Google Nest and the Internet of Shit

As I write this, I’m sitting comfortably in my new house, where it is cool and dry. Last week in Houston, however, it was 100 degrees (near record-breaking), and humid. I’m no stranger to heat, having spent most of my life in central California with a brief sojourn in Las Vegas, but it was particularly brutal when I moved here and, of course, the air conditioner immediately broke.

There were actually several things that went wrong in succession, but one of the most frustrating by far was the thermostat, a “Nest” device produced by Google (who bought the Nest company some years ago) that came with the house. I’m constantly flummoxed by the number of people who buy into and praise the “internet of things” – the idea that many “smart” devices surrounding you can improve your life.

The Nest is the perfect example of why such inclinations are perilously short-sighted, and is the prime exemplar of the “internet of shit.” It’s a device that makes the simple complex and fails at its primary purpose. Trying to get the air conditioner to kick on when your thermostat imposes a 2-hour delay is annoying enough, having to deal with the equivalent of a bricked cell phone when all you want is for it to not be 90 degrees inside is much worse.

On the surface, it’s a smooth, slick and minimalist device, which looks both cool and inconspicuous as it sits on your wall. You can control it with your phone, which is pretty neat when it’s all working. Its interface is simple while not particularly easy to use, clearly designed by someone at the tech-giant with some experience. It has a great wiring harness. But once you get past that, it’s a pile of shit that makes your life worse in a multitude of ways while offering next to no benefit for all its flaws.

A thermostat in concept is a simple device. When the temperature reaches a certain level, it completes a circuit with the furnace (or blower) that turns on the A/C or heat. In the old days, this was accomplished with a spring and a bead of mercury. In an emergency (as I found out), you can take the thermostat off the wall and jump the connections yourself. A modern thermostat can schedule these temperatures, but at the heart, the mechanics are the same.

Thus, the Nest, with its many “features,” is a device in search of a purpose. That purpose, if you believe the advertising is to save you money. An inquisitive mind will wonder how it will accomplish this, given the way a thermostat works. The short answer is that it won’t save you money except by making you more uncomfortable for a very long period of time. The Nest is expensive at 200 dollars (or more, if you were an early adopter). A Honeywell programable thermostat is 40 dollars.

The Nest makes up that 160 dollar deficit by running your air conditioner and furnace less often. That’s the only way to “save” money with a thermostat, which just completes a circuit to turn on your equipment or disconnects the circuit to turn it off. Supposedly it will learn when to turn things off by tracking your every movement, noting when you leave the house or when you return, and what you set the temperature to while there. Besides being a bit dystopian, this level of tracking is both unnecessary and possibly detrimental.

A programable thermostat performs this function already. If you get home from work at 6, you can tell your thermostat to start lowering the temperature at 5, so you step into a cool house. The Nest presumes you are either too lazy or stupid to do this yourself, or else your schedule is too complicated for a programable thermostat (which would really be something). That 160 dollars will be hard to make up.

In practice, the thermostat doesn’t work as well as a basic Honeywell. It delays turning on the equipment (sometimes for hours) according to some internal (or server) algorithm, will turn the compressor on and off randomly without ever reaching the target temperature, and of, course, doesn’t work with all its features when not connected to the internet (which it wasn’t, since we just moved and were painting all of the rooms).

For months or years your life will be slightly (or significantly) less comfortable to save 160 dollars’ worth of energy. But it’s worse than that.

The smart thermostat will die. Mine did. Then you will have to replace it for another few hundred dollars. I would, based on other tech devices, expect the lifespan to be a few years. The Nest is, like other small computers, dependent on various updates to maintain its function, and may be subject to feature pruning at any time or service depreciation, leaving the user in the lurch. Meanwhile, that cheap Honeywell will perform its function flawlessly for decades. And it won’t leave your pets in a 100-degree house because they didn’t walk in front of a proximity censor or because the ISP went offline.

When my Nest kicked the bucket, displaying the “G” google logo in perpetuity no matter what I did, I quickly discovered how widespread basic failure of the thermostat is. It seems like everybody has had a problem with theirs, either major or minor. The best solution according to the internet was to reset the device TEN TIMES to get it to work. This worked once and never again. At one in the morning, I had to bring my cats to my mother’s house because I would be unable to operate the thermostat. I could jump the wires, but since I wasn’t staying at the house yet, I wouldn’t be able to turn the system off.

Manually jumping circuits is something most consumers are not going to know how to do, so of course the internet is full of people complaining about how their Nest decided to die on a 100-degree day and tech support is about as good as one can expect from Silicon Valley. Reading this you can probably imagine a person on the other end of a phone treating you like an idiot after you sat on hold for an hour. “Is your router online? Is the Nest connected to it? Did you try turning it off and back on again? Turn the dial to reach the menu icon…”

The real tech support replies are much worse. Reset it 10 times. Take it off the wall and plug it into a phone charger to bring up the internal battery. Plug it into your computer and see what files are on it.

All this for a device which is supposed to close a circuit when it gets warm.

While the internet as a whole is quite robust, an individual’s ability to connect and utilize the internet is fragile. In some places in the country, depending on that fragile connection to utilize climate control can be dangerous. Phoenix at 120 degrees is potentially lethal when your Nest can’t (or won’t) turn on the AC. And then there are the interconnectivity issues, like the fact that the Nest depends on your google account to function.

Your fridge letting your ice cream melt because you said the N-word on Twitter is bad enough. Your thermostat could try to kill you.

But that’s the Google Nest. It’s a piece of shit that, when it doesn’t work (which it inevitably won’t), will destroy any goodwill stored up from when it did work. It might be the worst example of a smart device I can think of. When I replaced it with a cheap Honeywell, my wife responded by joyfully deleting the Nest app from her phone and searching for a hammer to smash the nest.

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  1. The other day I was brainstorming with my family about small changes that would provide outsized quality of life improvements. Outlawing customer service bots and reshoring those jobs would save billions in cardiovascular healthcare costs alone.

    • LOL! At one point in time, Apple tech support was considered world-class (1990s). You got free tech support for life with any apple product. You could call in 1996 and get full support for an Apple IIe. And the people on the line worked at Apple HQ and were enthusiasts themselves. It was one of the reasons Apple users were so loyal 20+ years ago.
      It’s like we’ve had a complete and total inversion of that.

  2. Rudolph Harrier

    When EA made their new SimCity online only they added some token features to justify the decision, like having neighboring cities be actual player cities rather than being computer generated. Gamers saw through this immediately and realized that the first decision had been to make it online only (to fight piracy and gather player data) with the online features put in after the fact to dress it up.

    Most internet of things devices follow the same pattern. The real intention behind them is to observe everything you do and sell the data. But since most people aren’t willing to pay more for that “privilege” they do a lot of marketing about the convenience of being connected with a phone, smart algorithms, etc. But it’s really just an afterthought, hence why it is designed so poorly. And note too that these things never fail in a convenient way. Any sane design of a “smart lightswitch” would just let you switch it on and off manually when you lose the internet connection. But if they did that, then users could block or turn off the internet when they wanted a regular light switch. Since the real purpose is to make a user data gathering machine, they can’t have that, even if it means that your lights suddenly can’t turn on anymore due to server issues.

  3. What happened to you is what happened to me: a new home that had a Nest thermostat that saved money at the price of comfort. My current thermostat is a “dumb” but programmable Honeywell thermostat that features auto changeover.

    The Nest thermostat, meanwhile, ended up at my mother’s house, and one of the first things that I did was open the Nest app and deactivate all of the smart/learning features so that it would have a single heating point and a single cooling point for the entire day. And the very next day, its Internet tramsmitter malfunctioned.

  4. This is one of many reasons all my appliances aren’t “smart.” I even keep my television functions as basic as I can.

  5. Greetings Stu, and congratulations on leaving California.

    They don’t seem to need overt “carbon” taxes anymore, aye?

    Used “too much” AC this summer? Your “smart” thermostat will stop working for a few hours to properly redistribute energy usage.

    Too tidy? Your “smart” vacuum cleaner will refuse to clean your floors.

    Too sweaty because the AC isn’t cooperative? Sorry, you’ve already topped your allowed water usage for the week and your “smart” washing machine won’t wash your clothes.

    But what will they do when people start getting smart to this and installing Honeywells? Or resort to -the horror- vacuum cleaning the house themselves?

    • Presumably, they would make smart devices mandatory. In certain areas, there are already devices linked to the meter to turn off your AC when load gets heavy.
      That just creates a dichotomy between those who know how to jump the cables and run things themselves, and the plebs who don’t know how to do things manually. I’ve already done content on how to make your shower heads put out a more acceptable amount of water (very easy, but 99% of people never do it).

      • The Democrats on the East Coast go about it more elegantly. In my own town, for example, the utility company can install remote switches for your water heater and your AC. They’ll switch off your water heater from 6 – 8 AM, and they’ll do something clever with your AC from 4 – 6 PM: they’ll run it for 15 minutes, then they’ll kill it for 15 minutes, and they’ll repeat this until the end of peak hours.

        They’re able to do this without accidentally killing people, because the utilities are centralized under the city, and they rely on smart meters to determine where power is needed the most. My residential smart meter supposedly transmits four times a day.

  6. The Internet of Things is destined to be both oppressive and non-functional. Yet people clap like trained seals to install spyware in the privacy of their own homes.

  7. Reminds me of a joke someone posted at work:
    Ordinary Person: “My whole house is smart!”
    Tech worker: “The only device I own is a printer, and I keep a hammer ready in case it makes a noise I don’t recognize.”

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