Every morning for the past few weeks, I have woken up sweating. I’ve woken up sweating because the AC in my room has been off for an hour while on automatic mode, turning the room into a kind of DIY Bikram-yoga studio.
The reason I have carried on waking up sweating is that I’m too scared to go near and upset the balance of our app-controlled cooling 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 sofa. 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… 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, Prime and StarzPlay, swearing at the tiny remote buttons while Mum looks bemused and asks why we can’t just watch T.V. 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!!! … 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. Like, we can Deliveroo a salad bowl! I mean, we don’t. Obviously. But we could.
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 creepy Insta tales of 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 “fkjjllarvn” 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 emails the way your parents once nagged you to send thank-you letters. (“No!” is the correct response. “YOU’RE NOT MY REAL MUM”.) 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 email 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 “favourite” 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, ard 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 backpacking 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!