In his 2009 book, Shop Class as Soulcraft, philosopher-mechanic Matthew B. Crawford described the uniquely modern frustration that a certain kind of person feels when confronted with one of those temperamental, hands-free faucets in public restrooms: He “finds himself waving his hands under the faucet, trying to elicit a few seconds of water from it in a futile rain dance of guessed-at mudras. This man would like to know: Why should there not be a handle?”

We know why they no longer install handles in public restrooms: Some idiot might leave the water running. But if you are the type of person who prefers turning faucets on for yourself—and who remembers to turn them off—that explanation fails to satisfy. The designers of public restrooms assume we’re all thoughtless water wasters. They can’t abide letting us adjust the water velocity to our liking, or, God forbid, select the water temperature that suits us. So instead, they install faucets that require us “to supplicate invisible powers,” as Crawford says, moving our hands back and forth in search of the one position that will momentarily coax the water to flow.

It’s a trivial complaint, I know. But to me those annoying hands-free faucets are a good example of what’s wrong with so much of modern engineering. We live in an age of technological miracles. Faucets that turn on without a touch! But too often, these supposed improvements work only if we use them exactly the way the invisible powers demand. We lose a tiny shred of our autonomy (and dignity) each time we wave our hands trying to get the “automatic” device to work. The fact is, such technical upgrades aren’t really designed to make our lives better; to the contrary, those faucets turn handwashing into a minor annoyance. But they make life easier for the people who run airports or roadside rest stops. I call these spurious upgrades.

For centuries, technology kept getting better at accommodating human needs. An indoor toilet is nicer than an outhouse, a laptop more useful than a typewriter, and so on. But lately, that script has been flipped. Now we need to change our behavior to accommodate the technology. Take the touchscreen controls in your car. Touchscreens contain a lot of useful information; they can tell you the name of the song playing on the radio, or which tire is losing air. Fantastic. But they also help carmakers save money by eliminating those fussy knobs and buttons on the dashboard. The best way to control your car’s heat or air-conditioning is by reaching down and turning a familiar knob. You don’t even have to take your eyes off the road. But in many cars today—especially luxury models—the same process involves navigating a multi-level menu on a touchscreen. You must focus on the screen and hold your hand steady as you search for a tiny virtual button. Is that easier? Is it safer? Of course not. But it’s easier for the carmaker, which can replace the complex engineering of hands-on controls with easily programmed virtual menus.

Once you look, spurious upgrades are everywhere. Sometimes we encounter them in public places, like airport restrooms, where we don’t have a choice. But more often they are in our own homes, where we do. For example, I recently had to buy a new oven for my kitchen. I read all the reviews and picked out several good options. But as I read the specifications, I kept seeing the words “built-in Wi-Fi.” Control your oven from your phone! I can understand why some people might like this feature. But I don’t need to turn on my oven when I’m not home. And I suspect this is not a key selling point for most consumers. But as I searched, I discovered that almost all the mid- to high-end ovens from the biggest manufactures include Wi-Fi whether you want it or not. And increasingly that’s true for other appliances as well.

I’m not opposed to being internet-connected; I’m online 12 hours a day! But I don’t want my appliances talking to the internet behind my back. Last year, Consumer Reports monitored the internet activity of several leading dishwashers, ranges, refrigerators, and washing machines from major companies. It found that “all of them were constantly collecting data and sending it back to the manufacturer.” And boy were they chatty: “Each appliance sent anywhere from 3.4MB to 19MB of data back to the manufacturers per week,” the magazine reported. That adds up to the equivalent of as many as 135,000 text messages.

Manufacturers stress the consumer benefits of Wi-Fi connectivity. They might use it to push out a new cooking mode sometime in the future. And data sent to headquarters can help troubleshoot a malfunction before a repair technician arrives. That’s great. But every additional connection on your Wi-Fi network is a potential point of entry for hackers. Every extra component in an appliance is one more thing that might malfunction down the road (moreover, brand-specific digital components can be hard or impossible for my local repairman to fix). And finally, I just don’t feel like sharing gobs of data about my cooking habits with a faceless company in China.

The real reason manufacturers are slipping connectivity into so many products is not so much for our convenience, but for theirs. Knowing exactly how people use a product might help them design new ones. But some manufacturers want more. According to Consumer Reports, certain smart-appliance apps collect data on users’ “ZIP codes, phone numbers, date of birth, geolocation, and more.” They might use that data to micro-target us with advertising. They might even sell our data to a third party. But whether their need for personal information is benign or creepy, I want to tell those manufacturers, Dude, I’m just trying to roast a chicken, not take out a mortgage.

Our cars are full of spurious upgrades. Don’t get me wrong; I’m no Luddite. I love the automated features on my car—blind-spot detection, adaptive cruise control, and so on—that make driving safer and more convenient. My car has manual climate controls, so I’m even happy with my touchscreen. But what most drivers don’t know, because carmakers don’t talk about it much, is that your car has far too many ways of looking over your shoulder. Most newer cars have the option of connecting to an internet data hub operated by the manufacturer. You can opt in for their emergency services, or get reports on your driving history to help you “become a better driver.” Not interested? Well, guess what? The odds are good that you are already enrolled.

The Mozilla Foundation, which advocates for online privacy, analyzed the data policies of 25 car brands and concluded that they are all “terrible at privacy and security.” A Mozilla researcher described these vehicles as “privacy nightmares on wheels that collect huge amounts of personal information.” A New York Times investigation revealed that many car owners are signed up to these services without knowing it. Or they signed up without knowing how much data the carmakers collect. Many manufactures sell this data to brokers who then peddle it to insurance companies. Some drivers  discover this alarming fact only when their insurance rates go up due to too many instances of “hard acceleration” and “hard braking.”

How do we avoid these kinds of spurious upgrades? We can’t entirely. But it helps to be vigilant when buying new products. Does that toaster really need to talk to the internet? Do you really have to “Download the app!” every time you interact with a new company? Whenever a corporation wants to sign you up for an upgrade, ask a simple question: “What’s in it for me?”

Photo: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio

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