Last year, I replaced almost all of the light bulbs in my apartment with smart light bulbs — the kind that you can dim or brighten remotely, from your phone or over a smart speaker. In terms of how the people who live in my apartment feel about this upgrade, I would say that reviews have been, overall, mixed. I find the smart-home technology to be a convenient and beneficial. My girlfriend regards it as something between a sadistic psychological experiment and a hellish techno-prison. The cat does not seem to have noticed.
The truth is that our “smart home” is not very smart. It’s limited to the apartment lighting, which I’ve replaced with Philips Hue bulbs. The setup was minimal and easy — you screw the bulbs in, plug in the wireless Hue bridge device, and set it up with your preferred smart-home interface. I use Apple’s HomeKit because I have an Apple HomePod smart speaker and like some of the features in the iPhone Home app. (My girlfriend, Ari, strongly dislikes some of those features, for reasons that will become clear shortly.) Set up like this, a laziness not even I knew existed has emerged, blissfully, from within me. I can set the brightness of any light in my house from my phone — and, even better, I can turn whole rooms on and off simply by saying in the vicinity of the HomePod, “Hey, Siri, turn off the living-room lights.”
I can do this, at any rate. Ari has some trouble. For her commands to be followed, the casual “Hey, Siri, turn off the living-room lights” tends to elongate into something like “Hey, Siri, turn off the living-room lights. Hey, Siri, turn off the living-room lights. Hey, Siri, turn off the living-room lights. Hey. Siri. Hey. Siri. Turn. Off. The. Living. Room. Lights.” (Sometimes, the full command ends with “Max, if you don’t fix the lights, I am going to kill you.”)
I don’t know why Siri has so much trouble understanding Ari, but I know it is not that she mumbles, or pitches her voice improperly, because when I have suggested that in the past, I have gotten in trouble. And even if it were the case that she is not adequately enunciating, well, I am sympathetic to her point that it really shouldn’t be her duty to perform better for the robot I’ve installed to listen to everything going on in our dining room. Still, Siri can understand me every time. Well, most of the time.
This dynamic does not seem to be unique in our relationship. At the risk of turning a penetrating and vital essay about my personal experience of smart-home technology into a 1990s stand-up-comic-style observation of differences with relationships, I will note that most couples that I know who have installed even minimal smart-home technology have one true believer and one skeptic, where by skeptic I mean “person being driven insane by a robot home.” (Is this dynamic generally gendered? How heteronormative and sexist of you! But, ah, yes.)
At its heart, the problem is that smart-home tech isn’t just about convenience, it’s about control. You make your life easier by giving yourself mastery of your house from a single interface. But in assuming that level of careful control of your home, there’s a decent chance that you’re taking it away from someone else — someone less well-understood by the smart speaker, say, or less fluent with the smart-home app. Light switches, as difficult and arduous a technology as they now seem to me, are well-designed to give equal control to all sufficiently tall and dexterous members of a given household. Smart speakers might not be.
And as you disconnect control of the house from the physical house itself, you actually make it worse. Originally, I’d set up my Home app to automatically turn on the lights in our apartment when I came home, based on GPS data that could tell when my iPhone was nearby. It worked like a charm — for me. One evening, out drinking with a friend at a bar around the corner from our apartment, I looked down at my phone and saw a dozen text messages from Ari. The lights in the apartment had been turning on and off seemingly at random, as though possessed. The problem, I realized, was that my phone was just close enough to our building, and the GPS just fuzzy enough, for the system to think that I was entering and leaving the apartment, and consequently turning the lights on and off, as I had asked it to. For me, this was not a big deal. For the person actually inside the apartment, it was, I’d say, frustrating.
So what can you do to not trap your partner in smart-home techno-prison hell? Well, the obvious answer is to not install smart-home stuff. But I’d say there are three basic solutions. One, don’t make anything contingent on an individual phone. Two, make sure you have physical switches and remotes that are easily accessible. And three, don’t tell your partner it’s her fault that the robot can’t understand her.