What a wonderful world

This month, in an unprecedented technological breakthrough, a fridge took part in a spam attack.

This month, in an unprecedented technological breakthrough, a fridge took part in a spam attack. The campaign consisted of about 750,000 junk messages, routed through personal computing devices, including laptops, wireless routers, TVs, and at least one refrigerator.

If you’ve never thought of a fridge as a computing device, welcome to the 21st century, the brave new world of smart technology. The word smart has been redefined since 1966, the year my Pocket Oxford Dictionary was printed. At that time the adjective meant “of some severity, sharp, vigorous, brisk, quick-witted, clever, dextrous, quick and precise in movement, spruce, of fresh or bright or well-groomed or well-dressed appearance, of the latest fashion, setting the fashion.”

While it’s true that smart technology is of the latest fashion, hence clever from a retailing point of view, the modern world does not understand the word “smart” to refer to fashion, or indeed to cleverness. Editors at the Oxford are said to be considering the following new entry: “Smart. adj. stupid.”

This definition would encompass the smart car, not to be confused with the Smart Car. The latter is a supremely fuel-efficient television set on wheels, while the former is a car that can drive itself – over a cliff if so commanded. The smart category of objects also includes the smart phone, which erases every trace of privacy you ever had, and the smart fridge which, as we observed, sends unwanted e-mails to your friends, causing any who manage to trace the message to believe you are secretly a pornographer, a stockbroker, or a Nigerian prince.

It’s easy to see why the modern consumer would want to own a car that drives itself. When have you ever heard a Yaris argue back over whose turn it is to be the designated driver? On the other hand, the car is a car. Trusting your life to 500 kilograms of metal and a computer chip is only marginally less stupid than trusting it to yourself after two margaritas.

As for smart phones, they exist to settle arguments. Can’t agree on who won the FA Cup in 1976, or who really said, “In the morning I shall be sober?” No worries, not only is your phone smarter than you are, it’s in touch with that incontrovertible arbiter of truth, the World Wide Web.

But why a smart fridge? To judge by the Samsung Wi-Fi enabled RF4289, the function of the net-connected fridge is to part fools from money. At $3,499 for a device that allows you to tweet while grabbing a sandwich – in case you happen to have left your smart phone on the couch – there can be few surer ways on Earth of ridding oneself of unwanted coinage.

If, on the other hand, you choose to leave the planet Earth, the sky, so to speak, is the limit. Planners at Mars One, the project to put a human colony on the Red Planet by 2023, estimate that it will cost $6 billion to send the first four astronauts, who will live together in a giant dumpster surrounded by uninhabitable desert, and then die.

Mars One organizers report that more than 165,000 people have applied to be Mars colonists. This outbreak of acute technophilia is believed to be brought on by over-exposure to smart (in the sense of stupid) technology. Americans make up 23 per cent of all applicants, and an estimated 99 per cent of those either own or wish they owned a smart fridge.

On Mars, everything will be smart. Tight energy supply will require the lights, fridge, furnace, and toilet to be in constant communication with each other. No word yet on contingency plans for when the appliances begin to squabble over resources.

No matter. The uber-nerds who will be chosen for the suicide mission of the century won’t mind a little adversity. And for those still earthbound who crave the latest in technology, what could be more appealing than appliances which have been tried on Mars?

Just as hip consumers in the 1970s lined up to buy fishing reels tested on the moon, so will modern-day technophiles jump at the chance to buy fridges that work on Mars. Whether product testing will help to cover the cost of the mission remains to be seen, but organizers do have a plan to defray expenses. The whole mission will be one big reality TV show.

Picture the future. Your smart couch detects that you are thirsty, and relays a message to the smart fridge. The fridge, mindful of your calorie count, selects a low-cal beer. The TV lets the fridge know that Big Brother on Mars is at a turning point – Tiffany is mad at Mindy for flirting with Max – so the fridge sends a robot with your beer so you don’t miss anything.

The couch, the fridge and the TV are all in communication with your personal robo-trainer, which makes a note to give you extra treadmill time. A computer at CSIS registers all of the above and determines that you are unlikely to be a terrorist, and

the drone of death passes over your house.

As the Mars colonists wait to die, technology will make life on Earth safer, more comfortable, and more predictable for everyone. Don’t you just love this brave new world?

Al Pope won the Canadian Community Newspaper Award for best columnist in 2013. He also won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.

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