Am I A Smart Home Luddite?

If you remember back from high school history class, the Luddites were a group of English textile workers in the 19th century who smashed textile machinery as part of a labor protest.  The Luddites were unhappy with new machinery taking their highly-skilled (and decently paid) jobs, and replacing them with low-skill, low-paid jobs operating modern textile machines.

Now days, the term luddite is more often used to refer to “someone who is opposed or resistant to new technologies or technological change.”

Today, I see echoes of the Luddite movement in all the dire warnings about AI and robots.  The modern argument, is that robots are going take away all of our highly paid jobs and leave millions of people destitute and unemployed.

To this, I laugh.  Anyone who’s actually built a robot knows how janky the things can be.  Robots constantly need maintenance, repairs, and software updates.  At the very least there’s going to be new jobs for humans just to take care of the robots.

Not to mention all the industrial engineers and mechanical engineers needed to design all these robots that will take our jobs.  Oh, and we can’t forget the army of software engineers required to program the robots (and provide security fixes to keep them from getting hacked into).  Then there’s the mountain of staff required to run a robot company — accountants, administrators, and even managers.

So no, I don’t think evil robots are going to be “taking our jobs” anytime soon.  Neither do I believe there’s anything to fear from new technology.

All that said, I don’t believe new technology is necessarily an improvement over what came before.  There’s always positives and negatives.


I Live In Tech-Nerd City

As a resident of the greater Seattle area, I’m positively surrounded by technology companies trying to change the world.  Amazon, Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and dozens of other large tech firms make the Seattle area their home.  It’s a tech-nerd town.

Living in this area, you end-up either working for one of the tech firms or you know someone who does…  and that means I’m always getting a chance to see and try out all the latest new tech toys.  From VR headsets to the latest smart home digital assistant, I get the opportunity to try out all the latest tech toys when I visit my friends.

They absolutely love to show off all the new toys, but seem disappointed when I never buy any of them.  Frankly, I’m less than impressed by the tech giants’ latest offerings.

Take for example, the latest smart home digital assistants:  Google Home Mini (starts at $29) and Amazon’s Echo Dot (starts at $29.99).  What do these devices do?  Play music, answer internet queries, power on/off smart-home controlled lights, and a variety of other tasks — all via voice control.

While the low end versions of these devices seem fairly affordable, I would argue that they’re actually just gateway drugs devices to a larger “ecosystem” of spending.

Want to play music on your Amazon echo?  Well, you’ll need a $99/yr Amazon prime membership, or Amazon Music ($9.99/month), or one of the other compatible music services to get the device to play music.  The same goes for the Google Home.  Out of the box you won’t be playing music without signing up for a music subscription service.

What about controlling your house lights and other devices?  Well, without spending even more money you won’t be controlling anything.  Smart plugs start at around $25 and smart light bulbs (for ceiling lights and other wall mounted fixtures) start at around $15.  The same goes for smart home controllable video cameras, security systems, TV’s, microwaves, even washers and dryers.  Nearly every device in your home can be controlled within these new smart home ecosystems… if you’re willing to pay for it.

smart plug
Want to setup a “smart home”? It starts with not-so-cheap ($25) smart plugs, and then rises from there. You could replace every device in your home with a “smart” version if you wanted to!

This appears to be the true purpose behind all this new “smart” and “connected” technology — getting you to buy more stuff.


It’s The Productivity Stupid

As an intrepid investor, I’m always on the lookout for cool new investments — it doesn’t matter if it’s stocks, bonds, 3D printers, the latest electric car or even smart home tech.  What I’m looking for is investments that can generate cash, save money, or improve my productivity.

Frankly, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a new technology that really did any of those three.

Back in the old days when you bought a washing machine or dishwasher, the productivity improvements were immense.  You went from hand-scrubbing your clothes in a sink for hours, to tossing them in the machine with a little soap.  One machine freed up hours of your time to do other things.

But most of this modern technology isn’t going to be saving money or time in the form of productivity improvements.  It’s going to cost money and you’ll spend hours getting it all setup and working properly.  The end result of installing one of these smart home devices?  A “hands free” home that has almost exactly the same level of productivity you had before.

Yes, it’s all very “Star Trek” to have a home you can talk to… but it’s not really any faster to turn the lights on or off with my voice instead of the lightswitch.  In the same time it takes to say “OK Google, turn off the living room light”, I can just walk over and hit the light switch.

scotty talking to computer
Is talking to a device really more efficient than pressing a button or flipping a switch?

Old fashioned light switches are also far more reliable than any wifi enabled smart plug or smart light bulb.  In fact, when was the last time you bought any electronic gadget that was durable enough to last more than 5 years?

Planned obsolescence is alive and well in all of your electronic gadgets.  Don’t fool yourself into thinking any of this cheap new tech is going to last longer than one of those cheap toys you bought your kid for Christmas.

On the flip side, I’ve got light switches in my home over 30 years old (they still work) and they’ll probably keep on working for another 30 years.  In the very rare case that one of these light switches needs replacing, the replacement cost is a mere $1.29 at my local hardware store.

The ROI winner seems pretty obvious to me.


Final Thoughts

Maybe it’s just a bad habit of mine, but I hold my investing lens over every single purchase to see if it passes muster.  Does that make me a luddite?  Well, maybe I am something of a luddite.

I love new technology as much as the next nerd, but the frugal investor in me says it rarely wins against existing tech that’s dirt cheap and far more reliable.

Even the smartphone, (which took the world by storm this last decade) I’m not entirely convinced about.  As awesome as it is to have tons of computing power right in your pocket, a smartphone can also be a huge productivity waster.  People can get sucked into social media, games, videos, and other time-wasters any time of the day.  For all the big positives brought about by the smartphone revolution, there’s also big negatives.

Productivity stats seem to support my observation too — over the last decade productivity growth has slowed considerably. Coincidence?  Maybe.

As an investor, I find these productivity statistics rather disturbing — I want my stocks to grow, but the only way that’s going happen is if the population grows (it’s under 1% in the U.S. now) OR labor productivity improves (growth has slowed considerably in recent years).

All the signs seem to point toward lower stock returns in the future, but it’s not related to a lack of new technology.  There’s plenty of new tech around (more than ever), but we’re spending an increasingly large amount of time goofing-off with that technology — not producing more.

Are these devices just digital distractions used to lock you into one tech giant’s ecosystem, and then sell you even more devices and services?

I think so.  It’s something to think about next time you hook-up that new smart home enabled device or power up that new tech gadget.  Is it all really worth it?

What do you think — Will buying devices give us more freedom or time with family and friends? Or, should we simply invest the money into stocks instead?


[Image Credit: Flickr1]

29 thoughts on “Am I A Smart Home Luddite?

  • January 30, 2019 at 6:15 AM

    Man we’re very similar. I love new technology but am well aware of the dark sides and how we’re being manipulated.

    “This appears to be the true purpose behind all this new “smart” and “connected” technology — getting you to buy more stuff.”

    Very true, but also don’t forget that Google/Amazon etc also want to collect more data on you (or spy on you in your house, however you see it) so they can sell it. Never forget that when you use these things, you are the product.

  • January 30, 2019 at 6:33 AM

    I’m still a techie at heart (20 years in IT corrode a brain like that!). I pretty much thought that these new assistants were a novelty, which could be fun to toy with, but I would never spend any money on ’em. Like you said, they’re a gateway to buying more crap.

    But then it seemed like everyone and their brother was giving the Google Home Minis away for free around the holidays. We ended up with 3 of them for $0 (my favorite cost!).

    We gave our daughter one for Christmas and I ended up setting all of them up in the apartment to toy with. It’s pretty nice to play music from our Google Play music across all of them. So when we’re cleaning or whatever and walk from room to room, you continue to hear the music. It’s our uploaded music collection so it’s free. We also do ask it questions a lot more regularly, which is pretty convenient.

    Would I pay money for the devices? Probably not, but they’ve changed the way I think about ’em. Come to the dark side, Mr. Tako! 😉

    — Jim

    • January 30, 2019 at 8:52 AM

      Haha! It’s a gateway drug man. You’ll be buying smart plugs and smart appliances next! 😉

      Honestly though, a smart phone and a cheap bluetooth speaker can already do most of what these smart home devices can do. Hell, I just built a bluetooth speaker back in November for about $5!

  • January 30, 2019 at 6:53 AM

    I think I am a techie Luddite. I never liked new technology because you have to pay a big premium for it. Usually, I wait for the price to come down to a reasonable level before buying something. The last piece of tech that I’m impressed with is the smartphone. Everything else is blah. Alexa isn’t that useful. I got a tablet with built-in Alexa.
    I’m also with you on smart switches, thermostat, and such. It’s easy enough to manually control it. Why waste money on these minimal improvements?

    • January 30, 2019 at 8:53 AM

      Exactly — *minimal* improvements if there is any at all. The productivity gains just aren’t there! 🙂

  • January 30, 2019 at 7:01 AM

    I’m a proud Luddite and will let the masses vet all of the new technologies for me. Your light switch example is a great one – and I worry that we’re headed to a world where getting up to hit the switch is deemed an unreasonable burden.

    While I agree the risk of robots themselves taking over is small, the risk of an enterprising person in command of a robot army (and with enough energy and initiative to turn on lights) is real.

    • January 30, 2019 at 8:56 AM

      By the time we have robots that good, there will be no one left with the initiative to push a button. 😉

      We’re already at the point where you can never leave the house and can still buy groceries and purchase anything you might need. Now, you don’t even need to move your hands!

  • January 30, 2019 at 8:23 AM

    I agree with your scenario re the robot industry example.Trouble is those ‘new’ jobs will typically require much higher skill levels (which is good) leaving the lower skill level workers in the dust – sort of a reverse Luddite scenario (there high skill was replaced by low). I think overall more work/jobs will result with more tech but the worker transition is a problem.

    • January 30, 2019 at 8:57 AM

      Totally agree we need to do more for displaced workers. Training into new jobs/careers would be a huge help.

  • January 30, 2019 at 9:26 AM

    Hey I’m so glad you posted this. I’ve thought this way for a while now. I’m especially interested in investing in non-financial assets that make my life cheaper or more productive as it bypasses the tax man and has a guaranteed non-volatile ROI. But the problem is, now that I’ve put in a dishwasher most of the easy gains have been had. Solar panels may be a viable next step but they are on the edge in my mind. After that I’m not sure what else is out there. Maybe a big garden with the associated hoses, timers and row covers to minimize the work required to grow food…
    But I agree, most new technology is crap from a making life better perspective. The only useful one I think is a smart thermostat. The safety aspect of getting alarms if the furnace fails while a person is out of the house combined with automating a lower house temperature when not at home seem to make this a pretty compelling buy.

  • January 30, 2019 at 9:28 AM

    I was vaguely interested in one of those devices… until I found out I’d have to have an Amazon account.
    Amazon in Australia is pretty expensive. No way would I be doing my shopping there! I don’t have a music streaming service, so that’d be an extra expense.
    When I was in Beijing last year I bought a bluetooth speaker. I use this to play podcasts through my iPad when I’m listening to them at home. That’s about as high-tech as it gets around here!

  • January 30, 2019 at 11:23 AM

    Robots and AI is bad news for a country that has low skills levels or unproductive labour, or poor education systems to reskill workers as it results in further unemployment. Unfortunately living here, their social unrest becomes my problem.
    I love new tech but seldom buy it due to the lack of ROI. I think huge improvements in cleaning robots that coordinate across your house could improve our lifestyles taking away some of the laundry and room cleaning time. Also a gardening robot could be useful as well as a decent chef robot.
    Lastly the autonomous vehicle that is shared via Uber App will definitely free up some resources personally and city wide in terms of less vehicles, less road maintenance and less accidents. I’m looking forward to this last one in particular so I can rid myself of all our vehicles.

    Anyway, here’s to an exciting future!

  • January 30, 2019 at 12:17 PM

    We only have two “smart” devices in our home, other than our phones. We have 2 EcoBee3 thermostats (I purchased these using rewards from passive income apps on my phone/laptop). There are other programmable thermostats I could have replaced our basic ones with…but I love the EcoBee, because we have remote sensors in the bedrooms — at night, the thermostats disregard the temperature in the halls where they are located and only use the ones for the bedrooms.

    The other smart “device” that we have is our security system. Our neighborhood and surrounding ones have had lots of break-ins lately, and my husband does occasionally travel overnight for work, so we choose to pay for a system. I can access it on my phone, and I have it set up where it notifies me if we (husband…) forget to set it by a certain time on weekdays. I consider our subscription for that worth it for the peace of mind it gives me.

    The rest of the smart devices might be nice for convenience, but they aren’t going to help my budget & they don’t provide a service I really need.

  • January 30, 2019 at 2:09 PM

    For me the key point is the one that you make about existing tech being dirt-cheap. I have some privacy concerns but my biggest issue with smart home stuff is that it’s still so expensive. I am VERY happy being part of the “late majority” or “laggards” part of the adoption curve. When the kinks have been worked out and the cost has fallen I’m there. Until then I’m happy to stick with what I’ve got!

  • January 30, 2019 at 3:32 PM

    Great point on how most new tech will not lead to massive productivity gains like items of the past like the dishwasher and laundry machines you mentioned.

    I think there may be one more huge productivity boost tech thing that hopefully will come down the pipeline soon and that is truly autonomous vehicles. If you can put in a destination and let AI take over with absolutely no human intervention needed there can be so much time gained making our work commutes much more tolerable either by taking a nap each way or actually doing productive work.

    I also agree that old school stuff can sometimes trump new gadgets like the light switches that have been around for decades and still function.

    • February 1, 2019 at 12:58 PM

      I’m not sold on self driving cars yet. I think I need to actually experience one first. In theory, it does sound like a productivity gain (turning useless driving time into something else), but maybe that just means more goofing off on the smartphone. 😉

  • January 30, 2019 at 3:47 PM

    I work in high tech but at home we are probably the lowest tech ppl you know. We do t even have a WiFi printer! Like you said, I don’t get the craze over these smart speakers. Why fork out hundreds of dollars on something you can already do with a regular speaker and your phone?

  • January 30, 2019 at 7:21 PM

    I am usually slow to buy new tech products and tend to stick with a brand once I’m comfortable. I’m still sad that the Palm phones died out! I’ve moved on to the iPhone, but will stick with my 2.5 year old one until it dies. Which is hopefully a long time from now. I don’t see the point in buying one of those smart home things when I have a phone that does all that and more, and can connect to a soundbar or a bluetooth speaker that we already own.

    We have, however, made a few tech purchases over the last few years that have been really positive for us. One was our Nest thermostat. We bought it on sale and the electric company offered us a $50 rebate, so we only ended up paying about $150 for it. It paid for itself in the first year from energy cost savings, and our home is more comfortable. Plus, we can turn the heat or air conditioning on when we’re almost home from a road trip so that really makes me feel wealthy and spoiled.

    The other great tech purchase was my Apple Watch. I almost returned it a month after I bought it, but then I started using Siri for a lot of things and now I adore it. I ask her to add items to my grocery list, get directions to XYZ, send a text, etc. This has lowered my stress significantly because I am a little spacey and can now “write” things down the second I think of it instead of searching for a piece of paper or my phone before getting distracted. This is an especially great tool if your spouse asks you all the time to remind them to do XYZ because you can have Siri add it to a shared reminders list!

    We purchased a wifi door lock a year ago but ended up returning it because the technology was clunky and not worth the cost. That would be the one other expensive tech item I would consider.

  • January 30, 2019 at 8:04 PM

    “To this, I laugh. Anyone who’s actually built a robot knows how janky the things can be. Robots constantly need maintenance, repairs, and software updates. At the very least there’s going to be new jobs for humans just to take care of the robots.”

    Until the robots start to learn how to fix those robots, haha. : P

    But yes, I am a tech ludite as well. I still use light switches to turn lights on and off *gasp!*. I have cousins who made their home “smart” with special plugs for appliances and lights with one of those expensive Alexa model smart speakers to control everting to boot, but they have voiced, or atleast the husband has, that they live paycheck to paycheck. Here they have all of these fancy tech-like gadgets all around their house and I start to wonder why they live paycheck to paycheck… Dx;

    I am very low income myself and also live paycheck to paycheck as well, so I could not afford to make the apartment I am living in “smart” unless it was putting money into it little by little each month. But like you Mr. Tako, I see no point in doing so because light switches work just fine and I don’t have to tell a machine to turn the lights off in some room for me. I just think smart technology is a lifestyle inflation purchase so far in its new ealry adaption of thetevhnology at this point instead of a requirement.

    Also, I have read that those Alexa/Google smart speakers can possibly record your conversations since they are always listening to hear you speak to them and you have to check every now and then if they have recorded any private information that you may want to delete from their memory. To do this, you have to go on their brand’s websites and manually delete what they have mistakenly recorded. Creepy, huh? D:

  • January 31, 2019 at 1:36 PM

    Lol, I have friends who have all the robots, including a roomba, which my friend likes to follow around like it’s a house pet and rescue it from tight corners, all whilst drinking a glass of wine enjoying the time she saved not vacuuming.
    Not very productive for sure. (but quite entertaining for me)

  • January 31, 2019 at 7:28 PM

    I too work in tech and am terrified of Big Tech. My Echo is unplugged on a shelf in my closet. My $35 bluetooth speaker does everything I need without being able to reconnoiter to everything audible in my house at the whim of Jeff Bezos. A grocery list can be curated in a gmail draft on my phone or jotted down on a slip of paper. I’ve deleted my Facebook account and removed Instagram and Whatsapp from my phone.

    We’re just beginning to scratch the surface of AI. Language recognition is the tip of the iceberg. Wait for AI radiologists, ophthalmologists, autonomous electric trucks, real time automated grocery cashiers, AI missile detection, or best of all: high throughput DMV offices.

    All of which I’ll benefit from by investing in, not buying watered-down consumer versions of. Technology will never obsolete jobs, the same tired argument has been applied to steam engines, cars, typewriters, computers, etc, etc.

    I enjoy the blog Mr. Tako. Keep it up.

  • February 1, 2019 at 12:39 PM

    I’ve thought a lot about your point that tech has switched from productivity-enhancing tools (e.g. spreadsheets) to productivity-destroying addictions (e.g. social media).

    I’m glad my parents bought a nearly useless PC in the 1980’s because it helped me learn how to use the next generation of devices and so on. However, who has ever said “Good thing I started using facebook in 2007. ” or “Good thing I paid hundreds of dollars for the iPhone 1, which I kept for a year before upgrading to the 2.”?

    In hindsight, investments in stock and education have paid off, while the greatest thing from 3 years ago is always called “the e-waste problem”. Who will look back 5 years from now and be grateful they bought Amazon Prime instead of putting that money into an IRA?

    I own Salesforce stock because it is one of the few companies still enhancing productivity. Hard pass on Apple, Facebook, and Netflix.

    • February 1, 2019 at 12:55 PM

      You’re a pretty rare thinker Chris. Only a few of us are not held in thrall by big tech these days. 😉

  • February 2, 2019 at 8:55 PM

    I’m even further behind. I don’t have a dishwasher. When I wash my dishes I look out the window and watch the squirrels and rabbits. My grandmama planted a lilac bush and a dogwood tree so they are visible through the window. Handwashing dishes may not be generally be considered efficient, but in my world it’s relaxing.

    I do have a smartphone. I bought it when I dropped and broke my previous phone. When I took it to see if it could be repaired the young woman who waited on me told me she’d never even seen a phone like mine because it was so old. Hope to hear that again when this one dies.

    Must admit I do like my back up camera on my car, although I still turn my head and double check it’s accuracy.

    Luddite it is

  • February 3, 2019 at 2:00 AM

    Luddite, too. If it’s a game-changing product, it will stick around and I’ll eventually get to it… when it’s cheaper and bug-fixed.

    Something else about these smaller gadgets – I routinely ask myself now, “Is this product something that I’ll see bundled into a smartphone in a few years?” If the answer is “Yeah, probably”, then I don’t even consider a purchase. (Think about the fast rise and fall of e-book readers.)

    Enjoy your blog. I’ll go back to lurking now.

  • May 25, 2019 at 7:02 PM

    I look at a lot of these things as a solution in search of a problem. Instead of fixing real problems. (But I can’t help admiring the awesome technology that goes into them. Perhaps that will provide a collateral payoff someday). However, for folks with disabilities these devices could be a godsend. Maybe it could all be worthwhile for that?


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