It’s Alive, It’s Alive!

Your home, that is. It soon may be, anyway.

Earlier this week at the Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple introduced HomeKit, an iOS 8 application that will integrate the various devices and apps which together transform an ordinary home into a “smart home.”

The “smart home,” like the flying car, has long been a much anticipated component of “the future.” The Jetsons had one, and, more recently, the Iron Man films turned Tony Stark’s butler, Edwin Jarvis, into JARVIS, an AI system that powers Stark’s very smart home. Note, in passing, the subtle tale of technological unemployment.

But the “smart home” is a more plausible element of our future than the flying car. Already in 1990, the Unity System offered a rather rudimentary iteration. And, as early as 1999, in the pages of Newsweek, Steven Levy was announcing the immanent arrival of what is now commonly referred to as the Internet of Things, the apotheosis of which would be the “smart home.” Levy didn’t call it the “smart home,” although he did refer to the “smart toilet,” but a “smart home” is what he was describing:

“Your home, for instance, will probably have one or more items directly hot-wired to the Internet: a set-top television box, a game console, a server sitting in the basement, maybe even a traditional PC. These would be the jumping-off points for a tiny radio-frequency net that broadcasts throughout the house. That way the Internet would be, literally, in the air. Stuff inside the house would inhale the relevant bits. Your automatic coffee maker will have access to your online schedule, so if you’re out of town it’ll withhold the brew. Your alarm clock might ring later than usual if it logs on to find out that you don’t have to get the kids ready for school–snow day! And that Internet dishwasher? No, it won’t be bidding on flatware at eBay auctions. Like virtually every other major appliance in your home, its Internet connection will be used to contact the manufacturer if something goes wrong.”

Envisioning this “galaxy” of digitally networked things, Levy already hints at the challenge of getting everything to work together in efficient and seamless fashion. That’s exactly were Apple is hoping to step in with HomeKit. At WDC, Apple’s VP humbly suggested that his company could “bring some rationality to this space.” Of course, as Megan Garber puts it, “You could see it as Apple’s attempt to turn the physical world into a kind of App Store: yet another platform. Another area whose gates Apple keeps.”

When news broke about HomeKit, I was reminded of an interview the philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann gave several years ago. It was that interview, in fact, that led me to the piece by Levy. Borgmann was less than impressed with the breathless anticipation of the “smart home.”

“In the perfectly smart home,” Borgmann quipped, “you don’t do anything.”

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Geoffrey Fowler, gave one example of what Apple projected HomeKit could do:  “Users would be able to tell their Siri virtual assistant that they are ‘going to bed’ and their phone would dim the lights, lock your doors and set the thermostat, among other tasks.”

There’s apparently something alluring and enchanting about such a scenario. I’m going to casually suggest that the allure might be conceived as arising from a latent desire to re-enchant the world. The advent of modernity disenchanted the pre-modern world according to a widely accepted socio-historical account of the modern world. Gone were the spirits and spiritual forces at work in the world. Gone were the angles and witches and fairies. Gone was the mysticism that inspired both fear and wonder. All that remained was the sterile world of lifeless matter … and human beings alone in a vast universe that took no notice of them.

Technologies that make the environment responsive to our commands and our presence, tools that would be, presumably, alert to our desires and needs, even those we’ve not yet become aware of–such technologies promise to re-enchant the world, to make us feel less alone perhaps. They are the environmental equivalent of the robots that promise to become our emotional partners.

Borgmann, however, is probably right about technologies of this sort, “After a week you don’t notice them anymore. They mold into the inconspicuous normalcy of the background we now take for granted. These are not things that sustain us.”

Christopher Mims landed even nearer to the mark when he recently tweeted, “Just think how revolutionary the light switch would seem if until now we’d all been forced to control our homes through smartphones.”

Finally, in his WSJ story, Fowler wrote, “[Apple] is hoping it can become a hub of connected devices that, on their own, don’t do a very good job of helping you control a home.”

That last phrase is arresting. Existing products don’t do a very good job of helping you control your home. Interestingly though, I’ve never really thought of my home as something I needed to control. The language of control suggests that a “smart home” is an active technological system that requires maintenance and regulation. It’s a house come alive. Of course, it’s worth remembering that the pursuit of control is always paired with varying degrees of anxiety.

Love, Beauty, and Design: What Steve Jobs Understood

It’s been nearly a week without a post and that largely due to some unexpected travel occasioned by less than happy circumstances. And now that I sit down to write again, it is under the shadow of more sad circumstances. It would be hard to have missed the news of Steve Jobs’ death last night. It poured in from every conceivable medium. I got it first from a friend’s Facebook status, and then from nearly every Facebook status and countless tweets and retweets. This morning my Google Reader was dominated by stories, articles, essays, and posts about Jobs and his legacy.

In one of those articles, Steven Levy’s reflections on Jobs’ life for Wired, I came across this intriguing passage that carried a great deal of wisdom:

Jobs usually had little interest in public self-analysis, but every so often he’d drop a clue to what made him tick. Once he recalled for me some of the long summers of his youth. I’m a big believer in boredom,” he told me. Boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity, he explained, and “out of curiosity comes everything.” The man who popularized personal computers and smartphones — machines that would draw our attention like a flame attracts gnats — worried about the future of boredom. “All the [technology] stuff is wonderful, but having nothing to do can be wonderful, too.”

I’m certain that you will come across countless other lines from Jobs in the coming days; many, I’m sure, will be taken from his now legendary 2005 commencement address at Stanford.

I have come rather late into the Apple fold, I’m typing this on my first Apple computer which was purchased just two months ago. But for longer than that I’ve been fascinated by the cult that has grown around Apple products over the last decade or so (perhaps longer, I’m not certain how to judge the years between Jobs’ two stints with the company in this regard). It is an uncanny phenomenon that has been noted and commented on many times. In recent months news outlets have run reports on studies that link the regard users have for Apple products with the same parts of the brain that have been related to religious experiences and to feelings of love.

It seems reasonably clear that Apple has tapped into something deeper than mere satisfaction with a consumer product. It also seems reasonably clear that the reactions to Steve Jobs’ untimely passing are at least in part wrapped up with the attachment users feel to the products he made possible. At least one Facebook status I read noted how odd it was to feel sadness for the passing of a man one had never met. This is not, of course, a previously unheard of phenomenon; from time to time the death of some public figure generates this sense of sadness and loss.

But it is not exactly common either. Numerous public figures die each year and most occasion little more than a mention and a sigh. Then there are those individuals whose passing generates grief and sorrow that ripples out far beyond the circle of family and friends who had known the person firsthand. Examples are not hard to come by: Abraham Lincoln, John Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson. I’m sure the list can be populated with other examples easily enough. The lives of all of these were ended prematurely and tragically, and they all managed to form emotional ties, each in their own way, with those who mourned their passing.

Now we may safely add Steve Jobs to this list and this raises some interesting questions. How does he fit in with this group and the others who may be added to their number? What was the source of the emotional bond? Whatever we might think of his genius, his vision, his determination — none of these seem to me to account for the emotional bond. The bond, it would seem, was not with the person of Steve Jobs in the same way that it was with the other individuals whose deaths spurred widespread and heartfelt public mourning.

The emotional bond, rather, is with the objects Steve Jobs envisioned and produced. The bond has been transferred to the man as the embodiment of our love affair with the products. It would not take long to confirm this anecdotally on Twitter. At both the announcement of his resignation in August and now his death, my Twitter feed was populated by mentions of how the products Jobs produced changed lives along with notes about how the very message of appreciation was made possible by an Apple product. This itself is an important index of our age.

And if we were to inquire further, we might note that the genius of his products lay finally in design. Jobs stands apart from both great inventors of the past and great corporate figures of the past. He was some blend of the two, to be sure, but added to the alchemy was a dash of the artist as well.

Apple’s success lay not only in its innovation, but also in its aesthetic. The heart is not so pragmatic that it loves what merely works. It loves beauty, and Jobs seems to have known that the consumer would flock to beautifully designed products. The beauty, of course, is of a certain character — minimalist, functional, clean — but it is a recognizable and appealing aesthetic.

It did not hurt either that Jobs moved Apple products into a symbiotic relationship with other objects of love, music and personal relationships. Music is itself a transcendent source of beauty and love. We love our music, and Jobs tapped that love when he made the iPod. Our love also flows naturally to our family and friends, and with the iPhone Jobs created a product that effortlessly mediated those relationships along with our music. Add to this the manner in which the “Touch” revolution Apple products initiated appropriated the visceral and embodied nature of our loves and affections and you begin to understand Jobs’ genius.

He seemed to have understood this above all else: the consumer was not the rational optimizer of classical economic theory. The consumer, who after all was a human being, was a lover and the lover loves the beautiful.