Smart Things

by kiminogomi


Pieter Bruegel the Elder, “The Land of Cockaigne” (public domain, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

In a recent TED Talk, Nicholas Negroponte weighs in on the concept of an “Internet of Things,” and he makes two points.  The first is a critique of the concept as now applied, which to my mind makes sense; the second is a counter-application, a vision of this emerging world, which I find bothersome and creepy.  Here’s what Negroponte has to say:

I look today at some of the work being done about the Internet of Things, and I think it’s kind of tragically pathetic, because what has happened is people take the oven panel and put it on your cell phone, or the door key onto your cell phone, just taking it and bringing it to you, and in fact that’s actually what you don’t want.  You want to put a chicken in the oven, and the oven says, “Aha, it’s a chicken,” and it cooks the chicken.  “Oh, it’s cooking the chicken for Nicholas, and he likes it this way and that way.” — “A 3-Year History of the Future”

The idea of putting everything on your cell phone does strike me as pathetic (also lazy); more importantly, it’s ridiculously risky.  I don’t want my phone to be a sort of mega-remote.  This is partly because devices that do everything don’t really do anything that well, if only because of clutter (I have enough real clutter, and don’t need the virtual version) and partly because if I lose my phone I have enough to worry about as it is, with all that personal information on there; I don’t want a perfect stranger defrosting my freezer into the bargain.  Or worse, using my virtual door key to get into my home and actually seeing what’s in my freezer.  At this point I don’t even know what some of that stuff is, apart from a growth medium for ice crystals.

So I agree with Negroponte’s criticism of the conflation of “smart” with mobile.  However, his talking oven also gives me a wiggins, and not just because it apparently not only knows his name but refers to itself in the third person: “it’s cooking the chicken for Nicholas”?  Ok, I know this is a transcribed speech, so that sounds like I am just being petty about a grammatical lapse, but I am a neo-Freudian and we don’t believe that real people have accidents of this kind.  The pronoun problem is indicative of a larger issue: a problem of displaced consciousness and agency.

I may be a little prejudiced here, because I like to cook, and roast chicken is kind of my big thing.  It’s not a job I want to give up to a machine, especially one that says “aha” when it figures something out.  Cooking is an art form, and also a way of showing other people that you care enough about them to put aside all the other tasks of the day and make them something good to eat.   And there are a lot of variables: at the very least, the oven would have to be able to weigh the chicken, know when to uncover it so it could brown, see if the carrots were dry and had absorbed too much of the water in the pan . . .  A chicken is not a widget, after all.  Each one is different.  And so far automatic cooking, in the form of the microwave oven, has not made home cooking more sophisticated, unless you consider putting TV dinners in plastic instead of foil a big advance (I bet the dessert still gets into the peas and carrots, and vice versa).  As a child of the sixties, I remember all too well the results of the American love affair with instant-food convenience: Tang and Shake-a-Pudd’n, anyone?*

But to get back to those neo-Freudian preoccupations: take a minute and listen to Negroponte’s voice when the talking oven enters the story (you can skip to that point in the TED video very easily by going to the Interactive Transcript and clicking on the relevant paragraph, at 9 minutes 54 seconds).  He is an accomplished and experienced speaker, and like many educators has an arsenal of gestures and intonations at his disposal.  So his dialogue for the smart appliance is animated, hyper-expressive, and slightly laced with irony: he knows the talking oven is funny.  But the way his vocal pitch goes up, the expansion of certain key phonemes, mark this little section of narrative as high fantasy.  He sounds like a very serious person reading a fairy-tale to children.  The oven that knows just what Nicholas wants, and cooks it just right: we are in the Land of Cockaigne.

In the late 16th century (the 1560’s, to be more precise), the Flemish painter Pieter Bruegel the Elder illustrated the medieval concept of a land of unearned plenty; the image above, “The Land of Cockaigne,” is Bruegel’s critique of this fantasy.  Apparently the painter liked roast chicken too, for one of the animated foodstuffs haunting this scene is a living cooked bird, laying its head down upon a platter presumably in preparation for offering itself to be eaten.  But the five humans in the picture don’t seem to notice this act of self-sacrifice; of the three who are awake, two are waiting open-mouthed for food and drink to drop in, while in the background the third is burrowing his way head-first into a huge blob of something nondescript (one can only hope it is pudding).  In the land of “smart foodstuffs,” human activity is either unnecessary or disturbingly regressive; the monstrous pudding envelopes and devours the diner. And agency — purposive and self-constitutive action — is carried out by objects, while subjects remain passive or submerged.

Bruegel’s objection is not, I would argue, mere early-modern ascetic scolding.  The edible world in fairy-tales is inevitably a trap, the witch’s candy hut in “Hansel and Gretel” that entices children who will in turn be fattened for the oven.   Hardly a coincidence that Negroponte chooses to invest with a voice this appliance, with its promise of the psychic turnaround play so typical of early childhood fears: the source of food becomes the devouring entity that yawns and beckons.  The talking oven knows exactly what Nicholas wants to eat and how he wants it, but the underlying threat is always there: turning the world “this way and that way,” the smart device carries the potential for sinister reversals and hidden thoughts.

I’m not arguing here that the oven that can cook a chicken will one day become conscious and decide to cook me.  I like my smartphone just fine, and I don’t think it plans to take over the world.  Artificial intelligence is to my mind the ultimate Cockaigne fantasy; machines cannot think, because they cannot dream.  They can only mimic the most basic and rule-bound thought processes, and no mere number of connections or calculations can change that.  What does bother me is the human tendency Bruegel so cleverly illustrates: conservation of effort.  If we can save an hour by microwaving something that tastes like cardboard, many of us will pay a premium price for that “convenience,” even if it fills our stomachs with chemical stabilizers and processed ingredients.  Middle-class American adults have less leisure time than their nineteen-seventies counterparts, and many of their less-privileged compatriots can’t afford decent food for their kids anyway.  So the oven that cooks for us, even if it can’t do it well or if the chicken has to be “stabilized” first, may have a future.  And it will give us exactly what we want, because we won’t have experienced the real thing.  We will settle, the way we have already settled for appliances that break more easily than the old models, for compressed music that only sounds like anything if we play it too loud, for fast-food and vending machine calories.  In the process we are fattened for the oven of non-stop work and every-minute shopping that our devices have placed at our fingertips.

The dream of every wish being fulfilled without effort, Freud argues, is a necessary part of childhood, and fantasy is a serious part of being human; but it can also entrap us in the form of the Death Wish — the desire for a world in which the subject need not act, where every object is instantaneous and imaginary, and real desire never exists because no longing endures.  Caught in this endless dream, the subject starves amid imagined plenty.  So when someone like Nicholas Negroponte tells us that the Internet of Things will be cooking in our kitchens some day soon — and in the context of a speech where he points out his own track record as a predictor of tech to come — maybe we should start thinking: before we enter the Land of Cockaigne, what kind of work should we reserve for ourselves?

*Shake-a-Pudd’n was a powdered mix that when combined with water and shaken made a vaguely gelatinous mass of sugary snack food.  It was discontinued, probably because it consisted almost entirely of stuff no-one could pronounce.  Psuedo-food like this went to the Moon, or could have, which was its real charm.