First, a sad doff of the fedora to Bob Simon, a journalist’s journalist and a true icon of the business with whom I can claim to share no professional traits whatsoever. You’ll be missed.
Next, is this Alienate Your Customer week? Which dummy at Comedy Central accepted Jon Stewart’s resignation? You guys had only three shows keeping you alive: Stewart, Colbert, and the "South Park" brats, which means you’ve lost two out of three reasons for your entire existence. Were you feeling too secure over there? Needed to play craps with your future for a little excitement? Sigh.
Not in front of the smart TV
Perhaps more apropos to a technology rag, Samsung has apparently joined Comedy Central in declaring war on customers, possibly due to jealousy over all the paranoid press I’ve given Google and Facebook. Forcibly injecting ads into streamed video content is bad, but eavesdropping on your customers’ living room conversations? That puts the "eep" in "creep." Worse, like most of Samsung’s product line, this is hardly an original idea. Dig around and you’ll find that privacy has become a bad word for many “smart” device manufacturers -- maybe most, maybe all.
It's futile to ask why the world treats privacy like the Mafia treats informers. Article after TV spot after blog post has everyone from investigative icons at Bob Simon’s level to low-rent hacks like me hammering companies, governments, and any number of heinous individuals for tearing away at the soft white underbelly of our personal privacy. Yet the tearing continues oblivious to consequence and is interrupted only by PR talking heads popping up every once in a while to say, “Oops, we’re sorry,” then dropping out of sight before we see their noses grow.
Then the offending legal language in the 400-page document the company expects its customers to read before pressing Install is moved to a deeper subparagraph where the villains hope we won’t find it. Ho hum, this is Incident 1,847,632 in the War on Our Privacy. We read about traffic accidents less often than we read about privacy loss. We’re numb.
Most frustrating, it’s not so difficult to protect yourself from these shenanigans to some degree. However, it's not intuitive. I can think of two easy ways off the top of my wrinkled head, but the public won’t like either of them.
First, don’t accept the terms of service. Granted, doing so almost guarantees your TV manufacturer will disable most or all of your smart features. But face it: Did you really pay for those smart features? When you pointed your grubbies at the thing in the TV store and spit out, “Want it!!” at the salesperson, you were buying the honking screen with the pretty pixels, not the speech control. That “oh cool” moment when you were reading the spec sheet has turned into a WTF moment: Your TV is the functional equivalent of a secret Webcam. Take a deep breath, and remember: The basics are sound, with or without the fancy stuff.
Don't tune in, don't turn on, do drop out
This leads us into my second idea, which my editors can attest is squarely in my wheelhouse: Go dumb. Succumb to dumb and you’ll live a less demented life. Example: I’m seriously considering scrapping my nosy smart TV for a low-IQ HD projector: no "Despicable Me" smarts, simply native 1080p with an HDMI-in. I can add a port switcher for the connected devices that pass my safety checks and an aftermarket sound system -- all done. As long as I can keep my niece from covering my nice white living room wall with her kindergarten masterpieces, I’m golden, and now Samsung can’t overhear me order a pizza and sell the conversation to Dominos. I’ll need to draw the drapes for the best picture, but since I’m paranoid to begin with, keeping my neighbors’ prying peepers out of my apartment is a bonus.
As far as today’s personal consumer technologies are concerned, the dumber your device the safer you are. I know I’m on to something there, and I want to be in the moment and spend the next couple of years promoting the “Cringely go dumb” consumer information campaign. But that’s on odd position for a technology pundit. I cover high tech using the most elevated standards of soberly ethical investigative journalism -- kind of -- and suddenly the companies that form the very bedrock of my beat are putting me in the position of recommending less tech or, even worse, older tech so that my readers can speak freely in their own living rooms. Thanks for that.
The sad paradox is that the "go dumb" campaign would be doomed anyway if aimed at the mass market. You need to be at least a little savvy about technology to be attracted to or even fully understand the "go dumb" concept, but “savvy” doesn’t describe the U.S. consumer en masse. Invasive tech is slathered in too much wow factor. Who wants to switch remotes or even manually hook up your PC to safely stream Netflix after seeing a commercial where a shiny guy with glistening, white teeth utters “Netflix” at his inexplicably curved, 90-inch, 4K super-TV that cost only slightly less than a Humvee? Not John Q. Public and certainly not for a reason as minor as protecting the details of his pizza order.
In the end, Orwell was wrong. A secretive government agency won’t be the sole slayer of our privacy. Big Brother certainly exists, but he gets a big hand from an unexpected helper: us. Will Samsung or its ilk see any dip in sales from this? No. Instead, it’ll pay a lawyer a few grand to ineffectually rewrite its EULA (aka, The Samsungnomicron), then see a sweet bump in ad revenue and customer data dough as these TVs continue to fly off the shelves with no slowdown at all -- because we don’t react, because we’re numb, because this is Incident 1,847,632 and we want a cool TV to make us feel better about life.
It seems a hopeless scenario right now, and only the ceaselessly benign efforts of Mr. Johnny Walker Black protect me from total despair. But I’ll keep typing and hopefully someone smarter than me will figure out how to make it better. I hear Jon Stewart is available.