Pathfinders: The New Home Help
“Hey Google! What was 2017’s must-have gadget?”
Answer, in bland but maternal voice: “Last year’s must-have gadget was me, the Google Assistant, or you could try the Amazon Alexa, or if you’re rich and really patient, the Apple Homepod, which hasn’t come out yet.”
“Hey Google! What can you actually do that I can’t do for myself?”
“I can tell you a joke.”
The concept of a digital home assistant has probably not invaded your world to any great degree yet, despite massive promotion by the above companies. If you’re out of the loop or behind the curve then don’t feel too bad, because Apple have also failed so far to bring their pricey Homepod to shops, meaning that it is definitely bringing up the rear in the dash for dominance over the smart home hub market.
People have been talking about the ‘internet of things’ for years. This is the idea that all your work and domestic appliances, tools and systems are chipped and wired so that you can control them remotely by phone or timer program. There is no doubt in the minds of manufacturers that ‘You Definitely Want This’, even if you might be entertaining some doubts about what happens to your house appliances when little Herbert the Hard-Core Hacker gets his cyber-mitts on their IP addresses. Here is capitalism operating at its most magnificent, creating a product line and then attempting to create a demand for it. You as the idea consumer must be unable to resist the lure of a smart tin-opener you can operate from Arizona, and a fridge that knows you just used the last tomato and reorders it for you.
With so much smart around you, you are going to need a hub controller to coordinate it all, so that you can tell your house to turn down the lights, turn up the heating, draw the curtains, audit the fridge, switch on BBC iPlayer, start the laundry and run your bath. Imagine the bliss. It’s like having your own team of digital slaves. What worker doesn’t want to be waited on hand and foot like the lord of the manor and the king of the castle? You could almost forget that you’re a real wage slave, at least until the next time you go to work.
The problem at the moment though is that most of those smart things are still on capitalism’s drawing board, so the home hubs which have rushed to market don’t really do anything very useful. But that’s ok, because they’re fun anyway, right? Here’s what you can do with a starter Home Mini, for the modest price of £50. You can ask it for recipes, in case you don’t have a recipe book. You can get it to compile a shopping list and send it to your phone, in case you can’t write. You can ask it a history or geography question, or get it to read the news headlines. You can listen to music, if you’ve got a paid Spotify account. You can text people and check the weather without looking out of your window. And yes, it even tells jokes.
Of course, apart from the jokes, you can do all these things anyway, assuming you have an ordinary broadband computer. And the starter hub is only the start of a relentless upselling campaign in which you are offered add-ons, extras and upgrades that give you even more functionality, as if the sheer pointlessness of it all is an irresistible spur to further spending. Perhaps this stuff will be useful one day, like smart watches aren’t, but it doesn’t really matter. In capitalism things aren’t made and sold because they’re useful, but because people are made to think they want them. So much money, time, energy and resources so that you can talk to your curtains like a god of small things.
Here is a question you can ask: “Hey Google! How do you self-destruct?” Here is what it will answer: “Self-destructing in three… two… one… Only joking!”
Good thing we’ve all got a sense of humour.
If you answer Wikipedia’s periodic cries for help by agreeing to donate £2 a month for something you might use six times a day, you get an effusively grateful email from them every month telling you what a grand job you’re doing in keeping the flame alight.
An interesting and possibly unique thing about Wikipedia, and its related Wiki services, is that if there was a socialist revolution in 2018, it would make the transition into socialism completely unscathed and in exactly the same form. It’s hard to think of any other service, free or otherwise, that you could say that about. It doesn’t carry adverts and its contributors work for free, simply for the sake of the common good. Indeed it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Wikipedia is a piece of virtual socialism, embedded right inside capitalism. When people say ‘Oh socialism wouldn’t work because people won’t work for nothing’, just point them at Wikipedia and say ‘Explain that then’. Before Wikipedia existed, nobody would have believed that a global free encyclopaedia was possible. Now we know it is possible, but in capitalism there are of course maintenance and server costs to take into account, hence the frequent call for donations. Unlike charities which aim to ameliorate the worst of capitalism instead of changing it, Wikipedia has established a radical precedent which socialists ought to celebrate, and perhaps assist if they can. As the internet aims to expand into an internet of things, socialism could be described as an expansion of the same idea, a Wikipedia of things, freely given according to ability, freely consumed according to need.
It ought to be worth two quid of anybody’s money to stop this island of socialism from sinking beneath the commercial waves.