The Eastern Shore has a beautiful outdoor natural soundscape of birds, insects, rain, wind, and changing tides, making it a unique place to live. Unfortunately, I am also bombarded by an orchestra of unnatural tech sounds, which drive me crazy.
Technology’s unnatural soundscape includes high-pitched sirens, beeps, chirps, pings, and other annoying alarm sounds, euphemistically called “alerts and notifications.” They exist indoors and outdoors and spew from my smartphone, refrigerator, dishwasher, washing machine, dryer, invisible dog fence, septic tank, milk frother, microwave, home security system, and the dreaded smoke detector.
Loud alerts have a place in our society for essential things like air raids, house fires, jailbreaks, home invasions, hospital ventilator failures, and overheating nuclear reactors. However, today, we are alerted about everything.
The proliferation of annoying tech sounds will only get worse as our appliances and cars get smarter and given an internet protocol (IP) address, connect to your WiFi and can send and receive data; this is referred to as the Internet of Things. The interconnections via the internet of computing devices embedded into everyday appliances will dramatically increase the number of unnecessary things these appliances want to alert you about.
It also won’t be long before formerly dumb appliances interface with your personal assistant devices like Alexa, literally providing a voice to nag you to “Shut the Refrigerator!” “Empty the Dishwasher!” and “Close the Microwave Door!” based on data from a sensor that knows all.
The proliferation of tech alerts is due to the availability of inexpensive parts to enable it, overeager engineers who want to put it everywhere, and marketers’ desire to innovate and get consumers to engage with their products. I just don’t think I need to engage a lot with my toaster. I would trade all this so-called innovation for a washing machine that lasted 25 years with little maintenance.
This intelligent, sensor-based technology is rapidly spreading throughout the car and home appliances. In cars, we only used to care about the change oil, low tire pressure, and check engine visual alerts on the dashboard. Today, data is pouring in and out of cars. Sensor technology tells us when we are swerving into another lane, or about to back into a truck, or close to hitting the car in front of us because we are going too fast. I admit some of these notifications prevent teenagers, dumb people, and aging drivers like me from getting killed.
This tech invasion in the car was spurred on by Tesla, which turned the car into a giant computer, and traditional car makers have been playing catch up. Their tech upgrade started in the front seat and is now quickly moving to the backseat with “Rear Seat Alerts,” or as I call them, “Idiot Alerts.” For example, door logic algorithms and motion sensors now remind idiots who forget they have an infant or dog in the backseat to remove them. By the way, if you really need this feature, you should not be allowed to drive, have kids, or own a dog.
How does it work? When a car door is opened and closed before or after the engine starts, the vehicle computer knows to issue a rear seat reminder when the engine is turned off. The Kia and Hyundai system includes a motion detector to scan the backseat for movement; if motion is detected, it will activate the horn, making it completely idiot-proof.
Alarm PTSD likely causes my fixation on tech alarms and alerts. In my 30s, while cruising up First Avenue in NYC in my bright red Jeep, I once turned on my windshield wipers, and the car alarm started blaring. I quickly pulled into a Harlem gas station to avoid being arrested for grand theft auto. I offered the mechanic $50 to rip out any wire that would stop the noise.
Years later, my wife and I moved to Evergreen, Colorado, where no one had a car alarm or locked their doors at night. My wife’s car had a very sensitive alarm. Leaving for work early one morning, I lightly brushed up against her car, and the alarm began screaming. When my wife entered the garage, she found me kicking her car. Not my best moment.
The smoke alarm also triggers me. My wife loves to cook, and the smoke alarm regularly goes off at home and while visiting Airbnbs, often followed by an embarrassing visit from the fire department, with loud sirens and bright flashing lights.
During a recent Airbnb stay, the smoke alarm went off and alerted the owner via text, who was on an extended family vacation in Tel Aviv. The owner contacted a neighbor, who was dispatched to check if the house was on fire. After that, we began alerting the owner directly when we set off the smoke detector. After the third time, the owner texted us that they disconnected the remote alert feature. My wife is very zen-like when this happens. Me, not so much.
I wish techies would focus on developing an alternative to the most annoying alert – the chirping smoke detector caused when the backup battery has to be replaced. Hearing this chirp is always a significant event in our home. My dog Ella always hears it first, usually at 1 a.m. She bolts into our bed, shaking, and stands on my chest until I wake up. My wife quickly evacuates her outside as I begin my chirp hunt. I am convinced the electrician who installed my smoke detectors hated me because several units were placed dangerously high, requiring a very long ladder to reach them. I would give anything for an app with a chirping smoke detector kill switch.
My PTSD aside, I am still determining how I will handle the increasing bombardment of tech sounds in my Easton Shore home, especially since my wife has banned me from kicking cars and appliances. It may require regular visits to One Square Inch of Silence, a noise control project in the Hoh Rainforest at Olympic National Park in Washington state, called “the quietest place in the United States.”
Hugh Panero, a tech & media entrepreneur, was the founder & former CEO of XM Satellite Radio. He has worked with leading tech venture capital firms and was an adjunct media professor at George Washington University. He writes about Tech and Media for the Spy.