inessential by Brent Simmons


I don't want it

It goes by names like ubiquitous computing and wearable computing. Whatever it is, I don't want it.

I don't want a microprocessor in my underwear drawer, letting me know when it's time to buy new socks. I don't want an LCD display on the side of my toaster streaming the morning stock quotes. I don't want my refrigerator to hot-sync with my palm and update my shopping list. I don't want my TV to sense my emotions and decide for me which shows I really want to watch.

Maybe this sounds weird, coming from a geek, an early adopter type, a guy who enjoys toys and cool technology.

But there's another side to it -- when I'm not using my computers, I like to put them away. They go in the office, and I leave the office. Good-bye computers for a little while.

Yes, I do enjoy my Palm and my wireless iBook (and my fast net connection). I can go anywhere in the house or yard and be connected to the net. It's great. But the point is that these are objects, they're not embedded into anything. I can put them away.

Some people do want this stuff, they want smarts embedded everywhere. I don't. Get it away from me -- it's like a plague.

Here's an example -- about a year ago, Sheila and I bought a new TV. It's got all the latest in smarts. I expect that in a TV, I don't complain. One of the things it does is set its time automatically -- somehow it must be encoded in the cable stream, don't ask me how. But of course the time was off by about half-an-hour, and there was no manual way to set it. (For whatever reason, when Daylight Savings Time began, the TV corrected itself.)

So what we're setting ourselves up for is that -- the embedded smarts won't be that smart, and there will be nothing you can do. And the average Brent and Sheila will feel less in control of their environment, as technology designed to make life easier makes life more and more annoying.

Okay, imagine if the little brains really were smart. And imagine -- this is a huge stretch -- the designers get smart and allow for manual over-rides. I still don't want it.

Okay, picture the toaster that is really good at sensing the done-ness of the toast, and pops when the toast is perfect, every time. What happens to the poetry of real life?

Here's the poetry of real life: "Honey, sorry, I burnt the toast a little." "Oh, that's okay, here scrape it off with a knife." And then you scrape it off with a knife, watch the little black and brown crumbs collect in the sink, watch as you scrape away a charred layer and end up with an okay, though imperfect, slice of toast. You feel the slight vibrations of the knife in your hand as you scrape it across the bread. Then you run water in the sink and watch the crumbs go down the drain, except for a few stuck around the edges of the sink. And you remember, as you eat your toast, that your husband or wife or whatever is a really nice person and didn't mind when you messed up the toast a bit, since after all that's life, that's the way it goes.

And you're much happier than if a goddamn toast-computer made goddamn perfect toast.