A few years ago I did a series of stories on smart homes and how they might adapt to rural America. It was enlightening, to say the least.
I didn’t know much about smart homes when I started researching and interviewing for the project. That was probably just as well, because my near-total ignorance on the topic freed me to ask a whole bunch of basic questions that I might otherwise not have asked. You know how it is when you know a little bit about a topic but not very much? You don’t want to embarrass yourself by asking something incredibly foolish. You might guess or assume, rather than ask the stupid question.
I learned not to assume things as I grew older in my news reporting career. Not asking a question for fear of being thought ignorant is a bad thing for a reporter to do. Most reporters often work on stories about which they know very little. They rely on questions to learn what they need to know to write a knowledgeable story.
A time or two early in my career, I failed to ask the clarifying question, thinking I probably knew what the interviewee meant. Whenever I assumed I knew something but didn’t make sure, I found myself in trouble – embarrassed far worse than if I had asked the basic question.
Suppose someone says their name is Casey. You figure it’s spelled like that. But what if the guy is Kayce Dutton from the “Yellowstone’’ television series? “Argh. If only I’d asked him to spell his name,’’ you wind up shouting to the heavens. Do that a time or two and you learn to ask everyone to spell their name, whether it’s Pete or Sam or Nancy or Mary. It just saves embarrassment.
But, wait. We were talking about smart homes and rural America. I really didn’t know what a smart home was when I started the assignment, so I asked basic questions. It turns out, there were no stupid questions on this assignment. The people I interviewed were experts. They were thrilled to start me at the pre-school level and work with me as far as I wished to go.
A smart home is one that has some cool technology, whether for convenience, safety or just a “wow’’ impact on visitors. A doorbell camera can be part of a smart home. So can thermostats that work remotely, and lights that can be controlled with voice commands or a cell phone from a remote location. So can security systems and sound systems, crock pots that respond to a phone or voice command. So can cameras inside refrigerators.
Say you live on the farm but have a second job in town 30 miles away, one expert said. You can’t remember if you have enough milk or eggs or apples in the fridge, so you call up your refrigerator camera on your phone before you leave town, and you shop for what you need, he said. I had to admit it made sense and would save another trip to town.
I also confessed there probably wasn’t a chance in the world I’d install a refrigerator camera or be carrying my phone when I needed to check the milk supply. The expert I spoke with laughed and said he probably wouldn’t, either. But he said if he was away from the farm for some days, he might frequently check outdoor security cameras linked to his phone. “Now that would make sense, it seems to me,’’ he said.
One thing about smart homes and rural America. It takes high-speed internet service, the experts said. The delays of dial-up wouldn’t cut it.
“It’s kind of chicken and egg,’’ Brian Sloboda, senior program manager for the Cooperative Research Network of the national Rural Electric Cooperative Association told me. “People in rural areas aren’t going to get smart-home technology without access to reliable broadband internet. But broadband internet services won’t go to rural areas without the assurance of customers.’’
He said some rural cooperatives already were working on ways to provide high-speed service. How quickly that happens will determine how far the smart home technology spreads through the countryside.
When I finished the project, I very much wanted all of rural America to share the same kind of high-speed internet service that can be found in the largest cities. If farmers and ranchers don’t have cameras in their refrigerators, it should be because they don’t want them there, not because they can’t have them.
Terry is a well-known regional columnist who lives in Fort Pierre, S.D.