The Myth of the Digital Home

There’s a lot of talk these days about the “digital home”. Technology companies are desperate, now that the dot-com bubble is bleeding into distant memory, for their next big hit.

So they’ve got this idea in their corporate heads that we, the regular people, want the various devices in our homes to chat with each other. We want the fridge to monitor the garage door’s activity, so it can start defrosting the TV dinners in time for the news and then cue the television to turn on (and if the fridge finds itself low on Stouffer’s chicken pot pie as a result, send out a message to the grocery depot for a delivery).

Back in the day, I used to think that the digital home would be the coolest thing since frozen waffles. Now, I’m not so sure. I still kind of like the concept, but I have doubts about its feasibility.

I mean, the industry that purports to develop this new
technology-driven home environment can’t even get the remote control
right — we all still need one for each device we own (and when we lose
them they don’t offer any assistance in our frantic searches).

And these are the same people who can’t agree on the next generation of
DVD, so they’re releasing two different kinds just to confuse us. It’s
like: “Well, we experts can’t decide; which one do you guys like
better?”

The digital home might make for fun board room fantasy at corporate HQ, but the view from the sofa is different.

The last time we redecorated, for example, I had to move the surround
sound stereo system (why does the male member of the household always
get stiffed with this task by default?). It was a nightmarish
experience that lasted well over six hours. I strung cable, I tested
signals, I had to keep track of what was plugged into what where.

And I lost track. It took ages to troubleshoot and sort out the problems. It sucked. Big time.

Now, I can only imagine the additional torment I’d experience if my
stereo not only had to talk to the TV, but also the fridge, the
microwave, my computer, and the internet.
I’d probably cry like a baby at the mere mention of moving furniture.

No, before the powers that geek get too far along in their wet dreams
of frozen lasagne and internet-enabled fridges, they’d best take a few
steps back and figure out what normal folks really want.

Heck, I’ll spell it out for them here. First of all, we want
compatibility. We want everything to work with everything else,
seamlessly and without effort. We always want printers to work with
computers, no excuses. We want one remote control that works with all
our entertainment devices, never mind the brand.

Then we want devices that configure themselves. No more drivers, no
more wizards, no more of tech support’s surly remarks. If I plug device
A into device B, I want them to talk to each other, sort out their
differences without any mediation from me, and then set themselves up
to work properly.

Of course, we also want devices that fix themselves. If something goes
wrong, they must have the capability to self-assess their situation,
both internal and external, and communicate their needs to us in clear,
plain-language terms.

In short, the technology industry needs to integrate a far greater
degree of AI — artificial intelligence — into their products to
successfully launch the digital home. Unfortunately, the corporations
that will ultimately flog these wares are more interested in profits
and products that sanity and solutions.

Despite the best rhetoric of marketing departments from Silicon Valley
to Redmond, Washington, the digital home is a long way off.

We’ll be planning ahead for dinner time, manually grocery shopping, and
digging through the dust-balls under the sofa after those remotes for
the foreseeable future. And that’s okay; as long as I don’t have to
move the stereo again for a while.

First published in the Yukon News (new web site), Friday, September 30, 2005

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