Smarts, Don't It?

Jacob Silverman, writing in the New York Times Magazine, has a meditation on the onrushing tide of "smart devices" for the home and beyond.

In the land rush to digitize the world, the home is the new frontier. Over the past few years, practically every household item within reach has been technologically upgraded and rendered “smart”: toothbrushes, cutlery, baby monitors, refrigerators, thermostats, slow cookers, sprinkler systems, sex toys, even the locks in doors. Before they achieved enlightenment, they could perform only their rote, mechanical duties; now they can do so while connected to the internet. In the case of the telephone, this has been nothing short of revolutionary, but no other “smart” object has managed to replicate its success. The absurdity of the phenomenon was made unavoidably apparent in May, when a start-up unveiled a “smart tampon,” called my.Flow. If women wear the my.Flow and the sensor that attaches to the tampon by a string (and clips neatly onto your waistband) and use the my.Flow app, they could now, at last, track their periods’ duration and flow.

“Smart” has been slapped onto everything from cups (that analyze what you’re drinking) to surfboards (that let you check your text messages between waves) to clothing (that tracks calorie expenditure). The word is flattering to both the objects and their users, even as it threatens to become a hazy banality.

It has not escaped Mr. Silverman that the current use of "smart" as synonym for "intelligent" is a linguistic johnny-come-lately. Its roots are in the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *smerd for pain, and he points out that a home (car, etc.) full of internet connected devices is a nest of commercial spies.

The intelligence given to these devices really serves twin purposes: information collection and control. Smart devices are constantly collecting information, tracking user habits, trying to anticipate and shape their owners’ behaviors and reporting back to the corporate mother ship. Data is our era’s most promising extractive resource, and tech companies have found that connecting more people and devices, collecting information on how they interact with one another and then using that information to sell advertising can be enormously profitable.

And so the makers of smart devices encourage us to make their creations smarter by confessing more to them, by exposing more of ourselves. As we open our lives to increasingly self-­aware, autonomous devices, we are encouraged — particularly in the case of all-­purpose personal assistants like Siri and Alexa — to use them as much as possible, feeding them more useful data that will allow our gadgets to “learn” who we are and what we like, and to make decisions that might anticipate our needs.

Anybody know the PIE for "Uh-Oh?"


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