Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
Once upon a time, if somebody claimed that there were microphones installed in their home that were listening in on their every word they would be dismissed as a paranoid kook. Such fears, that some nefarious governmental body had secretly installed these microphones, were likely to be met with eye rolls, mocking comments about tinfoil hats, or sincere attempts to calm such a person down by assuring them that nobody was really interested in listening in on their random musings. But, oh, how the times change! Today, if somebody claimed that there were microphones installed in their home that were listening in on their every word, one might shrug and simply ask whether they had an Amazon Echo, Google Home, or if they were planning on getting Apple’s new HomePod.
Evidently, if a government wants to install microphones in the homes of its citizenry it’s a sign of tyranny. But when a tech company wants to do the same? That’s innovation.
While Amazon Echo and Google Home have both been available for some time, Apple’s entry into the competition can be taken as a clear signal that the major tech companies have concluded that this is an area where there is money to be made. On the most simplistic level this represents the basic money that flows from the sale of actual devices, but the real value to these companies is in the immense trove of data these devices will be able to suck up. True, some of these companies may not yet know exactly what to do with all that data – but in the contest to know everything there is to know about you, tech companies are no longer just relying mining the things you click, now they can mine the things you say.
Once again, what could easily be construed as a massive and troublesome invasion of privacy is here being couched in terms of utility and enjoyment. The selling point for the HomePod is largely that it is a really excellent speaker, one that can easily sync with a person’s iPhone to enable a pristine listening experience, while simultaneously serving as a sort of control port for other “smart” devices in the home. Thus, Apple managed to very cleverly flip the narrative – the HomePod isn’t being marketed as a device that listens to you, it’s being marketed as a device that you listen to. Granted, the device will still be listening – it may sit there awaiting the command word “Siri” to wake it up, but in order for the device to respond to this command it needs to constantly be listening for that command to be uttered.
Concerns about subjecting one’s friends, family, and self to constant corporate surveillance aside – the HomePod is strikingly banal. Certainly the HomePod mirrors Apple’s commitment to produce things that don’t look terrible, and it probably is a pretty darn good wireless speaker, but there is little about the HomePod that seems to genuinely be new. It’s the type of thing that puts the “no” back in “innovation.” Though they may like to present themselves as zany and disruptive, as tech comes to be dominated by a handful of huge companies they are becoming fairly conservative, they are wary of making a huge investment in a product that will fail. Thus, Apple was happy to let Amazon and Google take the risk on this sort of device and now that Apple sees that such devices are selling briskly, it has decided that it wants in on that game too. Phillip Schiller, the senior VP for worldwide marketing at Apple, was quoted by the Guardian as saying:
“Apple reinvented portable music with iPod, and now HomePod will reinvent how we enjoy music wirelessly throughout our homes.”
One can be willing to acknowledge that the iPod really did have a significant effect on changing portable music, while still noting that the HomePod seems to be little more than Apple bustling into an already established field. It may sound better than the Amazon Echo, it may look sleeker than the Google Home – but to claim that the HomePod is reinventing anything is a bit of a stretch. These devices do not so much represent the reinvention of anything nearly as much as they demonstrate the continued unfolding of a process whereby any sphere of life that is not providing information to be fed into algorithms represents an expansion opportunity for tech companies. What is being reinvented here is not “how we enjoy music wirelessly” but how we live – with the goal being to reinvent living so that our lives become little more than spigots of data. Products like the HomePod are not the first instantiation of this shift, but such devices nevertheless indicate the continuing efforts of tech companies to seek new ways to vacuum up ever more details.
Smartphones have plateaued – new models are unveiled with small tweaks to continue compelling people to regularly trade in these devices – but tech companies seem to have largely accepted that these devices have reached a saturation point. The period where every company (remember the Amazon phone? The Facebook phone?) was hoping to make the killer smartphone has ended. Similarly, the wearable technology boom quickly went bust – the Apple Watch is still around, as are fitness trackers, and Snapchat has unveiled its silly Spectacles, but wearables never really took off. At the moment, tech companies are pinning their hopes in two directions: virtual reality, and smart home devices like the HomePod. Virtual Reality (an area which Facebook is working fervently to dominate) has some significant hurdles to overcome, as its clunky (expensive) headsets make VR seem like much more of a diversion than a new way of living. Companies wagering on VR are walking on a narrow ledge – on the one hand it makes sense to try to sell the device primarily to video game players, but at the same time these companies do not want to define VR’s future so narrowly. But devices like the HomePod simultaneously seem much less risky and seem to hold out the promise of much greater rewards.
At the core of devices like the HomePod is the idea that people have already become accustomed to saying “Siri [followed by a question]?” And also the assumption that people have become so used to sitting on their couch tapping on their smartphone screen that they already feel that their home is territory ceded to technology companies. One of the oft touted goals of wearable technology had been the attempt to incorporate technology seamlessly into people’s lives – it was an attempt that was not all that successful – and devices like the HomePod have the same aim. But here instead of sticking the device on a person’s wrist or face, the move is to allow the device to fade into the background. It takes the phone out of the person’s hand and lets them simply make commands by voice like they are characters in one of the many works of science fiction where characters simply talk to the unseen computer. What happens here is that an impressive illusion is created: the home is reshaped to make it seem as though one is less linked to devices, but this is accomplished by turning the entire home (or at least a few rooms) into devices. Credit where its due, at least Google and Apple have been fairly honest in naming their devices, for a house featuring a Google Home is an abode that has become a possession of Google’s, just as a house featuring a HomePod will be a domicile in thrall to Apple.
In this situation to point to the cost of the HomePod as a problem is to miss the point. Apple has staked its claim not as a company that makes high-tech devices for one and all, but specifically as a company that makes high-end tech devices. By unveiling the HomePod Apple is amplifying the message that these devices are “the next must have device” and is simultaneously helping to define the boundaries of this market. If the HomePod is too expensive a person can go out and buy the mid-range cost Google device, or the less expensive Amazon device – but what ultimately matters from the broader perspective of tech companies (as opposed to the narrower perspective of a specific tech company) is simply that more and more people begin to place these devices in their homes.
All of which is to say that the HomePod, as with so much of consumer technology, is not really about fun, or entertainment, or convenience. It’s about power. It may present itself as giving the individual new kinds of power, but ultimately it gives more power to large corporations that boast that they know people better than those people know themselves. It sits pleasantly in the background, out of sight and largely out of mind, turning homes into an extension of tech companies domains. And though the device gains entry into someone’s home because it seems fun or stylish the end goal is for this luxury doodad to become treated as essential.
Could such devices be hacked? Certainly. Could a nefarious government rise to power that demands control of the data gathered by these devices? Certainly. Could these devices go the way of wearable tech and fail to truly takeoff? Certainly.
But regardless of what happens in the end, it is worth realizing that these are devices that tech companies foist upon people to remake their lives to better fit with the companies’ needs. Not the other way around. And this is a point which is not only true of things like the HomePod. They are sold as things to meet people’s needs, but what they really do is meet the needs of tech companies.
The HomePod is being sold as a great listening experience. And yet, you won’t always be listening to music, but the HomePod will always be listening to you.