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James Lileks: There’s a remote chance we’ve lost control of technology

December 2, 2018

Would you like a modern tale of woe and self-inflicted stupidity?

Consider the Smart Thermostat. I have one, and it always lights up when I enter the room. Well, at least someone does, I think. I don’t know if it’s the thermostat doing the equivalent of wagging its tail hello, or if it’s so vain it thinks I’ve come to give it a twist.

Not that I’d ever touch the thing. Such intimate contact is discouraged these days. We use apps. I could sit in Duluth and turn down the heat. What a world! Why, 100 years ago, you’d have to send a telegram to a messenger service, and they’d send over a lad to get the spare key from under the pot, go in the house and turn down the heat. When you got back, you would tape a nickel to a postcard and mail it as a tip.

You may ask: Why would you want to adjust the heat from somewhere else? Because you can. You won’t, but it’s spiffy to know that you can.

Last month, however, it wasn’t only cool in the gee-willikers sense, but literally cool. There was a server problem, which meant that some people could not turn up their furnaces with their phones when the temperature dropped.

There was a long Twitter thread full of chattering-teeth complaints. Periodically someone would offer a helpful hint: “Walk over to the thermostat and press the + button.”

This had never occurred to a sizable number of people. If you tell them that the server is down, well, that’s the end of the story. Nothing to be done. If they went to Hoover Dam expecting to see Lake Mead filled with water, you could say, “The server for the river’s down” and they’d nod and reply: “OK, we’ll come back later. Can you send a text alert when it’s back up?”

This is a broad characterization that really doesn’t apply to more than a few million people. And, in light of complete transparency, I admit that I have no standing to scoff.

Here’s why: I wanted to watch TV. I pointed the remote at the set, but the red button flashed frantically and the TV did nothing. I slapped it against my palm, the universal means by which remotes are fixed. Rapid flashing again.

The next step was to reseat the batteries. I like saying “reseat” because it sounds like I know technical lingo, like, “You’ve got to reseat your server there.” Anyway, I took the batteries out and put them back in again. No good.

I figured that it was possible that the batteries were failing. After all, I’d bought that off brand you get when you’re annoyed at the price of the batteries you know you should get but don’t want to pay for. The package says, “Lasts as Long as Duracell” but you suspect that’s referring to the rate of decay in the landfill.

Alas, there were no spare batteries in the drawer. I figured that I could cannibalize the DVD remote, rarely used, but that would guaran-frickin-tee that my wife would want to watch a DVD tomorrow and the remote wouldn’t work. So I dug through the other drawers. Eureka! There were two AAs from Ikea, because apparently one day I said, “It’s time for Swedish meatballs and cut-rate yellow cylinders brimming with cadmium,” and off I went. There also were four AAs from Amazon, which doesn’t have to make batteries at all, but thought, “Hey, let’s see if we can put more people out of business, just for grins and skittles.”

The new batteries didn’t solve the problem, either. I resolved myself to the fact that this was going to require research. I googled some vague string of words about the remote and was taken to a page about resetting your Samsung 5-43JTS33.

Do I have a 5-43JTS33? Why does anything need to be named 5-43JTS33? Do they think I’m going to strike up a conversation with fellow Netflix subscriber and say, “Are you still on the 5-43JTS33? I popped for the 5-43JTS34, and it’s much more responsive.

“Yeah. I love the turbo option. It lets you fast forward so quickly you can see scenes they haven’t filmed yet.”

But at least there were instructions on how to reboot the remote. I followed them word-for-word, but still, nothing. Obviously, the remote was kaput.

Because the remote is such an important part of life, it had to be replaced immediately. I googled for new ones, and fell down a hole of high-tech remote bling. This one was universal! Controlled everything. Range of six miles. Will fry squirrels if they’re close enough.

Impressive as that was, I didn’t want to sit around and wait for a new remote to be delivered. I remembered that our old TV had a button on the front that you could push. I ran my hand along the bottom of the TV, but there was no button. Perhaps it was on the back. I looked at the back of the set for a button, and found something interesting.

The power plug had fallen out. “Well,” I said to myself, feeling super-confident and technically adept, “I’d best reseat the cord.”

My wife asked later what all the commotion was about — drawers slamming as I looked for batteries, muttered curses as I googled.

“The TV server was down,” I said. True — if you consider that the TV server was me.

james.lileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858 • Twitter: @Lileks • facebook.com/james.lileks

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