One of my favorite poems is Philip Larkin’s “Church Going.”
It begins, “Once I am sure there’s nothing going on, / I step inside, letting the door thud shut.”
This is the way I sometimes return to my home, letting the door thud shut on the world. It’s especially the case when I return from a talk where the speaker has wowed us with the latest in connectivity, machine learning, AI, smart homes, smart cars, smart toilets.
Smart toilets. Honest. There was a smart toilet (costing maybe five times a regular one) on display at my local hardware store. Sadly for its marketers, no one seemed in the least bit interested, and (fortunately for passers-by) no one was trying it out. (There’s an old Gahan Wilson cartoon, captioned, “I’m sorry, Madam, but these units are for display purposes only.” I’ll let you google that one.)
Google. This brings me to my basement studio. And verbs named after companies named after numbers. Even really big ones.
I often let the door thud shut when I retreat to my studio, there to engage our modern metaphorical Oz, the Internet, readily poked by one of its top information lackeys, Google.
It’s easy to mess with Oz. I sometimes go searching for stuff I wouldn’t buy in a million years, just so Oz can mindlessly shovel what it thinks are my preferences back in my face. This shoving regularly happens when I’m trying to catch up on the electronically-presented news. You won’t be as distracted by pop-up ads if they’re for things you don’t want.
Poking Oz has a practical use, by the way. You don’t want your embarrassing searches to appear when you’re trying to show your significant other your latest Oz discovery. (Well, maybe you do, if your relationship consists largely of picking fights.)
Incidentally, those pop-up choices sometimes come from a place called Amazon, which is supposed to be a jungle until we decided it was better to call it a rain forest and then burn it down. (Or is it burn it up? Oz would know. Oz knows everything.)
Back to the studio.
I don’t live in a big house. I don’t live in a smart house, either. That would require wiring it every which way to Oz (okay, wireless – work with me, here), something I’m not prepared to do, now or likely ever.
Nope. I live in a stupid house.
My humble castle is called a quad, which is an architect’s term for That Which Cannot Be Expanded In Any Direction. You buy a quad, that’s the space you get. Period. It’s basically a tri-level with a basement, along with a bunch of half-flights of stairs going every which way. In a quad, you’re never on one level long enough to get tired of it. And you can’t expand it without bumping into a wall or stairs or moving a heck of a lot of earth out of the way.
When I’m at my computer in my studio, I’m facing my stupid gas furnace, which is about four feet away behind a finished wall. To my left, behind another wall, is my stupid washing machine and my stupid dryer.
My stupid furnace is connected via a wire leading upstairs to my stupid thermostat that perches on a wall in my cozy living room (above my head as I sit in my studio), where I have a stupid Boston grand piano. The thermostat shares a wall with my stupid refrigerator, which is across my tiny kitchen from my stupid electric stove and stupid oven. On the kitchen counter is my stupid coffee maker. In the odd moment where I might want to toast some bread, I can pull out my stupid toaster from the cabinet. (The first slightly-smart toasters could be programmed to play Doom. Google that, too.)
Then, if I so desire, I can listen to (horror!) AM or FM on my stupid kitchen radio, play symphonies on my stupid tabletop stereo system, or go into the family room and watch something likely stupid on my stupid television.
I could also do an unusual activity down there, called Reading a Book, which involves Turning Its Pages. I do this by the light of a lamp that is connected to a dial timer which, while not completely stupid, has an intelligence just below that of bacteria.
Or I could just go outside and be entertained by nature — that is, right up until I have to haul out my stupid show shovel in the winter or my stupid lawn mower in the warmer weather.
There are birds out there, shoveling safflower seeds into their beaks from my stupid birdfeeders. And squirrels that enjoy leaping onto my stupid suet feeder.
The point of all this stupidity is simple. I live – perhaps even thrive -- in a house where the most intelligent denizens by far are the humans occupying it. (The bugs, mice and other coexisting vermin are also intelligent – and frequently smarter than the humans they pester.)
I like stupid.
I suppose this makes me TC, or Technologically Curmudgeonish. I really don’t care. I don’t need lights that realize I’ve come into a room, refrigerators to let me know I’m fat or out of milk, stoves to ask Oz how to burn a roast, TV’s and assorted smart watchmutts listening in, and a thermostat smarter than my neighbor’s kid.
I don’t. I suspect a lot of other people don’t, too.
I was at an audit conference where the presenter told a story about going to buy a washing machine. She had been pretty excited about the shiny object she was thinking of getting — right up until the sales person (probably a third her age) extolled the virtues of this thing being able to connect with Oz. “Why would I want it to do that?” this lady asked, and the salesguy said, “Well, if you’re out shopping, it would tell you your wash is done!” Puzzled, the lady said, “But I’m not going to go home just because my wash is done!”
I suppose smart, being the opposite of stupid, is supposed to be desirable, in the way that an Oz-connected washing machine is somehow a brilliant thing. That seems like misplaced smart to me. It’s kind of like the astrophysicist taking out the garbage the night before trash day — she can calculate down to a nano-something the trajectory of the cans, the parallax behind the starlight reflecting on them, and her curbside re-entry velocity, but what’s the point?
I think a lot of what passes for smart stuff is just so much tinkering at our edges. All this push for innovation creates a proliferation of what one business manager I know referred to as science projects — great insights, but impractical at the end of the day.
I’ve got some advice for aspiring innovators. Think first. Save your tinkering for the stuff you work on in your garage, and show that stuff off to a few of your friends. Stop inflicting it on the mass market. Or if you simply must, make sure it’s something that belongs there and not on the classroom shelf, where it contributed to learning but was after all only a thrilling stopover on the way to something else.
There are those who would disagree, of course. Those who would defend all the new conveniences smart devices bring us: clothes that tell us how to match slacks and shirts or what looks good on us; or glasses that check our eyes for vision defects; or refrigerators that monitor our health; or food that buys and cooks itself. I get it.
It’s just that some of us might want to maintain our sense of bodily independence, flawed though it may be, or our sense of meaningful activity, feeble though that might be, or our sense of personal privacy, fragile though that might be.
A lot of the stupidity in my house (aside from my spouse’s reference to my extensive personal stash) makes me do just a little thinking for myself. I have to remember that I’m running low on laundry soap, and how to sort whites and darks, and which fabrics do well on what wash setting; or remember when I bought that batch of asparagus or ground beef and therefore when to cook it before it spoils; or how to improvise in the kitchen when the ingredients fall short of what I thought I was going to make.
In short, I have to think about how I’m living.
There’s an argument that smart devices will eliminate hassles from daily life and thus release folks to devote their scarce time and stressed brains to the important stuff. I suppose so. I’m not really advocating that we take our clothes down to the nearest stream and beat them with clubs to clean them. There’s probably an ordinance against that, anyway. Along with the one that doesn’t let you keep a goat in your basement.
Besides, it seems to me that any extra time we generate through technological progress is absorbed by new developments, new anxieties, today’s fake news and Oz-inspired (or Ozymandian) misinformation, fueling this week’s desperation.
The millrace churns despite the conveniences.
And there’s this: All too soon I’ll reach an age where likely there’ll be a whole lot of things I won’t be able to do anymore, requiring people or devices to do them for me. I dread that, and so I use my stupid exercise bike and my stupid weights and take my stupid walks to ward off that eventual day when all who surround me, watchmutts and people, will be smarter than I am, perhaps smarter than ever I once was. When everyone and everything will be helping me, because I can no longer choose to help myself.
All too soon.
So I’ll keep my stupid house and its stupid things. I’ll troubleshoot my elderly washing machine and dryer, repair my stove, maintain my furnace and water heater, vacuum my house and cut my grass. And take walks. And think.
And I’ll recall Larkin’s “Church Going” lines, true for any house or home, refuge and retreat from our noisy world:
“A serious house on serious earth it is, / In whose blent air all our compulsions meet, / Are recognised, and robed as destinies.”
Larkin of course referred to a church. But so it also is with our homes. Stupid or smart, they are serious places, where our dreams coalesce or shatter, and our lives go on.
That said, I do wish I could stop the birds from pooping in my stupid birdbath.
This comes under the category of “I’ve done the work for you.”
Church Going Analysis - https://www.shmoop.com/study-guides/poetry/church-going/summary
Church Going Poem + Summary Analysis - https://owlcation.com/humanities/Analysis-of-Poem-Church-Going-by-Philip-Larkin
“Display purposes only” - https://www.cartooncollections.com/cartoon?searchID=PB400192
“Doom toaster” video - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vI7tWd7B3iI (This will make you dizzy, because this really thrilling guy seemed to have the camera taped to his forehead for some of it. The best part is when he types “toast remap.” Trust me. Just before the thrilling “three toaster finale” that includes a four-banger. You’ll see.)
Ozymandian – I don’t know if it’s a word, but it should be – definition = “of or pertaining to Ozymandias, specifically, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s famous sonnet of the same name.”
Reference = https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Ozymandias_(Shelley)