Every Dream Home a Heartache?
Alex van Es just wanted a way to keep tabs on his pregnant cat while he was at work. He ended up wiring himself into the future.Van Es, a resident of Apeldoorn in the Netherlands, is living in what could be the first Internet home -- a type of place we all might soon be inhabit if Silicon Valley visionaries get their way. It started last July, with a video camera placed by the bed of his pregnant feline, Blackie. Van Es attached the camera to the Internet so he could check on Blackie when he was out. (The Web site also attracted cooing coworkers.)The catcam worked so well, the wiry 25-year-old software applications manager got to thinking about other things around the house he could hook up online. He connected his doorbell to track how often it rang while he was out. Then the phone and refrigerator caught his attention. His neighborhood supermarket donated a list of its products' bar-code numbers, allowing his computer to identify discarded food containers when he threw them into the trash.Today, whenever van Es' fridge door opens, whenever his doorbell or phone rings, whenever his toilet flushes, it is recorded and compiled on his Web page (www.icepick.com). There is a record of each teabag discarded and of every time Blackie ventures to her food dish.While the information itself might be of limited value -- how useful is it, really, for the world to know that Tupac Shakur's "Changes" is the most played MP3 track in the van Es household? -- such digital data-catchers are not all that far from what's being proposed for all of our future homes.The concept is called "pervasive computing." Newsweek recently devoted a cover story to explaining this buzzphrase ("The New Digital Galaxy": www.newsweek.com/nw-srv/issue/22_99a/common/index/index.htm). Pervasive computing means inserting cheap processors in almost every household object we use, from mirrors to thermostats, and connecting them to the Internet via wireless networks. These microprocessors regulate their hosts and collect data. Residents will have greater control of their homes; companies will wring profits from the improved efficiencies this micromanagement brings.Newsweek describes a day in this automated environment: "Good morning! The coffee maker has checked your schedule and starts perking at 6 A.M. Luckily, the refrigerator noted the expiration date on the milk carton and had more delivered. The microwave senses muffins and nukes them just the right length of time. While you were sleeping, the dishwasher detected you'd purchased a new kind of detergent and e-mailed the home office, which remotely upgraded its software to adjust to cycles for the new soap."Like most future visions, this Father Knows Best showroom of technology expunges the inherent messiness of modern life. And believe me, if the computer industry is involved, we'll get messiness. A more plausible scenario: "Good Morning! Your alarm clock/Web browser fails to go off because it crashed last night. Sensing your bloodshot eyes, the bathroom mirror flashes an ad for Diazepam. You sink a bagel in the toaster/Web browser. It pops back, the screen blinking ERROR 404: BREAD NOT FOUND. How foolish! You know this toaster only accepts Wonder Bread. You hear ominous clicks coming from your CD player. It's swapping bits with your bank again. Seems that a chemical analysis of your last toilet flush registered telltale traces of alcohol consumption, again. The porcelain snitch alerted your health-care provider, which reassessed you as a greater medical risk and instantaneously raised your rates, zeroing out your checking account to cover the difference and rendering you too broke to enjoy your pay-per-listen Disco Fever CD."Newsweek predicts these smart homes will be possible in about seven years; van Es is living in one now. His setup is not that sophisticated, of course, but it's only a short hop from having a trash can note what you throw away to having your computer automatically order a replacement.How does living in such a closely monitored environment affect van Es? Not much, he tells me by phone. He finds little surprising in the stats, except for the occasional 4 A.M. trip to the toilet he doesn't remember taking but which the toilet log clearly shows. The trash can offers a wealth of information about his eating habits, and the catcam offers the same for Blackie's, but he doesn't ruminate on them."I'm not really worried about my eating habits, or the cat's," he says -- though he quickly adds that, with the information being on the Web, others do. "Some people keep track of the cat. Some people keep track of the trash bin. Other people keep track of the toilet. Everybody has their hobby, I guess."Of course, having an audience -- be it a manufacturer or the entire Internet population -- does have drawbacks. Van Es has received multiple e-mails from complete strangers worried about the noticeable lack of vegetables in his daily diet. "People started asking me, 'Do you only eat frozen pizza and stuff like that?'" he says. "The thing is, vegetables usually don't have bar codes on them."