Blog Archives

When Smart Homes Attack

Editor’s note: The following is a recreation of actual events that happened on January 16, 2018 in Austin, TX. No one was harmed as a result of the events, save for some emotional scarring.

This past weekend, I decided to install a new wireless router. While this seems like a fairly mundane task of the 21st century family, what follows is an actual account of the events that transpired as a result of this.

First, some back story.

The last time I changed our home wireless router was 2012. I remember it well. It was a much more peaceful time then. Wireless connectivity was really only needed for my laptop and phone on occasion to save on data. We frolicked in the fields, played video games and watched cable television.

As what happened next will prove, present times are not so innocent and simple.

10:06AM – I started the morning by unplugging my gerbil-wheel-powered first-gen Netgear router that I bought at Radio Shack.

10:07AM – I began to look through the manual for my new, fancier, ultra-strong bandwidth system that’s all but guaranteed to make your skin tingle when you walk by it (It’s called something like the RoBoWiFi 3000 or the like).

10:19AM – A cold chill began to fill our home as I fumbled through the various cables and plugs under my desk.

10:22AM – The chattering teeth of my family alerted me to a major problem. You see, we use a Nest thermostat to control our house temperature. Without wifi, it had gone off-line and in “away” mode thus shutting off our heater during the coldest day in Austin since 1884. Suddenly, I knew the pressure was one to get this new router set up.

10:27AM – I went to turn on the lamp near my desk to get some better light and nothing happened. Last year, I had installed a Twist speaker bulb that was controlled by my phone through our wireless. It turns out I didn’t set it into an off-line mode, essentially, making the bulb useless.

10:31AM – I hear a tremendous shriek from our living room. We had cut cable a couple of months ago, which has been great, but also meant that any type of TV watching experience was now reliant on a combination of Chromecast, FireStick, AppleTV and aluminum foil antenna.  My kids plans for snow-day of watching every episode of “Dragon’s Edge” was now interrupted.

10:33AM – Shortly after scrambling for something to distract them under their heavy blankets, I mindlessly hand them their iPad. One problem, their favorite Animal Jam app required network access. This was getting serious.

10:35AM – “Alexa, add firewood to the shopping list.”

10:35:08 AM – Alexa’s response, “Sorry, I can’t connect to the network right now and are therefor a useless black monolith sitting on your kitchen counter.”

10:37AM (or so I thought) – I checked my watch to see how long we had been without Wifi.  As chilly breath became visible out of my mouth, I realized my Smart watch no longer had connectivity.

The world was ending in the Hooker household in little less than an hour.

I saw my life flashing before my eyes but realized it was only the flashing amber light of the new router attempting to connect. Years later, when they become adults, I imagine my kids will be telling their families how hard life was for them. They’ll tell them about the time their father nearly killed them when he pulled the wifi during a snow storm. The struggle was real.

Back to reality.

10:55AM – I got the wifi back online and quickly connected all our mobile devices, laptops, Nest, security systems, Alexa, light bulbs and even our Crockpot. (Yes, our Crockpot has wifi, don’t judge!)  The whole scene played out like that scene in Jurassic Park where Samuel Jackson was frantically trying to get systems back online. (see side bar)

Reflection

This whole experience made me reflect at how quickly we have slow-boiled ourselves into a world where we rely on constant connection. My family owns a  lake cabin and have recently been debating whether or not to put wireless access there. Currently it’s equipped with all the essentials of life: An Atari, board games, a campfire, and woods. Life seems different there.

Not better or worse…just different.

Today I came across a short story by Ray Bradbury called The Veldt.  He wrote this story in 1950 and essentially outlines a future world where our homes are uber-automated with virtual walls, virtual smells and experiences that feed off of our thoughts. Our bathtubs bathe us, our toothbrushes work automatically, and we don’t have to life a finger to fold laundry. (cue the Laundry-folding robot from last week’s CES event). I won’t give away the ending, but let’s just say, life takes an unexpected turn for this family. (here’s the cheesy 80’s video version for those of you non-readers)

In a curious turn of events, I remembered one of my favorite Deadmau5 songs is called “The Veldt” and discovered the video is essentially a shout out to this Ray Bradbury short story. After you read the story, watch the video below.

I would love you to leave your comments below and hear your thoughts on what this all means for us as parents, as humans, and as a society.  I don’t see this future getting any slower for us, but I think an awareness of the pros and cons of automaticity should happen as we connect more appliances to our homes.

Hold on to your butts!

 

 

Digital Zombie Series: “Notifistraction” Disease

Original Image here: http://goo.gl/XNgMhR

Original Image here: http://goo.gl/XNgMhR

Since the beginning of time, man has always had an innate sense of alertness.  In our primitive self, that alertness was used to make us aware of dangers around us.  Imagine it – you are hunting and gathering food when all the sudden, you happen upon a pond with fresh water.  You bend over to quench your thirst or possibly fill a jug with water for your family, when all of the sudden you hear a twig…

SNAP!!

You turn and look for what blood-crazed beast might be approaching you.  It turns out to be a smaller creature…like a squirrel (Look! Squirrel!).  Following  your expience with the varmint, you travel cautiously back to your cave having survived certain death.  When you arrive home to your wife and kids you discover that you left your jug full of water behind.  “What were you thinking?” she might ask (although back then it might be more like a series of grunts).  Your response would be simply “Ah dunno” (which in modern times still sounds like a series of grunts).

The truth is, you were distracted.  Your brain refocused attention and energy toward survival and alertness.  In that moment, you forgot the water jug and simply returned home.  To set this more in modern times, have you ever gone into a room to look for something and then something else caught your eye or someone asked you a question at which point you forget why you are in the room? You might even travel back into the original room to sort of mentally “retrace” your steps and try and figure out why you were going into a certain room.

I know I’ve probably paid hundreds of dollars in wasted electricity staring into the refrigerator pondering why I went there in the first place.  By our very nature, we are victims of distraction.  Distraction causes our brain to alter their original course of action whenever a new stimulus is produced.  Some of us have become quite acute at managing this and claim to be multitaskers (a theory that is seemingly debunked weekly).  Others have figured out ways to block out distraction when working on a task.

Enter the era of smartphones and notification alerts.  All the sudden, something as small and innocent as a beep or tweet causes us to lose focus on our task at hand.  I’m calling this “Notifistraction” (No-tis-fah-strac-shun) Disease, or the mash up of notifications and the distraction they cause.  Despite our best efforts to focus our brains still revert back to the stone age twig-snapping event whenever our devices alert us about something.

And that’s only part of it.  A local cyber-psychologist  here in Austin, Dr. Mike Brooks, says that we are becoming addicted to our alert notifications.  He states that we get small endorphin rushes to our brain whenever we get an alert notifying us that someone has connected with us.  This can be either mentioning us in a tweet, tagging us in a photo, or commenting on our YouTube video for example.  That connection creates endorphins which is subconsciously associated to the sound or sight of a notification alert.

Think of this rat in B.F. Skinner’s famous rat experiment on Operant Conditioning as a simple example of this conditioning.

A more modern example might be the feeling one gets when walking through a casino and listening to the slot machine make all sorts of bells and whistles to claim we have won something.  That same primitive level of satisfaction combined with our inability to control perfect focus when distracted make Notifistraction Disease another sign that the Digital Zombie Apocalypse is upon us.

Like everything else I’ve written in this series, I have had some level of personal challenges to overcome when it comes to notifistractions.  Recently, I was honored to receive a new Pebble watch as a going away present from my TEC-SIG presidency. Just like any new gizmo, I love the watch.  I can see my running times on it, can bring up the weather, and can even be notified when my washing machine is done with my clothes.  It uses the smartphone as sort of a “main frame” and just relays alerts to the watch.  Now I have notifistractions literally tethered to my body!

Now, as with Digital Yawns, the good news is there are some homeopathic cures out there for those of us suffering from Notifistraction Disease.  Here are some tools I’ve deployed personally to help me get through a project or just simply enjoy time with my kids and family without my attention being drawn else where. It’s already come in handy when we went on a recent family trip and I noticed that the airport had mis-tagged our car seats which would have sent them to a totally different city.  If my nose had been buried in my phone, I wouldn’t have caught that slip-up.

1. Turn Off Notification Alerts –

I have turned off all audio alerts except for text messages and phone calls.  While this might not seem like much of a sacrifice, at one point I was getting Foursquare alerts about how good of mileage Greg Garner made on a recent run.  Do I really need to know that? (he’s fast by the way)  My next step is turning off that little alert icon that appears on my apps as I don’t need to see the 999 unread email messages I might have.

2. Don’t Respond to Everything Right Away – 

I try not to respond or read alerts or social media while sitting in the car.  Notice I didn’t say “while driving”.  This is still a bit of a challenge, because, just like the Skinner rat, I sometimes want to know what someone is sending me.  Of course, with the new watch, I can see the alert on my wrist and just choose not to respond, but that’s still a distraction.

3. Employ the “Pomodoro Technique” –

The Pomodoro Kitchen timer

The Pomodoro Kitchen timer

When working on a project, I employ the “Pomodoro Technique“.  I have to give props to Lisa Johnson for sending this my way, but it’s a simple technique used to maintain focus throughout a project.  Here’s how it works.  You write down a goal or project that you need to work on.  Then you basically turn off all notifications, shut down email, turn off your phone, etc for a period of 25 minutes.  When the 25 minutes is up, you can take a break for 5 minutes to check email, social media, your clothes in the washing machine, etc but then you have to get back to work on the task for another 25 minute period.  I even employed this technique while writing this post!

Let’s face it, we’ve been distracted creatures for thousands of years, but it’s time we started managing those distractions and not letting them rule our lives. Do we really need to know when our washing machine is done?  The next time you suffer from Notifistraction Disease, ask yourself, is it really important that I get this alert on my phone?  You might find yourself being distracted by more pleasant things like nature and birds and…..squirrels!

Now….what was I saying?

 Note: This post is the third installment of a 5-part series on digital zombies, re-animated, if you will, from my SXSW presentation on Surviving the Digital Zombie Apocalypse.