This week I visited a friend at a location where the front entrance features a battery-powered, Internet-connected doorbell. I rang it once at five minutes of the hour, when we were due to meet, and then again right on the hour, also to no avail. I then texted my friend to confirm the time and location of our appointment. When my friend texted back to verify I had my calendar correct, I mentioned I was out front.
The short version: “This thing works great, except you have to replace the batteries pretty often.” Slightly longer version: between my two clicks of the doorbell, and extended up until my friend confirmed my understanding of the calendar and retrieved me, I sensed myself becoming increasingly self-conscious that the doorbell’s camera was capturing me in all my Neo-Luddism. At best, I was expressing the impatience of someone still not fully accustomed to new-fangled doorbells. At worst I was using one inappropriately — or had messed up the calendar, another digital faux pas. As it turned out, it was the doorbell that was coming up short. If I was being inappropriate, it was the way an adult might be with a child: This nascent technology may deserve some coddling until it comes of age. (Whether its designers do is another story.)
There are many things to be sorted out between now and the potentially inevitable fairly-informed-if-not-truly-smart home, and one of them is the way these devices make us feel. An old-fashioned doorbell, for all its shortcomings, confirms you have pressed it. A doorbell that depends on battery power loses this ability the second the battery is dead. Digital devices aspire to excel at functions and features, but they often fall short in terms of affordances, at the broader, contextual, environmental range of interactions.
The traditional, “analog” doorbell isn’t great, by any means. And yet it has survived potential replacements for nearly a century — and it may very well survive the Internet of Things because it has turned out to have taken into account aspects of the interaction that potential replacements, such as the battery-operated doorbell, have quite utterly failed to.
Still, things at my friend’s place could have been worse. There could have been a doorbell that does what the one pictured here is doing, which is going utterly haywire. The camera doesn’t do justice to the hyperactivity — the tantrum — of its malfunction. I’ve taken a lot of doorbell pictures, most of them emphasizing decay, and when doing so I have taken a bit of time to frame the image, to adjust for light and geometry. This one I shot quickly, because it felt rude after dark to intrude on a residential doorstep in a way it doesn’t during the day. This is, however, a picture of decay, just of rapid decay, digital decay. The elements didn’t have time to have their way with this doorbell. It did itself in.
An ongoing series cross-posted from instagram.com/dsqt.