I want you to close your eyes. (Metaphorically. Please keep reading.) Imagine a world with no friction. It’s a magical place, isn’t it? A place where your Dyson robot drives your kids to school and vacuums them clean on the way. A place where your Domino’s pizza is 3D-printed inside your refrigerator and all the cardboard it used to be delivered in builds sustainable prefab housing for refugees. A place where you don’t need a key to open your front door, the selfies take themselves, and all the hip, hilarious, but not-too-judgey friends you think you should have at this point in your life just sit down next to you at the Starbucks, matched algorithmically by latte preference.
But here’s the catch. That world does not exist. Nor will it exist in 5 or even 10 years, no matter what that Kickstarter video has promised you. So please, please, please do not buy your friends and family anything “smart” this year. Don’t buy a smart camera for their smart home. Don’t buy anyone a smartwatch. Definitely skip the smart water bottles, smart toaster ovens, smart locks, and smart assistants. I can promise you, luddite, you are not missing out on any revolution. It’s all still pretty darn dumb.
It’s easy to be seduced by smart products’ promise of mindless convenience. You just need to download 30 different apps to manage each of them. And make sure everything is charged. And did you get the firmware update? It’s all worth it for the problems these gadgets will solve, though. Indeed, the smart home industry seems to have a solution for even the most minute moments of friction in modern life:
Can’t find your keys in the morning? Try these Bluetooth fobs ($130 for an eight pack), which you can strap to your keys and everything else in your life that gets lost, whether it be your kids or your dog or your lifelong dreams. If you happen to misplace any of these objects, just open the app on your phone to find it . . . unless you also lost your phone.
Can’t bake a dessert? Ignore all of the kitchen tools you already own that pitifully disconnected members of society have used for thousands of years. Buy this $1,500 toaster oven instead, so you can stream those cookies burning from the couch.
Can’t understand what your phone is trying to tell you when it beeps or vibrates? Okay, wear this $195 ring that blinks on your finger when you have an upcoming appointment or call. It’s like a mood ring that only ever says, “Because I perpetually overstack my professional and personal commitments, I’m probably pretty stressed out right now.”
Can’t be bothered to swipe left on your phone to see the weather report or score of the big game? No problem. Wire your living room with Amazon’s $50 to $140 internet-connected microphones, which parse every word you say, so you can shout that request over everyone else talking in your home.
Can’t figure out how to drink enough water? Just pour all liquid you consume into this one $100 cup, and pay close attention to the LED display and push notifications. But note: DO NOT OVERDRINK.
Can’t stand being distracted by your phone at dinner? Okay, wear this $400 watch that puts a tiny phone screen even closer to your face.
Silicon Valley is reinventing the everyday things all around us with what it claims is incredible networked intelligence–intelligence powered by microprocessors, Bluetooth chips, and painstakingly trained algorithms that run millions of calculations a second. But for all the technology, and for all the design, these products don’t tend to work very well, nor do they do much to improve the actual quality of our lives. That $1,500 toaster oven still won’t teach you to cook. That smart water bottle requires as much attention as your smartphone.
And let me make a quick apology to the 4 million or so people who are about to get an Apple Watch, who will be excited for about two weeks and then have to explain, sheepishly, when they’re spotted in the Chipotle line not wearing the thing three months later. “Why didn’t you order with the handy burrito button? WAIT, WHERE DID YOUR WATCH GO?!? WERE YOU ROBBED?!? BUT I SPLURGED FOR THE MILANESE LOOP! I THOUGHT YOU LOVED ME!”
Which brings me to the bigger problem with gifting smart stuff: It will quickly grow obsolete. When it does, the giftee will end up disappointed that it stopped working–and you might end up insulted that they no longer cherish said gift.
Technology changes fast. Our tastes can change even faster. The quasi-connected gadgets of today will be dated–if not entirely unusable–tomorrow. Remember those LCD photo frames? How is your Nike+ Fuelband holding up? How is your family liking that 3D TV? What about the MakerBot? Meanwhile, consider that one of the greatest cyber attacks of the year was pulled off with help from millions of unsuspecting users’ smart fridges, thermostats, and DVRs. Or the simple fact that even Apple can’t get a pair of wireless earbuds working properly. It’s proof that if you look beyond the marketing pitch, the entire industry has pretty much no idea where it’s going with connected objects–a problem evident in user interfaces that ask for too much attention to be useful and fragmented technological standards that are tenuous at best.
Trust me, the companies building these products aren’t going to stand by their body-heat-sensing, app-connected, spotlight turret alarm with the same lifetime guarantee you get out of a Le Creuset pot. Imagine buying your mom a Revolv smart home hub for Christmas, only to have the company that powers it be bought and killed by Google a few years later. These are ephemeral products, built with ephemeral thinking, often aimed at ephemeral problems.
If you want to give a gift that lasts longer than the v2.0 update, give something stupid. Give something that’s so fundamental to our way of life that its design has been fixed in history, so it won’t go obsolete unless we take Musk’s one-way rocket ship to Mars. Give a nice sweater to keep someone warm. Give a great butcher knife to ensure they eat well. Or do the opposite. Give them the experience of tickets to a show they’ve wanted to see, or even give them a book you know they’ve been wanting to read. Give them a new skill or a good laugh. The memory of that will last a lot longer than the next USB standard.