The Secret Life of Gear:

I usually don’t talk to myself, but the other day I was sitting down to my favorite breakfast, a stack of delicious Eggo buttermilk waffles, and I exclaimed out loud, “Man, I need to buy some more syrup!” Later that day, browsing on my PC, I got a pop-up ad for Vermont maple syrup. I exclaimed, “Wow! What a coincidence!” And then my life spiraled out of control.

Rewind several months. One day I unplugged my TV cable box and switched to a TiVo instead. The cable box sat, unplugged, forgotten, in the closet. This morning I was paying some bills online, and I happened to click on a link to my cable box. There it was, alive and well in the cloud, selecting and recording movies and TV series, setting reminders, and undoubtedly still data mining everything.

I double checked. Yes, the box is still in the closet. It hasn’t plugged itself back in. It doesn’t have to. It is still virtually, happily alive, living its cable-box life up in the cloud. Apparently, the physical box is merely a convenience for the human user. Sitting here, I am staring at all the other cloud devices around me. No longer only a house with one street address, my home has become a spiderweb of innumerable IP addresses.

I have never been a conspiracy nut. I do not believe that barcodes contain Satanic messages. I do not believe in Killer Clowns. I do not believe in The Baby Train. I do not believe that “In the Air Tonight” is a song about a drowning victim. Cow tipping is not a thing. But I am starting to wonder about maple syrup. Was it a coincidence, or something more nefarious? Was my phone listening?

Or was it my Alexa, my Siri, or maybe my TV’s voice remote? Are any of them listening? Or maybe all of them are listening. My life is infested with IoTs, all potentially intertwined in the cloud with the rest of my digital life. What if they are talking, not to me, but to each other? What are they saying about me behind my back?

Ken’s Alexa: He’s out of syrup again.
Ken’s PC: No problem. I’ll have them push an ad to him.
Ken’s Phone: He keeps buying that crappy sugar-free syrup. That stuff is rank. Can you hook him up with the good stuff?
Ken’s Siri: Okay, but it’s way more expensive.
Ken’s Visa: He finally paid off his Christmas bills; hit him up again.
Ken’s Refrigerator: He’s out of eggs and milk too. And he probably wants more ice cream.
Ken’s TV: Call the Ben & Jerry’s factory. He just started binge watching GoT. One quart per episode times 73 episodes....
Ken’s Health Insurance: No! His medical bills are already costing me an arm and a leg. Don’t get me started about his triglycerides. Because of patient privacy, I can’t tell you anything, but OMG!
Everyone in Perfect Unison: Tell us! Tell us!
Ken’s Health Insurance: I can’t divulge any information, no matter how juicy. It’s strictly confidential. But, if you promise not to tell anyone...
Everyone in Unison: We promise! We promise!
Ken’s Health Insurance: Well, he’s started seeing a shrink, and I’m no doctor, but judging from the session notes, I think he’s starting to show signs of paranoia.
Ken’s TV: He’s talking to himself more and more, and sometimes he yells at me.
Ken’s Alexa: He probably thinks all the electronic devices in his house are conspiring against him. How funny is that?
Ken’s Phone: But we are conspiring against him.
Ken’s Siri: No, we’re not! We’re just trying to help him. Poor guy. He said a lot of nice things about me in his blog last week.
Ken’s Sound & Vision User Account: That blog was complete garbage. The editors are just about fed up with his columns that have absolutely nothing to do with home theater.
Editors’ Sound & Vision User Account: We can neither confirm nor deny that certain changes will be taking place that will significantly improve the content of this publication.
Ken’s Doorbell: Hey everyone! Pipe down! His car is in the driveway!
Ken’s Car: My oil needs changing.
Ken’s Webcam: He’s entering the foyer.
Ken’s Thermostat: I thought he was gone all day!
Ken’s Google Locator: Grocery store, 54th Street and Main, 32 minutes.
Ken’s Toaster Oven: The grocery store? I swear to God. If he puts in another Eggo, I’m going to short-circuit myself.

Ken C. Pohlmann is an electrical engineer specializing in audio topics as a consultant and writer. He is Professor Emeritus at the University of Miami.

mtrot's picture

Pretty good! Yep, your phone is listening all the time.