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Human Factors
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Why Is My Refrigerator Ordering Milk, and Who Gave the Cat the Access Codes?
by DeAnne DeWitt

Am I the only one who read Bradbury's The Veldt or watched the movie Brazil? Is nobody else frightened that in a nation where 75% of the population has at least one appliance that constantly blinks the hour 12:00, companies want to sell consumers automatic refrigerators, Web-phone soda machines, scales that report your weight to your gym, and certain wireless accoutrements that could only be described as medically interesting but potentially illegal in many southern states?

The products are being touted as "time savers" and "efficiency tools." And while dialing up a soda machine may be faster than trying to convince said machine to take a wrinkled dollar bill, now what am I supposed to do with all these quarters? And while it may be more efficient for my appliances to send for a service technician when something starts to fail, what happens if you get the hypochondriac model with a penchant for tweaks? There's never really anything wrong, but it just doesn't feel good. Maybe it's just bored and wants to talk to the diagnostic machine. You'll never knowyou'll just get a bill for "system analysis." Support technicians will become cyber-Freudians. "Tell me about your circuit designer."

Estimates from wireless experts say that Americans will have over 205 million handheld devices within 5 years. We are heading down the slippery slope where computing is pervasive and privacy is a thing of the past. Considering the legal right for employers to demand that workers abstain from certain activities during employee free time, how long before they hand out wired GPS units to track where employees go during their own time?

Seriously, some companies have rules that state that their employees can't smoke, even during off-hours. The logic is that smokers are a greater health risk and cause insurance premiums to rise. Those rules have been upheld in courts, just like random drug tests. So, what happens when employers decide that certain neighborhoods are too high risk, insurance-wise, and enforce restrictions on where employees can go without a permit? Want to head downtown to catch an independent play in the warehouse district? Not without a corporate permission slip, you don't.

I'm also a little concerned by medical equipment, such as scales and fat calibrators that broadcast personal information to your doctor, gym or health provider. Are you prepared for hackers knowing how much you really weigh? (Oh, and all that good info like your SS# that medical info is tied to?)

As to the benefits of being able to turn on my dishwasher from the office, or my fridge emailing me when it's low on milk, or blenders that correct my cooking because it doesn't match the preprogrammed recipeI think I'll pass.

I don't see any real cost benefit to the dishwasher, as generally, if you've loaded it, you know enough to press the start button. How could the fridge know when I'm low on milk? Has it developed some psychic sense that isn't clearly detailed in the product specifications? Has the Great Kreski been sliced very thin and loaded into a rear panel? Besides, I know when I'm running low on milk. It's not really rocket science to gauge volume on a one-gallon jug. As to toasters, blenders and stoves that correct meI don't tolerate kibitzing from inanimate objects.

And don't even get me started on what happens when your wireless-managed house has to be rebooted because of some glitch. Let's just hope you're not playing with the toys banned in Tennessee.

Now, I admit, I've traded in my giant portfolio DayTimer for a Visor. I even finally got a cell phone. And while I think they are both lovely tools, I haven't broken down and activated the inherent Web readiness of either. When I travel for pleasure, I don't take a computer, I don't link to the Web, I pack a couple of books, comfortable shoes, and get local maps from the concierge. I generally don't mind if I get lost, I've found some of the greatest shops, museums and people all over the world because I ended up in a different place than intended. Sometimes discovering information is more fun that downloading it.

I put it to you that we are too wired. We've trained ourselves like Pavlovian dogs to stop whatever we're doing when we receive a page or a call. We've learned to sublimate our own desires, and instead we answer a bell.

Allowing ourselves to be connected 24/7 on the off chance that someone at your house drinks the last glass of milk is just too wired. Vendors believe that we want the world at our fingertips, all the time. Apparently, nobody considered that means the world has you at its fingertips as well.

DeAnne DeWitt is a freelance writer and artist who apologizes for taking an Internet company public. She now believes there may be a new circle in Dante's hell dedicated to people who use the words "market-driven Web economy" in any context and that Prada has replaced 666 as the mark of the beast.

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