Monday, February 07, 2005

A recipe, and a reason for it.

My own recipe for pancakes is seriously "gold code", having been the Sunday breakfast for about 15 years. It only fails for people who can't follow four-step instructions.

Put two cups of plain flour and four teaspoons of baking powder into a food processor, and spin it for about five seconds.
Put in two eggs, run the food processor for about 15 seconds.
Put in a pint of buttermilk (Australian buttermilk works better than English, I know from experience in both countries), whizz for about 30 seconds.
Cook on a not-too-hot frypan oiled with Canola spray. How thick and large you like your pancakes is your own decision.

The reason I mention this is because you can substitute sour skim milk for the buttermilk, if you're in the wrong country or if there's no buttermilk on the supermarket shelf.

Of course, in the era of Internet refrigerators, you'd be in real trouble because there's no more sour milk, as this author writes:

Soon the family refrigerator may read the RFID tags of its contents, then alert you to fetch another carton of milk, toss an out-of-date product or cut back on cholesterol consumption. In Italy an appliance maker has designed a washer that can read RFID-tagged garments and process them accordingly. "It's going to be huge for industry," predicts futurist Paul Saffo. "RFID will start to arrive in 2004, and it will unfold over a decade, and we will wonder how we ever lived without it." (Time Magazine, 2003)

A shill? Maybe, but a shill given the imprimatur of Time Magazine a little while ago.
(For those who see Time as the epitome of disinterested journalism, I will remark that Texas Instruments was very pleased with this story as an example of media placement.)

I really wonder if the journalists who crib these sorts of examples from industry press releases, or run them as quotes from conference presentations, understand how stupid it sounds?

Underneath a superficially-plausible scenario is a set of assumptions which renders the whole idea into comedy - but the combination of a triumphalist view of technology (rampant in IT journalism) and a blinkered mindset which can't see the assumptions means an uncritical and positive press for what is, objectively, arrant nonsense.

The cargo cult of the reminder refrigerator assumes:

- that someone too dumb to read a use-by date will have their lives changed by showing it on a screen instead of on the package;

- that someone too forgetful to remember the milk will change their ways because the refrigerator told them to buy it;

- that refrigerators store only packaged goods with a manufacturer's use-by;

- that the use-by date is a binary (the milk expired at midnight!);

- that the use-by date suffers no dependencies except the product's time spent in the home refrigerator (arrant nonsense - take a look at an overstacked freezer in the supermarket one day);

- that the support infrastructure exists and can be trusted;

- that there's no variation in the contents of the refrigerator from one week to the next, nor any need nor opportunity to select between different brands (what boring lives these visionaries must lead!);

- that there's no supply-side variation in product availability;

- that tag data will remain static; and

- that there's no use for sour milk (see the recipe above).

Because the assumptions go unchallenged, the "use-case" survives.

It's a revealing commentary on the lives of the futurists, the marketing genii driving development, and the writers who fall for it all: what we see is a bunch of male geeks, academics, marketing wonks and tech writers who, to a man, are so inept that they can't buy milk without Mumma Fridge's help. Not only do they fail to see the indignity in this, they work hard to bring it about.

To me, and most certainly to my slow-food enthusiast wife, the "RFID Refrigerator" is a classic case of functionality without utility.

Even if the technology does what its shills tell us, that functionality has no relevance to our lives.

The Cargo Cult
Whenever the IT media is pushing functionality-without-utility, you can bet it's because the utility exists not for the consumer, but for the industry.

The RFID refrigerator is a good example: it needs a huge support infrastructure provided by the IT industry. It needs ubiquitous tagging; those tags need huge amounts of software with vast development consulting among customers; it needs lots more silicon in lots more places; it would create an eternal demand for support services.

In short, the RFID refrigerator is a story cooked up and endlessly hawked around the media for the sole purpose of selling not the fridge, but the rest of the stuff wrapped around it.

It matters not at all that consumers will lose rather than win.

People buying refrigerators will be asked to give up:

- privacy (by accepting ubiquitous tagging);

- autonomy (Mamma Fridge nagging me about the milk);

- freedom of choice (I'll bet that the automated fridge restocking services will be favoured with exclusive contracts with premium brands);

- information (one of the great ripoffs of Internet shopping is the frequent pretence that the e-tailer is the cheapest option);

- personal freedom (because once you start putting software in consumer products, you start replacing "ownership" with an EULA).

Moreover, the fridge depends on consumer-side infrastructure. It needs access to the broadband connection (more Ethernet or WiFi to sell), security from the Internet connection (more firewalls and more software), and so on.

To examine a few of the assumptions I listed earlier, in terms of "benefit to industry":

that refrigerators store only packaged goods (an industry benefit, not a consumer benefit);

that the use-by date is a binary (an industry benefit, not a consumer benefit);

that there's no variation in the contents of the refrigerator from one week to the next, nor any need nor opportunity to select between different brands (an industry benefit, not a consumer benefit).

Moreover, any change in tag data which renders today's use-by inoperable generates income for the industry.

All of these things are to the benefit of the industry, but not to the consumer. Nearly all of them would cost money for a "service" which falls somewhere between incremental and useless.

In other words, the consumer is being sold a shiny gadget, the refrigerator, as a distraction from what he or she is losing.

The thing is it's so easy to think of the downsides of the cargo cult. Here I am on a Sunday morning in Sydney, knocking off lists of "what's wrong with the idea" in a few minutes while my wife takes a shower.

Any journalist who can't manage to think of these things without help is stupid, lazy, or glare-blind.

No comments: