Wake Up! Your House Is Calling

Danielle Ward was in the Hamptons with her family this summer when she received a text from her home security system in Maplewood, N.J., three hours away, that someone had opened the front door.

Ms. Ward and her husband, Patrick, flew into a panic, spending the next half-hour on their phones, scrolling through security-camera images until they found a shot of the dog walker leaving the house with the family pet. He had just come at an unexpected time.

Rattled by the distraction, the Wards had trouble returning to where they actually were: on a beach, on vacation, ostensibly relaxing. The phone alerts offer “peace of mind that the dog is O.K.,” said Ms. Ward, who works in public relations. “But the bombardment when you’re on vacation, it’s really been disruptive.”

Smart technology has made it easier to track our homes from afar. Rather than lock the doors, turn on the porch light and leave a key with the neighbor, homeowners use an army of apps that send real-time updates to their phones. Wondering when, or if, the house sitter arrived? A well-positioned Abode camera can send you a video clip. Missing your pooch? Chat with him and dole out treats with a video camera like PetChatz, which can also let a lonely pet call you. Water sensors like Wally alert you about leaks, or even too much humidity. And for the homeowner worried that the pipes might freeze in January, a smart thermostat like Nest lets you tinker with the temperature from Nantucket or the Caribbean.

All this information is supposed to help reduce homeowners’ anxiety about leaving what may be their biggest asset. But in the age of constant interruptions from work, social media and the news, a shout-out from your Ring doorbell that the mail was delivered just adds to the glut of pings. Americans check their phones an average of 80 times a day while on vacation, about once every 12 minutes, according to a 2018 survey by Asurion, a device insurance and warranty company. But if the point of a vacation is to take a break from life’s responsibilities, a barrage of push alerts about package deliveries hardly helps.

“All these things take us away from ourselves and from those closest to us, and put us in a world where we’re connecting with our home heating system and we’re not connecting with the person across the table,” said Sherry Turkle, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age.”

In a time when we may feel like we have little control over the events happening around us, the tools on our phones can provide clarity and order. The basement is dry. The porch light flicked on at dusk. And the only thing moving in the backyard is the same stray cat that always triggers the motion-detection camera. But all this information, as reassuring as it may be, also denies us the chance to relinquish control of the uninspiring tasks that consume our daily lives.

Unlike other interruptions, like those from a boss at work, which intrude despite our best efforts, alerts from a smart home are disruptions of our own making. We buy the equipment and set our phones to dole out constant reminders at the beach that responsibilities continue elsewhere. Rather than ask a neighbor to check on the house while we’re gone, as we might have done a decade ago, we take the burden with us.

“This is about a new tethering to your home, and to your inventory, and to your anxiety,” Dr. Turkle said. “It never lets you be off.”

Vacationers have become so distracted that hotels are adding digital downtime to their amenity packages. At Grand Velas hotels in Mexico, guests can request a digital detox concierge who cleanses the room of televisions and devices, replacing the screens with board games. Last year, Wyndham Hotels and Resorts rolled out a pilot program at five of its locations, creating device-free zones at the pools and restaurants in response to complaints from hotel management that guests were too glued to their screens. At an Orlando location, guests spent so much time on their phones instead of in the pool that management had to order more lounge chairs, according to Gabriella Chiera, a spokeswoman for Wyndham.

Sometimes, of course, we do want to check in on the house. In February, Bailey Kindlon went on a solo vacation to Palm Springs to celebrate her 40th birthday, leaving her husband, Eric Johnson, home with their three small children for the first time. Every morning, she checked the baby monitors in South Orange, N.J. “I was mostly seeing how everyone slept and what kind of mood everybody was in,” said Ms. Kindlon, who works at a design and branding studio. “I could not relax unless I knew that he had everything under control.”

The casual spying wasn’t just about the children. It was also a salve for homesickness. “I missed the sound of their laughter,” she said. “It was a way to observe the little things that I missed.”

Perhaps our smart devices aren’t smart enough. They know to send us alerts, but a motion-detection camera can’t tell the difference between FedEx and a burglar lurking outside your door. “The really smart home would know enough not to notify you during the hours when you’re on the beach in Mexico,” said William Powers, the author of “Hamlet’s Blackberry: Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.” Instead, it would know to wait for a more appropriate moment to interrupt, like when you’re resting back at the hotel. But “there’s quite a long ways to go,” Mr. Powers said, before artificial-intelligence technology reaches that point.

For Ms. Ward, the Hamptons episode was a tipping point. Earlier trips, including one she took with her husband to Paris in the spring, had also been interrupted by irrelevant alerts from home. Now the couple has decided to slow down the information highway. On future vacations, they will disable nonessential apps, reduce the alerts from their security system and rely on neighbors for updates.

“Everybody is talking to me. The house is talking to me. The car, the school, work. Where does it stop?” Ms. Ward said. “I don’t know what the answer is, but definitely on vacation we have to figure out a better system.”

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Published at Fri, 23 Aug 2019 17:46:54 +0000