In the space of a week, Juicero, the juicing machine that inspired mockery and outrage for raising $120 million to sell a $400 juicer with juice packs you can easily squeeze with your bare hands, has become a symbol of Silicon Valley’s arrogance and disconnect. And yes, Juicero is dumb. But, underneath its stupidity lies a much, much larger problem: Silicon Valley can’t stop overengineering things.
The Juicero itself, as a product, is a good example of this. Bolt’s Ben Einstein took the Juicero apart and found it to be a complex, lovingly crafted machine made from injection-molded plastic, precisely machined aluminum parts and clever ideas, all of which were created for the purpose of crushing fruit. In other words, the Juicero is a well-engineered (and well-intentioned) solution to a problem that no one really has.
That would be the end of the story if the Juicero itself was the problem, but it’s not. Because the Juicero is only a symptom of an epidemic in the tech industry — an epidemic driven by a desperate need to stand out. Kickstarter alone has seen everything from sexy smartphone chargers to overly specific Instagram knockoffs.
That said, large corporations — those that really should know better — aren’t any more immune to this phenomenon. Kohler’s Numi has a touchscreen remote control, user presets, and an elaborate music system, all of which seem unnecessary for a toilet (unless you’re Gene Belcher). But the Numi is only the beginning: There are stoves with chat features, a drone that scoops poop, and a grocery store that won’t function if it has too many customers, which somehow manages to be both annoying to the consumer and terrible for the store’s bottom line.
All of this can seem hilarious at first, but the truth is that the tech industry’s mindless sprint towards jamming a processor and WiFi chip into everything, no matter how fundamentally useless it might be, is dangerous in a multitude of ways. This year alone a sex toy was accused of spying on its users; the next day another sex toy was revealed to have such poor security anybody could commandeer the camera; and then, a children’s doll was pulled from German shelves because it could potentially be used to spy on kids. There are days where one wonders if Kafka and Rube Goldberg died or simply got jobs in product design.
The problem is greater, however, than just violating our privacy. Tesla is currently in a legal dispute over whether its Autopilot tool, implicated in several accidents, was ready to be out on the market. The FDA is taking legal action against medical device providers failing to secure crucial medical tools and implants. And, in October, hackers used a “zombie” network to attempt to crash the entire internet in a distributed denial of service attack, in which a network is overwhelmed by requests to access it. Many of the “zombies” in this horde were cheap webcams and other poorly secured Internet of Things devices, and many cybersecurity experts expect this to be the norm going forward, with attacks on fundamental infrastructure like power grids. Thanks to overengineering and poor security, we live in a world where our stoves and “personal massagers” might soon become weapons of mass destruction.
It’s not news that the tech industry is fundamentally both unable and unwilling to acknowledge anything other than the rosiest of scenarios for anything it builds. Nor is it news that engineering in a free market leads to absurdity, as our parents and grandparents had a whole host of poorly conceived, idiotic, and dangerous technologies to deal with themselves.
The response has always been to pass the buck onto the consumer and ask why they didn’t do their own research before making an informed purchase. But while that may hold a kernel of truth on social media and other optional technology, it doesn’t hold up on physical objects for two reasons. The first is that the tech industry is fully aware the majority of features it crams into its products are never used. Just how much that applies to the Internet of Things is an excellent question, but it’s unlikely it’s immune to this disuse. There are legions of people who buy the stove with WiFi because they like the stove, and aren’t even aware it connects to the internet.
Secondly, there’s a difference between trusting Facebook not to serve up clickbait and expecting the physical objects you use to cook food and entertain your children to be safe. The former, perhaps, is something of a grey area, but it’s not reasonable to sell potentially dangerous objects and then tell the customer “Your fault for trusting us.” Fake news can hurt your feelings; a WiFi stove that malfunctions can burn down your house.
There has never been a tech executive willing to admit their technology is not ready, that their product was poorly conceived, or that even glaringly obvious dangerous scenarios might be something they should keep in mind. But increasingly, it’s getting outright dangerous. The Juicero is absurd in a lot of ways, starting with the idea that juicing is anything other than a silly nutritional fad. But the problem it represents should be taken far more seriously.