It was just before 5 a.m. the other day when one of the many amazing and terrible smart-home machines that now fill my house decided to terrorize my 3-year-old.
“HEADS UP!” the smoke detector started yelling, to no one and everyone. “THERE’S SMOKE IN THE KID’S ROOM!”
Spoiler alert: There wasn’t. What there was, was mist from a humidifier in the nursery, where my stuffed-up 6-month-old was finally sleeping for more than two hours in a row.
“THE ALARM MAY SOUND. THE ALARM IS LOUD.”
On the video — yes, there’s video, thanks to other terrible machines strewn all over my smart but not-quite-smart-enough home — I can be seen bursting into my 3-year-old’s room in my underpants just as she begins screaming.
“Daddy!” she wailed, “ . . . it’s talking!”
“It’s OK, honey,” I said, as I frantically tapped away at the button on the smoke detector. “Everything is fine. . . . It’s normal.”
Only then, holding a shaking child still clutching her Peppa Pig doll, did I realize just how confusing this all must seem to a 3-year-old — how deeply not normal it is that nearly every new technological marvel in my house either speaks on its own or demands that I carry on a full-blown conversation with it.
Google speakers tell us the weather report, turn the lights on and off, and sing lullabies to my daughter all night. Cameras record endless rolling video streams of my family’s daily minutiae, but they can talk, too: One of them started humming tunelessly in a strange man’s voice one night, prompting me to change all my passwords and upgrade my network security.
The interloper’s voice seemed like a glitch, but this apparently happens with some regularity. In December, a Houston family was surprised to hear a voice coming from their camera, threatening to kidnap their baby.
Fundamentally, though, if someone is willing to go to these alarming lengths to eavesdrop on our takeout order negotiations and the ongoing beratement inflicted on me by a 3-year-old, well, let the punishment fit the crime. Personal privacy is a trade-off I make in the name of being able to set countdown-to-bedtime timers that my child actually respects.
But it was the smoke detectors — Nest Protect models, spread around the house and connected wirelessly to one another and the Internet — that left us huddled in terror before dawn.
The cascading series of calamities called to mind my daughter’s current favorite books, the series by Laura Numeroff that began in 1985 with “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.”
For the uninitiated, the conceit of Numeroff’s books involves a cascading series of animal hijinks touched off by something innocuous. “If You Give a Pig a Pancake” begins with a small hog hopping through a window (“If you give a pig a pancake . . . she’ll want some syrup to go with it.”). A few pages later, via a series of ifs, she’s riding a flume of Polaroid selfies in stamped envelopes down a city street for some reason. The books always end up back where they began — giving the pig another pancake, giving the mouse another cookie.
They’re cute books, and the construction teaches the concept of cause and effect in a straightforward way. (Some of the other takeaways — Simple acts of generosity can really derail your day? Making a hellacious mess of the house is fine? Pigs are not to be trusted? — are a little shakier.)
There’s also a companion television show that clings desperately and not entirely successfully to the same formula. It’s somewhat less cute, and unlike the books, navigating to it on my Amazon Fire TV Stick involves talking to yet another machine.
And so I occasionally find myself standing in my underpants, holding a small remote control up to my mouth, pushing a button, and uttering the nonsense phrase “If you give a mouse a cookie” again and again until the machine relents.
That hazy (but thankfully not smoky) morning, I finally got the alarms to shut up by checking off a few things on my iPhone’s Nest app.
After about an hour of pre-dawn cowering in Mom and Dad’s bed, my daughter went back to her room and fell asleep. When she woke for the day, thanks to an alarm clock that turns green when she’s allowed to leave her room, we debriefed about the events of a few hours earlier.
“Normal was talking,” she said. She’d mistaken my explanation — “it’s normal” — for the name of the machine that had freaked her out. Who could blame her? Instead of redefining the concept of normal, she simply redefined the word.
I realized only later that I should’ve explained it in the manner of pigs and pancakes: If you install a talking smoke detector, it’s going to terrorize your family.