Letter of Recommendation: Dumb Robot Vacuums

Letter of Recommendation: Dumb Robot Vacuums

My phone is a honey pot for Emirati hackers, my laptop is a 24/7 advertising consultant, and my TV remote has microphones that would’ve made the Stasi blush. But just above the tracking-induced grinding of my teeth, I can hear a pleasant sound at home: the reassuring droning and clunking sound of a robot butler, smart enough to make my floors slightly cleaner but far too stupid to do anything else. This bumbling gadget obeys me and me alone. If I press its single button, it dies, while another press resumes the slow, Sisyphean tidying. There is no power higher than me and my ability to press this button, no secret god or governor buried in the privacy policy I’ll never read, nothing inside it but my grime and its cheap Chinese circuits. It is quite literally the only gadget I trust.

I write about surveillance and privacy perils for a living, a consistently depressing beat with a requisite sense of quasi paranoia that I’ve started to bring home with me out of necessity. I knew I had a problem when earlier this year I spent an afternoon engaged in mortal combat with a television, hunkering down to sabotage the most expensive thing I owned. My Sony, like most TVs these days, was really engaged in two businesses. In one sense, the TV worked for my household, entertaining its inhabitants with daily streams of high-resolution trash; but quietly, it also worked for an invisible constellation of Sony’s business partners, vendors, subcontractors and any other third party who may someday line up at the behavioral data trough. Neutering my Sony required a miserable process of menu spelunking and software deletion that was about as user-friendly as the Apollo 11 lander. I realized then, drained from nothing more than tapping on a remote control, that my TV had somehow become my adversary.

Shopping for a new toaster, new speakers, a new car, a microwave or even light bulbs entails not just comparing specifications and price tags but evaluating whether the convenience or enjoyment offered by the gadget will outweigh the chance that it’s going to spy on you. The spying — in the form of location tracking, browsing history, network usage, messaging metadata and a litany of other terms that might show up in an N.S.A. PowerPoint — is quite common if you want to live in the so-called smart home of today promised over so many decades of science fiction. If you want to taste the ripest fruits of 21st-century living, you’ll have to accept them from the hand of the behavioral advertising daemon Google and Madison Avenue have been summoning together since the start of the century.

But not my guileless vacuum cleaner, which can barely conspire to get in and out of a bathroom. Mine is the Eufy RoboVac 11S+, made by a sub-brand of Anker, a company best known for its cheap charger cables. I bought mine for around 130 bucks. It works fine, but more important, it’s as dumb as the dirt it accumulates in its puny storage tank. This is no idle concern. In 2017, Colin Angle, chief executive of the company that makes the Roomba, on which my Eufy is plainly based, raised privacy klaxons when he suggested the company might share the maps its robots generate while navigating their owners’ homes. The company says it doesn’t have plans to do so, but the point remains: Robot vacuums are yet another potential vector for corporate interests to suck data out of your house, along with the dust. This is American futurism’s great betrayal: The self-operating robo-servants promised in “The Jetsons” are here, but it turns out Rosie might also be conspiring to sell you laxative teas.

Not Eufy. It stumbles around my house like a drunken child, Ping-Ponging between walls, colliding with floor detritus and cats and inevitably becoming trapped beneath a chair or tangled up in a sock. Perhaps I see some of myself in it: poorly constructed, easily confused, constantly emitting a low whining noise. But what I appreciate most about the brain-dead Eufy, which lacks any capability to connect to the internet or any other devices, is that I don’t have to distrust it. The robovac is never up to anything but the business of dust collection, loudly and inefficiently but completely automatically. It can’t talk to anyone or share anything. All it knows about me and my loved ones is that we could certainly do a better job cleaning on our own, a judgment it will take to the dump when it finally dies.

Though the Eufy doesn’t shield me from all the other sources of surveillance capitalism (perhaps in a future model?), it’s a rare example of technological power-reversal. Each time I turn it on, I luxuriate in my utter control over this appliance, helpless, powerless to resist, doomed to suck up kitty litter and dead skin cells until I grant it reprieve (or until it completely jams itself on an errant cord). It has no way to phone home to the cloud, no way to beg Mark Zuckerberg for relief. With the dumbvac, the masochism of my ongoing relationships with tech gives way to the thrill of domination. Here, even for a few minutes, the future we were promised is attainable without the paranoid afterglow. Someday a tribunal of Eufy’s robotic peers may judge me severely for condemning their little friend to a life of drudgery. I will not object — at least I got even while I still could.

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