Episode 232 - StupidSmartTV
Published December 22, 2015
Riffing on a blog article that we posted a while back on Smart TVs, we take a deeper dive into the technological panopticon that is modern consumer electronics. Smart TVs? Not likely... these "smart" TVs are pretty dumb. Tune in and find out more about your TV listening to you... and other corporate shenanigans. Recorded 11/22/2015.
Mike & Matt's Recommended Reading:
Smart TVs Are Stupid, Mike's original blog post which triggered the idea for this episode
Your Phone Is Listening—Literally Listening—to Your TV, by Kaveh Waddell (The Atlantic, 11/19/2015)
More coming soon...
Alpha: Welcome to another episode of Robot Overlordz, episode #232. On the show we take a look at how society is changing, everything from pop culture reviews to political commentary, technology trends to social norms, all in about thirty minutes or less, every Tuesday and Thursday.
Mike Johnston: Greetings cyborgs, robots, and natural humans. I’m Mike Johnston.
Matt Bolton: And I’m Matt Bolton.
MJ: And today we’re going to do something a little different. I’m actually going to narrate one of our blog entries that I wrote. This one is called “Smart TVs Are Stupid.”
There’s always this drive in the consumer electronics industry to keep us buying. If you just bought an HD TV that was 720p, then you now need one that’s 1080p. If you just bought a 1080p TV, now there’s 120Hz. Or 240Hz. Or 3D. Or 4K. In that endless quest to keep us updating, consumer electronics companies are now pursuing smart TVs. I think this is a scam. I also think it’s an incredibly stupid use of technology. Now, before I dig into this, let me preface this: I love technology. Seriously. I LOVE technology. But I’ve never wanted to be mindless about that love. In order to be what I would consider a good technology, it has to actually offer some measurable improvement in our lives. When VHS was replaced with DVD, the new format (DVD) clearly represented a huge leap forward in image quality. I remember the first time I saw DVD, it was like someone had scraped an inch of crud off my eyes. The detail in the picture was amazing. The sound, too, was spectacular. My first glimpse of HDTV, which was probably 1080i, was a pretty big jump, but honestly didn’t look that much better than DVD. I’ve seen a lot of 720p and 1080p video over the years. I would say that each of those incremental improvements has brought with it diminishing returns. Although I do like blu-ray discs, I mainly notice the differences between DVD and blu-ray in the textures of fabrics and the text of signs and notices. For example, I always thought the shirts on the inmates in “Shawshank Redemption were grey.” On blu-ray, they’re blue & white striped. On my blu-ray of “2001,” you can read the directions for the zero-gravity toilet; on DVD, it’s just a blurry mess.
So there’s definitely some value in these technology enhancements, but Smart TVs do not make any practical sense. Here’s why. First off, the consumer electronics manufacturers are terrible at making software. The interfaces to their hardware are poster examples of terrible design and implementation. They’re buggy and confusing, and they’re usually abandoned in favor of next year’s model when it comes time to update. When it comes to anything connected to the Internet, do you really want to pin the safety and integrity of your devices to companies that can’t be bothered to update? Do you want to use an interface that looks like a drunken nine-year-old built it out of popsicle sticks? Yes, I’m harsh…but this is just to show how badly these companies are at interface design.
Second point here is right in line with the first: security. The consumer electronics companies are terrible at implementing, and they’re doubly terrible at securing. Any Smart device is effectively a computer. Any computer can become a jumping off point for malware, botnets, any number of bad things on the Internet. Would you really trust these companies to properly secure these systems, especially once they’re on to that new model? And by not securing these devices, they become a point of entry for hackers and attackers to any other system you have. If we’re all going to be living in Smart homes, that’s a real negative.
Third, most people just bought new 1080p TVs. They’re already being pushed to upgrade to 4K (despite a real lack of content) and 8K is already being prepped in the lab. For what most people have spent on their TVs, those should be a 10-year investment, not a 2 to 3-year. But again, the manufacturers are on to the new models. Fourth, for $100 or less, you can easily get a box like the AppleTV, Amazon FireTV, Google ChromeStick or any one of the other devices out there that will provide you with Smart functionality. It’ll be better maintained. You can easily swap out vendors, or even have multiple devices co-existing. Why on earth would you suffer through the manufacturers’ garbage interface? In practical terms, the TV should just be a high quality yet dumb monitor, just like on your computer. You’d invest in improvements on a 10-15 year schedule (that’s about the actual lifecycle to get REAL improvement), and that’s even ignoring the basic fact that there’s every chance video-based entertainment will have an MP3 moment. In case you don’t remember, towards the end of the 1990s, after making boatloads of money on CDs, and then remastered versions of the same basic album, the music industry was seeking the next new thing. They worked with the consumer electronics industry and launched both SACD (Super Audio CD) and DVD-Audio. Both were complete and utter failures in the market. Instead, people gravitated towards the MP3 format. MP3, when compared to CD, was actually demonstrably worse audio quality. But it made up for that with one simple fact: convenience. You could now carry around your entire CD collection. Or at least, that’s what the futurists then were looking ahead towards.
Video entertainment shows every sign of being on the cusp of a similar change. VR (virtual reality) is on a lot of tech and futurist-minded folks’ thoughts. With VR, everyone can have an enormous TV. Yet the VR systems are far more portable. They can also allow more personalized entertainment options, from passive viewing like TV shows and movies, to active content like games. In short, VR is poised to explode in the same basic way that MP3 did with music.
The idea that people will continue buying TVs the old way is ludicrous to me. It makes utterly no sense to use the SMART functionality in your TV. In fact, just by connecting a Smart TV to your network, you’re practically inviting in hackers and other issues. Take my advice… skip out on Smart TVs—for sure don’t pay extra for it, and for sure don’t connect it.
And so that was the blog article, and we’re I guess back to kind of discuss it and add a little bit more information. Since the article came out, the Smart TV landscape and some of the things that companies have done has changed a bit. Visio was recently outed as collecting an enormous amount of data—I mean, really aggressively—with their particular Smart TV. So Matt, what do you think about the idea of Smart TVs?
MB: I’ve never been a huge fan, and it’s not even so much for the privacy as much as I really don’t think they do a whole lot. I don’t think they’re worth the spying and the things that you give up to get them. Samsung was also outed, they’re collecting all this data, and some of their TVs have webcams on ‘em and they can turn them on and off and watch you while you’re in your home. I was talking to someone who bought a Smart TV two years ago. Now, a lot of the Smart TV features on the TV, the manufacturer was a Panasonic TV, they’ve just stopped supporting—you know, it had Netflix and Hulu and some other stuff, and they aren’t even supporting them anymore and they just deleted them off the Smart TV, so it really doesn’t even function as a Smart TV much anymore. So you paid all this extra money to get this and you’re not even getting what you paid for after only two or three years.
MJ: Yeah, the frustrating thing to me is that they seem to want to put this in every model of TV. So you can’t get away from it, it’s not like you can vote with your dollar and say, “Look, quit it! I don’t want it!” Since it is included, the idea though of connecting it actually and putting it on the internet…I mean some of them I think now they’re starting to make it where it’s intelligent enough to sense your WiFi. I’m sure they’re going to start coming out with apps on your phone to make it easy to set up. But for me, approaching it kind of from an IT perspective, the consumer electronics manufacturers, they may be good at hardware, they may be good at audio or video quality, but they are ATROCIOUS at software design, and they’re even worse at security. And having something like that connected to the internet, those are the things you should be good at. And like you said, a couple years later they’re already on to the next model. The second you buy that, you’re now a resource to be exploited only. So, I think that’s where you get into some of these really aggressive things that they do as far as data collection, as far as trying to track you, and they’re combining it with information from all over the place. I mean, we’ve talked before about things like Facebook and how they track you. I think that most people, if they’re aware of it, they may find it slightly troubling, but I don’t think they’re really grasping what it actually means.
MB: Yeah, no, and I don’t know if you’ve ever actually used a Smart TV with like a Netflix app or Hulu. The apps are frickin’ terrible. I mean, they’re awful. You’re better off getting an AppleTV or a Roku box, or even, you know, Google, what are they, Chromecast or whatever?
MJ: Chromecast, yeah.
MB: Yeah, something like that, where it’s actually designed to do those types of things. Or even using, like, you know, a PlayStation 3 or an Xbox or whatever.
MJ: You get better software support from those companies.
MB: Yeah, and they’re designed so much better. The TV ones, it’s almost like they throw that stuff in there so that you’ll set it up and then they can collect all this data on you—and they collect a lot of data on you. You’re not on Facebook as much as you used to be, and I try not to be either, but recently on Facebook, I’m a big fan of the band Rush—screw you guys if you don’t like ‘em…
MB: But I don’t follow Rush on Facebook, there’s nothing on my Facebook page that even would mention…I’ve never liked anything Rush on there. But all of a sudden I started getting all these ads that were targeted towards me for the band Rush, these t-shirts I could buy and new albums that were coming out. So, I start to wonder, like, “Okay, where did they get this information from? Why are they now doing targeted ads towards me even though there’s nothing on Facebook that would even suggest that I’m a Rush fan?” It’s starting to get creepy how much all of this information goes around. There’s an article that we’ll put in the shownotes from The Atlantic about how your phone is actually listening to what you’re watching on TV and these companies are using all of this data.
MJ: Yeah, I think it’s hugely disturbing. To me, this is sort of the flip side, or the other side of the coin, so to speak, of the surveillance question, except it’s the corporate side. You know, I mean we’ve talked before a little bit I think around surveillance and like the Snowden thing, and this really reminds me of, if you watch the John Oliver “Last Week Tonight” bit, it’s on youtube, about the government surveillance, where John Oliver put it in terms of dick pics. Before that, when they asked everybody, like, “Hey, would it bother you if the government was surveilling your metadata,” everybody was like, “No, no, no.” And then they put it in terms of dick pics. I think that the way they’re doing some of those ads, at some point they’re going to hit a dick pic moment with people where now it crosses a line, now people understand it. But I think your average person doesn’t really yet grasp this is like 3,000 people following you around everywhere you go, taking notes, and the problem I have with that is that they make assumptions. It was a running joke when TiVo first came out about “My TiVo thinks I’m gay,” because you watch “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” one time, or your niece was over and watched “My Little Pony,” that now you’re a “brony” or something like that.
MJ: They make these assumptions about what you like. I don’t know about you, but for me, Amazon’s recommendation engine has perpetually decided I like horses. And I know why. It’s because I ordered my aunt a present on Amazon, and I forgot to check the “this is a gift” box, because I had it shipped to me and I wrapped it myself. They make assumptions for you based on what you buy. Those assumptions, they may be true. But you know what? They may not be. They’re making these decisions in a way that’s less than responsible, and it’s not considering your interests. You know, I mean like there was a case of, I think Target sent a whole bunch of mailings for the vitamins that women take when they’re pregnant, I forget what those are called…prenatal vitamins, I think, and diapers and things like that, and it turned out the girl they sent them to was like 16, she was pregnant, had gotten pregnant, had not told her parents. And so, you’re screwing with people’s lives and in a way that’s very cavalier. It may not seem like that big a deal until it affects you, and when it does, it’s too late to take it back. I think like a lot of things that people don’t think about, this has the potential to be really bad.
MB: Yeah, it’s kind of amazing how much information we’re willing to give up in order to get an app or something for free. I have three plasma TVs, none of them are Smart TVs. But if I did have a Smart TV, I don’t think I would ever hook it up. I’d rather just, if it needs updates, I’d do it with, you know, a USB drive or something. But to me, it’s just not worth it to hook it up to WiFi to get crappy data or whatever. It’s not worth it to me.
MJ: Oh yeah. Well, obviously you’re preaching to the choir since…the title of the article was “Smart TVs Are Stupid.” And I actually do know some smart technology people who actually do connect it and use those apps, and I’m always kind of rolling my eyes a little bit at it. Not because they’re not smart people, because they are, but I think they really haven’t thought about it, the fact that just these companies, I don’t think they’re good at software design, and I know they’re atrocious at information security. So, I think the support’s not there—really, the TV should be a dumb monitor, like your computer. You can replace your monitor on your computer very easily, at least if you have a desktop. It’s a little tougher on a laptop. That’s what makes sense. I mean a TV, it’s big enough that you’re not replacing it very often, and the manufacturers, they’re not good with continuing support.
MB: Yeah, we had a Smart TV at work that we were selling, it was a Samsung that had a webcam on top. And you could use the webcam to control the TV by waving your arms and doing all this stuff, but I started thinking about it and how in the world is waving my arms up and down and left and right and doing these things and shouting things out easier than just using a remote control?
MJ: [laughs] Yeah.
MB: It’s not easier. I mean, it’s kind of one of those things where, when you see it, you’re like, “Wow, the TV can sense my movement! Hey, great! This is awesome!” But I think it’s one of those things you’d use one time and go, “Eh, you know what, I don’t really want to wave my arms around like some kind of goofball.”
MJ: You know, I think that about every time they’ve tried to do that for control schemes. You know, I was a big fan, I’ve mentioned it before on the show, of “Babylon 5.” They were doing a spin-off of that show for Syfy channel, and the guy who created it, Joe Michael Straczynski, he’s on the internet all the time and he talks with fans about how he’s conceiving things, and at the time he was raving about this new control scheme they’d come up with for the weapon system. I remember reading that and going, “Oh my god, it’s going to be motion-controlled. They’re going to have a virtual fighting thing.” And that’s exactly what it was. And I’m thinking about this. So you’re in a starship, and you’re in a space battle, and you’ve got to punch and kick? Dude, you’d get tired after five minutes—even someone who’s in shape would be tired after five minutes, and they’re going to lose to the guy who’s sitting in a nice comfortable chair with a cup holder and a joystick and just “pew pew pew,” pulling a trigger. You’re going to lose! That amount of effort, that kind of thing is a terrible control scheme.
MB: Yeah. Well, it goes back to that old famous meme on the internet: “Just because you’re different doesn’t mean you’re useful.”
MJ: Yup. [laughs]
MJ: Anyway, be forewarned about Smart TVs. If you do have one, I would certainly recommend don’t connect it. Avail yourself of a Roku, or a Chromecast, or an AppleTV, or an Amazon FireTV, or an Amazon FireTV stick or whatever else is out there. And you could do all of those at once. That’s what’s nice about those, you have options. Smart TVs…the TV should be a big dumb pane of glass that displays things that you tell it.
MB: Yeah. Well and even without the security and stuff, the apps and the way that you access the content on those devices that you just listed is SO MUCH superior to the way you’d do it on a Smart TV.
MJ: Oh yeah, hands down.
A: That’s all for this episode of Robot Overlordz. Are you interested in the future and how society is changing? We’d love to have you join our community. Visit our website to learn more and to connect with others that share that interest. You can find us at RobotOverlordz.FM. The site includes all of the show’s old episodes along with complete transcripts, links to more information about the topics and guests in each episode, and our mailing list and forums. We’d also love to hear what you think about the show. You can review us on iTunes or email us.
A: We hope to see you again in the future…
MJ: Thanks everyone for listening.