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Smart Appliances Have Me Wondering: How Long Before I’m Outwitted by a Toaster?

Smart appliances have Mary Kay Jordan Fleming feeling a little, well, dumb. Here, she takes a look at whether tech is simplifying or complicating our lives.

Have you been shopping for appliances lately? Our society has reached a tipping point where almost every new electrical houseware is equipped with “smart technology.” I’m not even sure what that phrase means, but I’m not spoiling for an intellectual showdown with my appliances.

The signs of technological challenge have been on the wall, literally hanging on our wall, for a decade. A new thermostat sporting 11 different functions was installed with our furnace many years ago. We have no clue about most of them, so we adjust the temperature manually each day using the only two buttons we understand. We avoid the one labeled END, which, for all we know, might trigger the Rapture.

My husband and I are no-fuss people who taped up a sign saying “no bell” when our doorbell conked out 30 years ago. Occasionally, the sign fades and appears to say “o hell,” to the amusement of visitors. Now, thanks to technology, we can replace our dead ringer with a $230 video model that can be answered from a smartphone miles away—impressive!  And a lovely surprise for the aluminum-siding salespeople.

Talk About Crockpot

We prefer simple, durable housewares like my mother’s 50-year old crockpot, still going strong. Our refrigerator is a 35-year old classic. When the inevitable occurs, we dread the barrage of new options like smart refrigerators that detect food’s expiration dates (we have in-laws for that), check inventory, and order food over the Internet. The latter is particularly frightening; I envision an endless game of Who keeps buying this smelly cheese? There’s also a jumbo $10,000 model that’s four feet wide with 29 cubic feet of interior space. It includes a door alarm in case your food decides to invite other food over to party and doesn’t want to be disturbed.

Some ‘smart’ refrigerators detect food’s expiration dates.

Today’s manufacturers cater to customers with far more extravagant desires and technological savvy than we possess. There are smart forks and toasters with smartphone apps, which is great for people who need to be notified via text that their bites are too big or their bagels are ready. One company makes a dishwasher you can activate from anywhere in the world because who hasn’t been on a beach in the French Riviera and suddenly needed to wash dishes on a different continent?

The features on some appliances are so excessive as to be completely overwrought. The temperature on a sous-vide precision cooker can be adjusted to within a tenth of a degree. A tenth of a degree! Now I feel silly for having envied kids who made cookies in their Easy-Bake Ovens with the heat from a light bulb.

Read More: 10 Reasons Why I Don’t Have a Smartphone

Domestic Tragedy

The latest washers, dryers, ovens, and pressure cookers are Bluetooth-enabled, whatever that is. All I know about Bluetooth is that the auto dealer activated it on my sister’s new purchase, and now she hears voices in her car.

$7,000 will buy you a high-end (no pun intended) smart toilet with built-in smart speakers.

Sometimes, these tech-heavy housewares set off a comedy of errors. In one case, a smart vacuum—a Roomba—got trapped in a bathroom behind a closed door, prompting visiting relatives to report a noisy burglary in progress. Minutes later, the police and canine unit showed up with guns blazing to apprehend the robotic “home invader.”

Another smart vacuum encountered soft dog droppings on its midnight run and distributed them throughout the house. A hilarious reversal of the old feces-hits-the-fan joke, unless you were the unfortunate homeowner who referred to the incident as “the poohpocalypse.”

Speaking of bodily functions, there’s an app for that, too: $7,000 will buy you a high-end (no pun intended) smart toilet with built-in smart speakers. Lights can be synced to music to “set the mood.” Sensors open and close the lid and flush the toilet. The fixture also comes with a heated seat, warm water rinse, and air drying technology.

A second model from the same manufacturer includes a foot warmer, transforming your porcelain convenience into a veritable throne. My major worry with this pricey fixture is that I’d never get my husband out of the bathroom. He already keeps a stash of magazines and Sudoku puzzles in there. Give the man a foot warmer and he’d live in there.

Read More: 6 Places to Take a Digital Detox Retreat

Hearing Voices

Musical toilets aside, I’ve got all the smart audio I can handle with my phone’s digital assistant. One night when I was teaching about the adolescent identity crisis, my unattended phone, silenced and positioned six feet away from me, weighed in with, “You can be anything you want to be!” Siri’s participation was creepy, albeit amusing and surprisingly relevant.

Did Alexa know something the homeowner didn’t?

CNN reported an even more unnerving incident when a smart speaker in someone’s home spontaneously read off a list of funeral homes and cemeteries. Did Alexa know something the homeowner didn’t?

If I wanted a talking device to participate in my life, it would be a fitness tracker for people who aren’t young and fit. Instead of measuring heart rate, sleep quality, and flights of stairs, the ideal model would say, “I saw you pass up that donut. Way to go!” For an extra fee, perhaps a sexy Aussie accent would coo, “Whoa, whole-body Spanx! You must have a hot date. You go, girl!”

We Baby Boomers who grew up without the Internet dread having to replace our aging housewares with expensive “smart” models that are quite possibly smarter than us. We don’t want to churn our own butter or beat laundry against a rock, but we do not need appliances that send text messages or order their own snacks online. And we most certainly do not want a SWAT team showing up to apprehend our vacuum.

By Mary Kay Fleming


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