Every morning for the past few weeks, I have woken up sweating. I’ve woken up sweating because the heater next to my bed has been on for about an hour, turning the room into a kind of DIY hot-yoga studio.
The reason I have carried on waking up sweating is that I am too scared to go near and upset the balance of our app-controlled heating system, which is more sensitive than the proverbial snowflake. I can’t work out how to change it without plunging the whole flat into microclimatic chaos. What if I somehow offend the app? What if the app turns against us?
At first we loved the app. We felt so powerful. “THIS IS THE FUTURE,” we squealed all winter, whacking the thermostat up from the comfort of the bar. But now, months later, the app has the power and I have to sleep with one leg out of the duvet. “This is the future,” we whimper, chugging water as soon as the alarm goes off. “This is how we must live now.”
You live like this as well, right? You have a fitness tracker under the bed, banished, because you can’t get it to sync with your other devices. A smoke alarm that lives in the freezer because it won’t stop bleeping. You’ve had meetings on the floor of a work corridor because nobody can unlock the flashy ‘agile’ meeting room. You’ve held up a queue at a ticket barrier because you’re determined to pay with your Apple Watch. Right? Right.
‘Why don’t you just call the helpline?’, an alien or an idiot might ask. But the helpline is automated too, and our account number is in an old inbox we’re now locked out of. I don’t want to sound melodramatic, but...is this how the apocalypse starts?
It feels as though we’re cruising down a slippery slope, from tech savvy to tech reliant to something wholly more ridiculous—tech submissive. Where once devices were our faithful servants, now we fail them with our stupid humanity. The student has become the master. Us, digital natives, have become foreigners in our own land, pawing at our screens with the dexterity of a drunk Homer Simpson.
I used to laugh at my parents for not knowing how to use the VHS; now on every trip home I spend hours punching in wrong passwords for Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, swearing at the tiny remote buttons while mum looks bemused. Back in the ’90s, voice-activated home tech was a futuristic sitcom punchline; fast forward two decades and we’re sitting politely in darkness while our friend tries to get their smart lighting to work. ‘ON!—never mind, I’ll just—ON!!—fetch a lamp and—I. SAID. ONNN!—maybe some candles, really sorry about thi…ON YOU F*CKING PIECE OF SH…ah, there we go! See, so convenient!’
We go on holiday to ‘switch off’, then spend the whole time plugged into Google Maps. Meanwhile back home, meal-planning has gone down the plughole because good food is just a fingerprint-payment away. Where once a takeaway was an indulgence that had to be justified with excuses—a bad day, a grisly hangover—now the food apps can nourish us better than
we can ourselves. I mean we can Zomato or Swiggy a salad bowl, for God’s sake!
Of course, anxiety around smart technology is nothing new. It’s been rumbling on since the industrial revolution, when everyone worried their lives would be run by a sentient combine harvester. But only recently has it started to feel as though our devices might be laughing at us.
We’ve all heard legends of women who didn’t know they were pregnant until their browsers noticed they’d missed a period and started serving them baby ads, and we all have our own creepy tale of Instagram catering to our needs better than any friend or lover. My personal favourite is the story of the time I ate a free doughnut and had that exact doughnut advertised back to me on Facebook an hour later. I now tell this story at parties the way people used to tell ghost stories with a torch under their chin. “Then I checked the microphone setting on my phone...it had been off the whole time!”, I whisper, and everyone screams.
But the truth is, like a lot of millennials, I’ve been torn between feeling terrified by the way the Internet knows exactly what I’m doing, saying and thinking at all times, and actually kind of loving the convenience. I love that I can type ‘fkjjllarvnnahh’ into Google and it knows I’m trying to remember Fjällräven Kånken backpacks. I don’t have to remember the website I saw that nice dress on yesterday because, look, there it is in all my feeds! So handy...like having a butler for your brain!
Last year, Gmail even introduced a reminder feature, nudging us to reply to overdue e-mails the way your parents once nagged you to send thank-you letters. (‘No!’ is the correct response. ‘YOU ARE NOT MY REAL MOM’.) And Smart Reply suggests words we might want to use. ‘Sure, sounds great!’, ‘Cool, thanks!’ We all laughed at first, but you know you’ve been tempted.
The scariest thing, however, isn’t the fear that we will one day hit ‘Sure, sounds great!’ in response to an e-mail about someone’s recent bereavement. It’s the way digital laziness has begun to infect our minds offline, too.
You know, when you get trapped in a conversation at a party, and part of your brain is itching to hit ‘watch later’ and walk away. When you try to ‘zoom in’ on a magazine page. And I swear it takes me longer and longer to finish a sentence these days because I’m waiting for predictive text to fill the gap. It’s not just ageing. It’s the robots.
So what’s the solution? We could wean ourselves off digital convenience. I guess. We could take a long, hard look at all the ways in which smart technology might be making our lives more complicated and less satisfying, and us slower and stupider in the process. We could throw all our devices on a bonfire and go back to whittling wooden pipes for entertainment.
Or, here’s a better plan, we could try to evolve faster, and become smarter than the robots again! ‘How?’ you ask. I don’t know. But there must be an app for that.
Behind the scenes
“In case I needed more fuel for my paranoia: the day after I pressed ‘send’ on this article, having whinged about our fancy thermostat keeping me too warm, the app decided to completely malfunction and now the entire flat is freezing cold. Coincidence? Surely not. App, if you can hear this, all is forgiven!”
ARE YOU BECOMING A DIGITAL DUNCE?
How to know if your devices are smarter than you…
1. How do you wake up in the morning?
A. Gently and naturally, via the sun streaming through my window.
B. Calmly and artificially, via my cool sunlight alarm clock.
C. Late and yelling, with my phone stuck to my cheek with drool from multiple snoozes.
D. Literally already scrolling.
2. Your music taste is...
A. An eclectic mix of rare vintage vinyl and underground ’90s dance remixes.
B. A playlist specially tailored to my tastes, mood, zodiac sign, and blood type.
C. The Lemonade soundtrack. I ran out of phone storage and accidentally deleted everything else.
D. ‘Alexa, play music’.
3. Your favourite shop is...
A. This gorgeous little vintage store I stumbled on one Sunday afternoon and have never been able to find again.
B. Whichever online indie boutique has the best discount code this week.
C. The online delivery guy knows more about my life than my parents do.
4. Your fitness tracker is...
A. The tingle in my muscles and the glow in my cheeks!
B. Never off my wrist, except when I am changing the strap to match my outfit.
C. Buzzing every 12 minutes because it thinks I’m climbing Mt Everest and I don’t want to disappoint it.
D. Somehow able to turn my microwave on.
5. How are you getting to the party?
A. Phoning the host and making them direct me the whole way, with helpful pointers such as ‘I’m near a tree’.
B. Google Maps always help find the most efficient route.
C. By looking up my mates on Find My Friends and walking towards the flashing dots.
D. Uber, obviously.
Mostly As: You’re a techless wonder!
You’re a rare, precious species. You read actual newspapers, buy physical music, and insist on texts (which you don’t reply to). Your friends despair, but they keep you around as a souvenir of a gentler time. Like a lava lamp.
Mostly Bs: You’re appy and you know it
Congratulations! You’re still smarter than your devices. The only cookies you ever accept are chocolate chip, and you actually understand what the ‘cloud’ is. Come Armageddon, we’ll need you to communicate with the robots for us, please.
Mostly Cs: You’re tech-dependent
You and your devices are intertwined, like a flower that has somehow grown through a tree. But hope isn’t lost! With a little work and a lot of reading instruction manuals, there is no reason you couldn’t regain control of your tech. Except for, y’know, laziness.
Mostly Ds: You’ve been outsmarted
Bad news—your tech is cleverer than you are. Worse news—it knew that before you did. The only thing left for you to do now is to learn the ways of the droids and hope they accept you as one of their own. Good luck!