Toussaint column: Damn the internet-enabled pusher man
January 25, 2018
I don't want my refrigerator setting up dates on the internet. Ever!
I'd be frosted to return home to find a bill on my door saying I'd missed a service call I had never set up.
When I first read about internet-enabled refrigerators, I felt certain they'd prove to be a trial balloon that wouldn't fly. Surely, focus groups would reveal that people didn't want to have to install "parental" controls or fuss with software updates for refrigerators!
But a few months ago, this dumb idea materialized in Lowe's — smart refrigerators!
Frankly, I think that too many "smart" devices are monitoring our purchases, travel and daily habits already. Each one of those devices — our computers, phones, satellite dishes and internet-connected TVs — not only invite software viruses, but also open the door to identity-theft and spying. Yes, Big Brother can snoop, but I'm more worried about Big Business. Alexa and Siri are convenient, but they could worm into our internet searches, purchases and activities, becoming more intrusive than anything George Orwell ever envisioned.
Call me a Luddite, but I'm opposed to purchasing devices that monitor me or push me into commitments or decisions I didn't intentionally initiate. I don't like the way my City Market discount account tracks my purchases. I dislike automated bank withdrawals. I hate software agreements that sign me up for junk mail. I loathe "subscriptions" I must call to cancel; they can prove harder to withdraw from than crack cocaine!
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But commerce wants us hooked and habituated. Companies like steady income. Why suffer seasonal sales or intermittent software releases if you can figure out how to generate "passive income"?
That's why many companies are developing ways to automate purchases. Amazon, for example, is working on a "Dash Button" that would automatically order groceries when your pantry runs low
The notion of renting software from the cloud has spread wildly in the five years since Adobe changed its sales model. In 2013, Adobe quit selling software, instead offering $50 monthly subscriptions for its bundled Creative Suite, or individual subscriptions for programs within Creative Suite. At the time, CNET commented: "Early pioneers … argued that customers are better off with a steady stream of payments that gets them a steady stream of updates."
Although I dislike updates and antivirus software, I detest this. For years, I used Photoshop, Dreamweaver and InDesign professionally. Each cost around $800. Alternatively, I could buy Creative Suite (CS) for $2,600. Expensive, but I could use my software for years if I didn't need Adobe's latest bells and whistles. Usually, I didn't.
Eventually, the CS6 I bought in 2013 will fail because it will no longer work with my computer's updated operating system. At that point, I'll say goodbye to Adobe.
The issue isn't just that I'm retired and want to limit recurrent bills. The proliferation of forced monthly payments — fees that are hidden or pushed on me due to lack of other options — angers me in several ways: I feel nickled-and-dimed to death! I don't like cyber-spies in my home or pocket. Worst of all, remote-control billing undermines my financial control.
I already have an auto-deducted mortgage and tax-escrow account. I pay a monthly gas bill; an electric bill; house, car and medical insurance; a monthly internet fee; a TV subscription; cell and landline bills. I refused a monthly satellite radio subscription for the car. I won't buy "extended warranties" for my stove, freezer or (thankfully-dumb) refrigerator. (Many consumer advocates say "buyer protection plans" range from a sucker's bet to outright fraud.)
My distaste isn't just personal. It's also social, an aversion that brings some Steppenwolf lyrics to mind: "The dealer, for a nickel, will sell you lots of dreams, but the pusher will ruin your body and leave your mind to scream."
Is this analogy a little harsh?
A 2015 Harris Poll found that about one-third of U.S. households earning $75,000 and above annually live paycheck to paycheck. A 2016 survey done by the Federal Reserve found that 46 percent of Americans didn't have enough money to cover a $400 emergency expense. What happens if the breadwinner suffers an accident and is unable to intervene in the automated monthly bloodletting? Or worse yet, loses a job?
If it's a set monthly fee, how do you tighten your belt? Does one automatically get booted out of the electronic connections needed to hold or find a job? Do you lose the means to keep your body fed and housed? And then, your rights as a citizen?
In the hour of crisis, will we be left to scream and fight the pusher man to preserve our independence and dignity?
Am I the only one who finds consumer addiction a poor model for civil society?
Nicolette Toussaint lives in Carbondale. Her column appears monthly.