Joshua McNichols / Joshua McNichols
When the Ferguson family decided to live in the Seattle suburb of Black Diamond, they were not in the market for a smart home. But they wound up with one, a house packed with Internet-connected devices.
Fifteen year old Macey Ferguson loves it. "I feel really fancy," she says of having Amazon's Alexa there to turn on the lights for her, or to remind her when to go to cheerleading practice. "I feel like she is my little servant or butler." Her older brother uses it for math homework, her younger sister to call grandma. Her three-year-old brother asks Alexa for cake recipes so he can stare longingly at the pictures.
Kelli Ferguson, the mother of this household, is more ambivalent. On the one hand, it's nice to ask Alexa to warm the house before crawling out of bed in the winter. On the other hand, there are all these cameras. "If I walk on our street, I walk across the street," she said, meaning the page without smart homes. "Just because I don't want to be on everybody's camera."
Living in a smart home area, Ferguson experiences both convenience and monitoring. And that's typical in Black Diamond, where Lennar Homes offers smart homes as part of a 4,800 unit development that includes other builders. This neighborhood is not one of them. There are smart home developments in suburbs outside cities such as Miami and San Francisco. Lennar makes Amazon a technical standard on each of the 45,000 homes it builds this year.
This collaboration between builders and Amazon benefits both sides. Amazon wants to push for wider adoption of the Echo smart speaker. Lennar relies on Amazon to differentiate it from other home builders in communities like Black Diamond.
But do users really need smart home technology?
Amazon really wants you to believe it. In Black Diamond, the course starts at the Amazon Experience Center, a model home just around the corner from the Fergusons.
Lennar New Home consultant Brittney Svach throws out commands like a smart home samurai, using her voice to unlock the door, start up the robot vacuum, dim the lights, close the blinds and retrieve a feed on smart TV from one of the home's many surveillance cameras. "Alexa, show me the backyard," she commands. Up shows up a video. "And now we can spy on the drinker on the patio," she says with a smile.
Amazon has plenty of ground to cover if it wants to build a market for consumers who are hungry for smart homes. A study by Zillow says that smart home technology is down on the list of desired features in the home, hanging far from air conditioning and good storage space. It is about as important as a hot tub for those shopping for a home.
But Dave Garland thinks technology will speed up when people try it. He is with Second Century Ventures, an investment arm of the National Association of Realtors. "It's a new story when it comes to what" home "means," he says. "It means a personal environment where technology meets your every need."
Black Diamond resident Drew Holmes buys that line. Like Fergusons, he wasn't looking for a smart home, but the technology came with the one he happened to like. Now he enjoys all the smart home features. "I wouldn't live without them," he said.
His favorite is a bell that logs visitors. "I have teenagers," he said. "It's nice to confirm when they get home. And I have proof of that."
Therron Smith had a very different reaction to the smart house. "The idea of having cameras in every room and the potential exposure … just made us nervous about it," he says.
Smith works in tech, saying that's how he knows the risk. It's not just cameras, even light switches that capture information. "That data is not just there, just … empty," he says. "Someone should look at it and take advantage of it, to try to make money, or try to create an ad, or try to generate revenue."
When newcomers buy a home in Black Diamond, they not only buy property – they decide how far they will allow technology companies to penetrate their lives. That's something many of us will need to navigate if this technology becomes standard in multiple neighborhoods.
You can learn more about how Amazon is changing us by subscribing to the KUOW podcast, " Primed ."
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