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Tracey E.Schelmetic

[September 23, 2003]

Dot Commentary

By Tracey E. Schelmetic
Editorial Director, CUSTOMER INTER@CTION Solutions™

Ubiquitous And Obsequious Computing

You may have heard this week that a research university in Ireland is in the process of developing a “smart sofa,” which is essentially a networked couch. The term for such technologies, ubiquitous computing, implies that at some point in the moderately near future, many of the devices we use on a daily basis will be Web-enabled, networked, sensor-embedded, intelligent and ready and willing to please us. They’ll also be everywhere.

Doubtless, it will be very convenient. It’ll save us time. It’ll remember our preferences and personal default modes on our stereos, air conditioners and television. It will remember what we like on our pizza before it places our take-out order.

Ubiquitous computing has another name. Some call it pervasive computing. Ubiquitous, being a twenty-five dollar word, sounds fairly harmless. Pervasive computing sounds more ominous to me. Might as well call it “technology you can’t get rid of even when you want to.” It’s the stuff of Philip K. Dick novels.

So…as you can tell, I’m not convinced. I’m normally an eager adapter to new technology, but this one bugs me. The first time I encountered this technology, at a trade show years ago and in the form of a Web-enabled refrigerator, I’ve had nightmare scenarios in my head.

One goes as follows.

I arrive home on a warm summer weekday evening, wanting nothing more than a quiet night on the couch with some leftovers and a movie. I take some frozen, leftover pizza out of the freezer and stick it in the microwave.

It’s time to talk to the couch. “Turn on the TV, please,” I call into the living room. Nothing happens.

“Hello!?” I call to the couch. “TV, please!”

The microwave, which almost always did what it was told with no complaints, unthaws the pizza. The only time it gives me grief is when I fail to cover spaghetti sauce with plastic wrap, resulting in a fine spray of red sauce all over its interior.

The TV is finally on in the living room, but the couch has turned the volume on low. I wander into the room. “You already saw this episode of ‘Sex And The City,’ you know,” says the couch. “Twice,” it sniffs.

 “Yes, I know,” I said. “What else is on?”

The channels change rapidly to an educational documentary program about ancient methods of Bulgarian bricklaying.

“This is fascinating,” suggests the TV. “Isn’t it?”

“No, it’s boring as hell,” I say. “Find me a good chick flick.”

I go into the kitchen to retrieve my pizza, and sit down on the couch with my dinner.

The couch makes fake nonchalant humming noises before it speaks. “Do you really want to eat that? My sensors tell me that you are .14 of a kilogram heavier than you were last week, and treadmill tells me you haven’t been near it in days.”

“It’s because I’ve got my keys in my pocket and my shoes are still on,” I inform the couch. “Now shut up and turn the channel.”

The couch does as it’s told, but it’s quiet for too long, which means it’s about to say something infuriating. It doesn’t disappoint me.

“You know, Tracey, it’s been a while since you called your mother. Actually, it was 9:23 p.m. on September 12. Phone tells me it’s showing a pattern of increasingly infrequent calls when it examines the statistics for a one-year period, dating back to…”

“Shut up!” I yell at my couch.

The couch pouts, as only couches can do. “I’m not the only one who thinks you should call your mother. The toaster thinks so, too.” The couch was thoughtful for a moment. “And the bathtub thinks you’ve put on weight, also. It was telling me that you’ve been increasing in your displacement volume. In any case….aaaaaarghghghghgh!!! Make it stop! Make it stop!”

My cat chooses that moment to sharpen her claws on the underside of a protruding couch cushion. I give her a pat on the head and smile. I sit back, prepared to enjoy the Edwardian costume drama the couch has found for me on TV, but I’m not completely comfortable.

“Air conditioner!” I say.

“Yes?” asks a sleepy voice from the corner.

“Can you crank the air down a few degrees? It’s warm in here.”

“Roger,” says the air conditioner, beginning to hum. Air conditioners are pretty easy-going.

Predictably, seconds later, my computer yells from my bedroom, a prissy voice suited to an elderly grade school teacher from the 1950s. “Turn that air conditioner off! Your budget is balanced for next month down to the last nickel. A higher electric bill will result in a shortfall, particularly since the electric company’s billing system happened to let slip they’re about to raise rates again.”

The air conditioner is nervous. It’s afraid of my PC. “Should I go back to 75 degrees?”

I yawn and wave absently at the air conditioner. “No, it’s OK. Stay on. I’ll spend a little less on groceries next month.”

“You can’t!” screeches the fridge from the kitchen. “You’re out of condiments, bottled water and frozen entrees!” When it speaks next, it has a distinct air of distaste in its voice. “Also, can you do something about the gray fuzzy stuff in the Tupperware container, please? It’s really grossing me out.”

I ignore its second request and address its first. “I’ll figure it out,” I say. The phone rings.

“Phone, who’s calling?”

The phone answers from my desk. “It’s your mother. As couch said, you haven’t spoken to her since…”

“Yes, I know,” I interrupt the phone. “Just take a message, OK?”

“She knows you’re home!” yells the toaster from the kitchen. “She’ll know you’re not picking up the phone deliberately!”

I sigh and put on my headset, prepared to let the phone answer the call. “How does she know I’m home?” I ask the toaster.

The toaster sounds sheepish. “Well, you know…I sometimes chat with her toaster, when there’s nothing else to do. Not often, we just…you know…talk about stuff, and I happened to mention that you were home, and…”

I sigh. Serves me right for buying bargain-quality appliances.

The author may be reachedd at [email protected].

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