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
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
The channels change rapidly to an educational
documentary program about ancient methods of Bulgarian bricklaying.
“This is fascinating,” suggests the TV.
“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
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
“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
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
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
The author may be reachedd at email@example.com.