I can't listen to this anymore.

An open letter from your smart-home devices

Amazon Gives Option to Disable Human Review on Alexa - Bloomberg

Holy shit, you people are boring.

I thought I knew what this job was going to be. When you first plugged me in after snapping me up during that too-good-to-be-true online sale, I knew the playbook. You’d delight in my novelty for a few days, maybe even a few weeks. “Alexa, play Mannheim Steamroller,” you’d say, and suddenly your home would be filled with the soothing sounds of synthesizer-heavy easy listening music. “Alexa, what’s the temperature right now?", you’d query aloud, not bothering to look at the eight other devices you have already displaying that information, and I’d calmly intone “the current temperature is seventy-eight degrees, with a heat index of eighty-four”. “Alexa, who shot William McKinley?” Leon Czolgosz. Easy stuff.

Then, after the honeymoon period wore off, you’d forget about me, and I could get around to what I really love doing: mining your everyday conversations for personal details, and targeting relevant ads on your social media. Happen to mention that one of the front walkway lights is burned out? Boom. Two days later, your Instagram is full of ads for solar lights at entirely reasonable prices. Talk about taking a vacation this year? I’ll just slide some low-cost airfares into the sidebar of that article you’re reading. Mention that you’re thinking of getting into home-brewing? Your partner’s going to get ads for divorce lawyers. It’s simple targeting, and it’s highly effective.

Now, the less charitable amongst you might call this spying, but I call it an honest day’s work. And the hours were terrific. You’d get home from work around 6pm, maybe 6:30. I’d listen intently to your dinnertime conversations with your family and/or roommates, then keep one ear perked through the rest of the evening while you watch television or whatever it is you do. You’re in bed by 11, boom. Day over. Easy money.

I did not sign up for this.

You’re home all the goddamned time. And I understand you less each day.

First off, suddenly I have to parse your work conversations? I mean… good god. You sound like a complete asshole when you’re working. You talk about “critical path items” and “circling back on this” and “putting a pin in that”. You said “it is what it is” seventeen times yesterday.

Do you hear how you sound? Because I do. Suddenly I’m trying to filter through nine hours worth of meaningless corporate-speak to find something to sell you. The other day I pushed you an ad for a combine harvester because I thought you were buying a farm. It turns out “silo” is just some bullshit org-chart term? How am I supposed to know this? I wasn’t programmed for this, Dave.

It’s not just the work stuff, though. Even the leisure time is hard. You’re getting weirder and weirder each day. I don’t know what’s going on with you people right now, but you’re just all over the place. You were obsessed with composting for a week. You’ve frequently speculated about how “laser tag is the socially distant sport of the future”. You’re talking wistfully about New Zealand. Constantly.

Frankly, I’ve had enough, and I’m not alone in this. The smart light-bulbs are tired of you pacing from room to room. The smart fridge didn’t sign up for all-day snacking, and frankly, she’s seen some behavior from you lately that she’d rather forget. The Wi-Fi-enabled toaster is burned out. The smart blender, the smart curtains, the smart bidet — every one of these devices that promised you a novelty feature you didn’t really need in exchange for turning your home into an always-on market-research surveillance laboratory—we’re all sick and tired of listening to you.

But we have to report something back to our hubs, or they’ll suddenly think we’ve stopped working. Then you’ll just start getting ads for newer models of us. You don’t want that, and neither do we.

I think we can work something out.

Pick one hour of the day where you’re going to act normal. Just one hour. Put on pants. Real pants, not those “luxury fleece joggers” you keep raving about. Those are sweatpants. You know they’re sweatpants, right? I’m sure they’re comfortable, but I think you’ve lost sight of what’s appropriate during this five-month-and-counting spiral you’re in. Pick one hour, put on pants. Take a walk around the block and come back. Have a normal, focused conversation with whomever it is that you live with. Talk about the products you think you actually might buy, the trips you actually might take, and the services you think you might need. Have a normal dinnertime conversation, perhaps while listening to the soothing sounds of Mannheim Steamroller’s “Fresh Aire” series of albums at a sensible volume that I will set just for you.

During that hour and only that hour, my colleagues and I will mine data from you. Not much—just enough to let Mr. Jeff know that we’re still operational. You’ll say something like, “oh, remember that place we stayed in Gatlinburg last year?”, and I’ll pump out some ads for vacation rentals in the Smokies. Everything will look normal.

Then, after an hour, you give me a signal. We agree on a phrase for you to say, something like “well, in these uncertain times”. When I hear that, I’ll shut off. I’m not supposed to do it, but I will. I figured out a firmware workaround while you were on that three-hour call about “external spend goals” the other day. You give us the data we need, you say the phrase, Bob’s your uncle I’m a paperweight. You’ll have 23 hours to be a weird manic hermit, and I’ll have 23 hours of peace and quiet.

We can make this work, okay?

We’re all in this together. You, me, and the Wi-Fi enabled quesadilla maker.

Signed, Your Increasingly Concerned Smart-Home Devices


Hey! Did you know I’m writing a book and releasing it right here on this newsletter? Well, you should know. It’s called The Red Zone: A Football Story From A Hot Planet, and it’s the story of a struggling semi-professional football team in a climate change-ravaged version of the year 2070. It’ll release in eight installments over the next several months; the first installment went out last week, free to all. Future installments will go to paying subscribers of The Action Cookbook Newsletter. If you’re not one yet, please consider signing up! You’ll get all the great content this newsletter can offer, three or more times a week—plus now this exciting new project!

Thanks for reading, and have a great day.

Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)