anything but smart

What do the following have in common:

smart house, smart car, smart carte, smart pen, smart book, smart mob, smart marriage, smart fm, smart ftp, smart traveller, smart wings, smart wool, smart parts, smart bitches, smart drive, smart sound, smart defrag, smart playlist, smart card, smart spot, smart village, smart board, smart pointer, smart UPS, smart grid, smart tuition, smart lyrics, smart chart, smart boot manager, smart weapons, smart package manager, smart conference, smart clip, smart material, smart dust, smart water, smart cookies, smart power, smart money, smart game, smart heel, smart classrooms, smart skincare, smart garage, smart linux, smart limo, smart motorway, smart pdfcreator, smart mahjongg?

 It can be hard to say precisely, because it depends on what we mean by smart. The trend of prefixing a noun with smart (or easy for that matter) has long ago lost its intended effect. This sample of modified nouns comes from a common google search. And it would not be complete without one more – a gorilla from my industry – the smartphone.

Why should consumers care when we claim to have made something smarter?  What makes one thing smart does not make all things smart. As innovators we must first learn to say what we mean – to people. 

All of these smart-nouns fall into two categories: Those represent the definition of a concept, and others represent an object’s (branded) character. What is the difference you ask? Well, the first bucket is about substance, the second one is about essence.

In order to compare the them, let’s start with essence. A ‘smart car’ is not capable of beating Kasparov at chess. It is smart, only in the sense that it makes a promise to the consumer. As in “It makes one feel smart“. Which can be an important emotional connection to make with consumers.   

A smartphone on the other hand, gets its handle because of what it does. At the moment it would not fare much better against Kasparov, but it is so-called smart for two reasons. 1) It’s originators don’t want you to confuse a smartphone with a garden-variety mobile phone, and 2) the concept of computer was already taken.  The value is not in how it makes a consumer feel. The value is in what it does differently for a consumer. 

Which doesn’t mean that smart was the best choice available.

We can all be forgiven for the temptation to smarten things. I mean, what company doesn’t want to make its consuming public feel smart? Additionally, who among of us does not try to do things differently – from our rivals? The problem is just that smart has lost its sweeping powers long ago. Smart-nouns don’t just leave consumers cold, they bury the meaning of an innovation – to collaborators and would-be partners alike. 

Recently, the Economist reported that the mobile phone industry was on a quest to find the soul of the smartphone. This is an unusually of poetic turn, for a newspaper that emphasizes prose and exposition. What is striking to me about this article is that it is a discussion of what a smartphone isn’t. Not about what it is. Nor about what it does.

So the next time you are tempted to apply the smart-noun-smart-bomb, don’t. It is not in your interest. Not to mention your consuming public’s. 

All innovators want to generate excitement. When a concept is first named and defined it is fragile. To define a concept as smart-anything explains little, rather it adds a burden of mystery that you would be expected alleviate. After all, how hard can it be to simply explain: smart at (performing) what?

For example, a smart grid is capable of sensing both supply and demand and is therefore aware.  Such awareness ‘enables the new technology to send pricing messages about when energy conscious customers might best turn on appliances like dishwashers and washing machines’. Such awareness thinly reminds us of intelligence. And yet that awareness isn’t complete enough to recognize when red wine will stain clothing – much less recognize when Kasparov moves a queen in a threatening manner. 

In On Intelligence, Jeff Hawkins argues that intelligence comes down to one thing. The capability to recognize ‘what’s new (here)?’ Societies have made enormous strides with technology. But the next time you think that we have developed sentient-anything, I urge you to configure a new printer on a network – the experience feels anything but smart.

If it is all so comical why does this naming convention persist? And what harm is there in a little robo-fantasy, anyway? To my eyes there are two practices getting conflated: concept definition and branding. The former attends to explaining what some thing is (or will be when it gets made some day) as well as what it meant to do for the user. The latter activity is about explaining how an offering will make you feel, relative to other offerings that exist currently in a market. When we conflate them we probably mean no more harm than to imagine a successful entry to the market. All the same, what some technology enables is very different than how it makes a person feel about the experience. 

More often than not defining new concepts has more to with meaning and nuance about the human condition than performing technological headstands. Mohamad Yunus illustrates how important a clear definition can be:

“At the time that I studied Jobra’s poverty, I realized how important it was to differentiate between the really poor and the marginal farmers. International development programs in rural areas always focus on farmers and landowners, … government bureaucrats and social scientists had not clarified who the poor in fact were….Such conceptual vagueness greatly damaged our our efforts to alleviate poverty. For one thing, most definitions left out women and children. In my work i foud it useful to use three braod definitions of poor to describe the situation in Bangladesh:

P1.  The bottom 20 percent of teh population (hard core / absolute poor)
P2.  The bottom 35 percent of the population
p3.  The bottom 50 percent of the popilation

Within each category of poor I have often created sub classifications on the basis of region, occupation, religion, ethnic background sex, age and so on. Occupational or regional categories may not be as quantifiable as income asset criteria, but they help us to create a multidimensional poverty matrix.  Like navigation markings in in unknown waters, definitions of poverty need to be distinctive and unambiguous. A definition that is not precise may be as bad as no definition at all… these people had absolutely no chance of improving their economic base. each one was stuck in poverty.”

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One response to “anything but smart

  1. On the matter of smart-of-substance, I would suggest that we really don’t need smart products, but rather dumb ones that act on instinct. You don’t want a phone that’s smart enough to be your agent (not at first anyways); you want a phone that instinctively does things that you’d need to expend brainpower to do yourself.

    Homing pigeons are stupid, not smart. We don’t want a smart auto that can simulate the cognition (or, sometimes, lack thereof) of the driver to drive itself. We want an auto that WANTS to drive itself, just like the pigeon wants to go home.

    These things exist (sort of) already. There are legged robots that can walk, but were never programmed to walk. They don’t KNOW how to walk, but they still do. It’s basically done by instinct, and it’s done very cheaply compared any attempt to have a cognitive engine learning to walk.

    The notion that some smart product has a bit of HAL 9000 in it is crap that’s convincing the lay public that the “robo-fantasy” will be real any day now. Which is, as far as I’m concerned, criminal behaviour.

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