In Innovations, Science, Words

Man falling into washing machine

Among the many works of Oscar Wilde that I haven’t read is an essay called The Decay of Lying, which contains the pithy little quote: “Life imitates art more than art imitates life.” I was reminded of this watching The Elon Musk Show, which is apparently about a real bloke who seems to have based his life on a character from a James Bond novel, right down to the factory in the desert and the rockets creating new colonies in Space.

For the last hundred years or so, novelists have been writing vivid warnings of a world in which utopian visions have decayed into dystopian realities. We’ve read them and gone, “Oooh, scary,” and then set about using these books like Ikea instructions to construct our perfect world. What’s in the box? Automation. Artificial intelligence. Multi-lane highways. Virtual reality. Whistle blowing. Surveillance. Pigs in charge…

It’s a curse on humanity that so many things designed to enhance our lives end up enslaving us and threatening our sanity, if not our very existence. When Isaac Newton developed his third law of motion, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction”, he probably wasn’t thinking about the invention of email but he might just as well have been. Every convenience has an equal and opposite inconvenience. Next up, the Internet of Things.

I had my first taste of the long-awaited IoT recently when I bought a new washing machine: a wifi enabled Hoover H-Wash 500. I didn’t really feel I needed the wifi bit but I thought, well, it’s there; it’s the future; one day all washing machines will want to talk to each other; it’s their world as much as it is mine; I might as well plan ahead.

Of course, like all things designed to simplify life, it’s ridiculously complicated. The old washing machine had simple settings that were entirely self-explanatory: Wash, Shrink, Turn everything grey… it was easy to operate and easy to get along with. This new machine already feels hostile. It has a set of symbols that seem to suggest its settings are: Feed the baby, Do a chemistry experiment, Collect butterflies, Plant a tree.

My wife suggested I take it to the pub – spend time with it outside the working environment; that’s how you really get to know an appliance. But anyone who’s ever tried to move a washing machine even one foot across a smooth tiled floor will know how implausible that is. As Confucius said, a single step feels like a journey of a thousand miles when pushing a washing machine.

So I downloaded the app and got a whole load more settings with a bit more explanation, which was helpful, and the first time I set off a wash cycle from my phone was quite an exciting moment. I imagine it’s how Elon Musk felt when he finally got one of his rockets to stay up. But the joy is fleeting. Dystopian reality quickly sets in. I have enough trouble with email traffic without having to maintain an online correspondence with my washing machine.

And I just know that one day I’ll come home to find the house is flooded, the freezer’s defrosted, the vacuum cleaner’s emptied its bag into my sock drawer and the TV’s playing endless loops of Piers Morgan, all because the washing machine has read my texts and taken something the wrong way.

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