconnect and begin the reflection that is essential to proper understanding and good decision making?

And then there's the issue of work ethic and patience. Having a device spit out immediate answers and solutions might be easy and convenient, but it doesn't help us raise our children to be hard-working, resilient, and long-suffering. Can we encourage our kids to work hard and be thorough with their school work if we have the shortcut of a digital assistant in our home? Forget the library – can’t they just ask Alexa? Digital assistants like the Amazon Echo or the Google Home make us lazy, entitled, and dumb. Not dumb in a derogatory sense, but dumb in that our brains don't get the chance to work very hard or build new pathways or connections when all the work is done for us. And what about delayed gratification, the idea that good things take time and hard work to realize? If we live in a right-now world, how will our children develop patience and resilience in the face of struggle? The short answer is they won't. Not without our help. And the first thing we need to do is take back our homes and reclaim them as the sanctuaries they are.

Andrew McDiarmid is a media specialist at the Discovery Institute. He is author of the blog Authentic: Living Well in the Age of the Smartphone. Follow Andrew on Twitter @AMcDiarmid.

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