It’s Monday, August 8, 2022 and it is still hot and this is how things are nowadays.
Two Amazon-related things caught my attention that are kind of smushed together in my head.
It’s very clear to me that we’re going to get helpful household robots soon, and we’ll wonder how we ever lived without them. Something like a cross between C-3PO and R2-D2 — speaks to you like Threepio, but rolls around and serves more practical purposes like Artoo. Amazon, clearly, sees the same inevitable product category I do. “Roomba, I need you to clean up a mess in the kitchen. And bring me a fizzy water when you’re done. Thanks.”
To which I with my nitpicking contrarian used-to-be-a-tech-optimist-and-still-am-but-am-also-a-realist-optimist-whateer-that-is hat on would raise my hand and ask:
This may just be me with my perspective of a very Family House with young children, but come on, in many cases the home environment that could benefit most from helpful household chores and management is one that has the most noise and clutter, say, and those are difficult tasks to deal with, especially if you want them dealt with in a way that makes things easier and actually saves time, and doesn’t just externalize and move the cost somewhere else.
The perennial example here is “please fold clothes and put them away”. Folding clothes is super hard and something other humans are good at, so if you can pay other humans a respectable wage to do it, then go for it. Putting them away is also hard, but I suppose in that case you can also stick QR codes on everything so your domestic robot knows how to navigate. Or, I don’t know, you relocate all your clothes storage to the same floor as your folding/domestic robot to make it easier for the robot! Maybe!
The thing that comes to mind is something a bit like when we were domesticated by cats, or when we thought we were domesticating cats. Sure, this isn’t necessarily a deep or new observation. The deal will be that robots will come in and do some stuff for us, and I genuinely believe that we’ll have to change our behavior significantly to benefit. That way, if you zoom out a bit, it’s pretty much like being domesticated by Amazon (sigh, here we go), where we invite them into our lives and in exchange for a bit of utility and helpfulness, we increasingly change more and more aspects of how we live.
This percolating managed to coincide with a marketing email I got from Amazon/Alexa this morning:
Let Alexa do the busy work for you.
Are you busy and overwhelmed? Alexa is here to help. You can use Alexa Routines to automate every day tasks in your home, like turning on the lights.
Now the easy way to take the piss out of this would be to say hey Amazon, in the grand scheme of things “turning on the lights” is, I believe, not going to contribute that much in relieving my state of busyness and improving my state of whelm toward neutral or under-whelm. As Jesse Vincent points out, it’s also not that helpful when turning on the lights isn’t reliable, and Siri/HomeKit aren’t that much helpful here either.
I’d grant the case that turning off lights might help a little bit but generally “I am in darkness and I want there to be light” is something that I personally have found to not be that stressful when, generally, there is a lightswitch within about 15 seconds. I am, though, relatively able-bodied: this is a bit like how if you’ve suddenly become a caregiver to an infant, having ways to do things with one arm is a revelation.
But it just felt like another example of “boon productivity increase” that isn’t actually that much of a productivity increase, but does end up creating and moving lots of money around. Amazon has made – maybe? It’s hard to tell? – a lot of money off Alexa, Smart Homes are… a thing? And they certainly save some time but if I had to choose between thing-that-made-my-life-easier in some way versus turning-lights-on-and-off, I might choose something else technology-related.
… which, okay, yes, I do have an example. My wife went out to dinner with a friend and this particular restaurant had, like many others during COVID, switched over to QR-code menus as part of their embracing of outdoor dining. Here are ways that QR code menus are terrible:
a) they sometimes result in QR code only menus, which results in significant accessibility issues. QR code menus are a great additive, but you know. Paper menus that you can pick up and hold and that don’t require you (much) to pinch and zoom, offer a host of benefits (as well as their own costs)
b) I mean, have you seen some terrible QR code menu implementations? Some of the easiest, most terrible ones are a QR code that simply takes you to a PDF of the menu, which yes, that makes sense because the menu probably lives as a PDF before it gets printed out. Viva la electronic… revolution. But that PDF is now on your phone. PDFs on phones are terrible, we are in agreement there.
One even more terrible implementation was multiple QR code menus leading to multiple PDFs such that there’s one QR code for the kids menu, one for the adult menu, and one for the drinks menu (and probably one for the dessert menu, who knows). This is great because as we all know, looking at multiple PDFs at the same time on a mobile device is super great and multiple times more fun than just looking at one. Comparing what’s on different PDFs on a mobile device is also a great experience I recommend to your enemies.
So. The menus are terrible. And then when it comes to pay, the great innovation of COVID dining is that you do not need a server to bring you the bill anymore, you can just scan a QR code and pay up. This is great, it’s wonderful, nobody has to wait.
Of course because the human has been cut out of the loop, it’s a simple ecommerce transaction which means the blurriness of the transaction gets removed and there’s no longer a way to split the bill on paying: one QR code, one payment link, one payer. The answer to this of course is to then venmo or whatever-cash to settle up amongst yourselves which sure, that’s a behavior now, but what you’ve done there is you’ve removed flexibility in favor of one particular axis of convenience and speed. It’s not that it’d be impossible to offer electronic, QR-code based payment and bill splitting at the time of link-viewing, but it would be more complicated and anyway, how would your metrics bear out the need for that? Why bother doing it when your end users (who to be clear, are not the people eating – if you’re developing the payment service you’re the restaurant! Ha! There goes the enterprise software sales argument) aren’t going to be requesting it or it isn’t really in their power to request anyway? In the grand scheme of things, people will just settle up afterwards like they’ve always done, like they have done and was facilitated by all the Square-Venmo-alike apps. But, you know. The option has been removed, and now someone would have to make a feature pitch for it when that feature isn’t that high up the list, I imagine, when you’re going after marketshare of the entertainment and hospitality business.
In conclusion: technology, but do it better, please.
Okay, that’s it for today. How are you?
Amazon to acquire Roomba robot vacuum maker iRobot for $1.7 billion, John Gruber, Daring Fireball, 5 August, 2022 ↩