MWD54 - On Innovation

Or how this appliance commercial reveals the lies of modern America

Welcome to Midweek DinnerThere’s a whole story behind that name, something about the way Wednesday creeps up on you, and you have to cobble together a meal out of whatever you can scrounge from the fridge. And yes, sometimes there is talk of food in this place. But mostly it’s about what I’ve been reading, in print and online; or what I’ve been thinking, in clarity and confusion; or what I am hoping, in fear and in joy. And you are always invited to join in.

—— The best conversations take place around the dinner table. — —

In the dentist’s chair this morning, while Semisonic’s “Closing Time” mellowed in the background, the silent TV broke from The Today Show and gave forth this commercial.

GE would like to excite us about the next generation of smart appliances, opening with a promise:

This is not just innovation. This is smarter innovation.

As those words assert themselves across the screen, the mind is subconsciously taking in the kitchen scene behind them. It’s the sleek, open shelving artfully arranged; it’s the upscale backsplash and clean work surfaces; it’s the cutting board, the lime, the knife placed just so.

But wait. What is that screen? Over the range, where a hood or perhaps a microwave might usually go, there’s what? A TV? A monitor? Still unsure, but granting the existence of a digital interface at eye-level as you cook, the commercial carries on.

But not me. Watching it again now, I’ve got it paused there. Having watched this commercial now 3 times in the last hour or so, I have a good idea of what’s to come, but I’m stuck there on the idea of innovation. Or innovation somehow being insufficient, innovation that is now inferior and in need of a “smarter innovation.”

I’m stuck there, in part, because of the way this tag plays into the scarcity lie, reinforcing the notion that whatever we currently have or do, it is not enough. If you already have a smart appliance, but we need you to buy something new, the only option is a smartER appliance. You may already bring your computer into the kitchen, but what if you had a computer built into your kitchen? What if what you already have isn’t enough?

I’m also stuck there because of the series of pieces I’ve heard or read this week on the question of post-pandemic remote workers. Like this piece from Raconteur, the conversation focuses on two elements of worker value: productivity and innovation. Unlike the Raconteur piece, the prevailing argument is that workers need to be back in the office. CEOs and managers are pleased that remote work allows their employees to be more productive, lauding the efforts of those employees who have increased their time at work because they don’t have a commute or because they can eat and work at the same time. But, they say, it’s the innovation they worry about. Here’s a chunk from a recent NPR piece:

ADAM: Why do we need to go back to the office?

CORNISH: Why and how to bring employees back into the office - those are the kinds of decisions company leaders are having to make. And they're thinking about how to give employees flexibility, how the pandemic has impacted innovation and company culture. We spoke to a variety of CEOs - Christina Seelye, CEO and founder of video game publisher Maximum Games in California, was one of them.

CHRISTINA SEELYE: Innovation's a big one. I think that innovation - I haven't seen the technology yet that replicates what it's like to be in a room with people and bounce off of each other.

CORNISH: And Dan Rootenberg, CEO of SPEAR Physical Therapy Company in New York.

DAN ROOTENBERG: I do believe that people learn from each other more. There's more collaboration. There's Zoom fatigue. I mean, I'm on so many Zoom meetings. It's, you know, it's really exhausting after a while. And so there's a totally different feeling when you get together.

Why the binary, CEOs? Perhaps you need to innovate and ideate your way into a more complex understanding of “working from home.” It’s not Zoom or nothing. Remote work does not mean a dark, vacuum-sealed room, far from the realities of other humans and their exciting ideas. Is it possible they can’t picture an employee who regularly meets colleagues for an extended lunch or who comes up with fresh ideas while on a long walk or who realizes the deficiency in a product after being forced to use it every day at home?

But back to the ideas themselves. What constitutes innovation? Or perhaps I should ask, what is smarter innovation? Thankfully, GE has the answer. Let’s break the rest of the commercial down, shall we? The next bit pans out in that well-appointed kitchen and then pivots to

With appliances, that let you check it here,

and shows the screen of a smartphone presumably in the hand (caucasian) of the owner of that kitchen. They’re on the couch, feet up, and the app display reads “In-Oven Cookcam TM” and shows the interior of their oven where a homemade pizza looks to be almost ready.

No need to get off the couch, friend. Just switch from Instagram to your In-Oven Cookcam to see how the pizza’s progressing. New scene, and we see a different set of hands (caucasian) with a different phone screen, and the words

start it there,

showing us how easy it is to start your ice maker from yoga class? Or the floor of an otherwise empty room? I’m not sure where this person is sitting cross-legged, but I can’t imagine being anywhere and wishing I could clarify the status of my ice maker.

New scene: now we’re working out! In the desert! Could be yoga or maybe a hike? There is definitely a fitness tracker on the wrist (caucasian) of this person holding a phone.

What is the urgency here? We’ll never know what appliance is being controlled from the desert. But we do know we are supposed to be thankful for this smarter innovation allowing us to

control it anywhere.

New innovation alert!

This is no spills AutoFill.

Even though this technology is not at all new, watch that pitcher fill with water, no humans anywhere around! No need to stand there, holding the pitcher, like you’re somehow the slave of this piece of plastic! No! You can go on about your day, doing those important things you are undoubtedly doing, because this fridge can sense when the pitcher is full and will stop dispensing water. The need to pay attention is over, no longer our “endless and proper work.”

What else you got, GE? More innovation?

And a way to let ‘em know,

we’re back in the CookCam, but now we’re texting a picture of dinner? Ah, yes, this person (not caucasian!) is now aware that “dinner’s good to go.” I can’t tell if this is a message from the human making the dinner in another part of this house, or if this is the actual oven sending the human a text to let them know dinner is ready. Either way, it sure is good to know we don’t need to take any personal responsibility in the dinner process. Or communicate with our faces to the other humans in our home.

This is just the beginning

we are told as we watch that mysterious microwave/monitor in the kitchen run an upgrade on itself.

This is GE Profile.

Others have taken up these questions before me and in far better, more substantial ways. I could point you (as I have before) to Anne Helen Petersen and her ongoing conversations about work, especially this on The Future of Remote Work. Or I could send you again (with haste) to L. M. Sacasas where the topics of technology and convenience/control and attention are taken up with such care and consideration.

It’s just a commercial? No. It most decidedly is not.

Here are a few more things I’ve enjoyed recently:

— Austin Kleon’s response to the Languishing thing is excellent, especially this part:

It is a mistake and a misreading of nature to think that you, a living creature, will be flourishing all the days of your life.

— Do I know anyone who wants to invite me to the Learned League trivia community? Because this is very much a thing I enjoy and, prior to this New Yorker profile, very much a thing I was ignorant of.

“Cooking Backwards” (written by Pamela Petro and published by Guernica) combines several areas of interest: food, family, recipes, and archival work. I might argue that what she describes is more like curation than archiving, but the piece still resonates, especially for this new-to-me word: hiraeth, which Petro explains is Welsh for

that intractable longing you feel for someone or something — a home, a culture, a language, even your younger self — that you’ve lost of left behind. . . . [It] is, above all, an acknowledgment of the presence of absence.

Thanks as always for reading and thinking with me. If you have thoughts to share, just hit reply! I welcome your conversation and promise a response.