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The Chumby Diaries: A Partial-Attention Love-Hate Story

Ryan Ward

Day 1

“What the hell is it?”

“It’s a Chumby.”

“A what?”

My co-worker watches as I unpack the weird device. It looks like a clock radio in a beanbag. It has a video screen, it’s padded in rubber and leather, and it’s soft and squashy. It’s the most recent in the growing field of “ambient” consumer electronic devices. (Remember the groovy Ambient Orb from your old SkyMall catalog, which would light up green if the Dow Jones Industrial Average was up, or red if it was down?) The Chumby is what would have resulted if God had asked David Cronenberg to design the baked potato.

Chumby is supposed to connect wirelessly to the Internet and play simple programs, called “widgets”; that calculator on your computer desktop, for instance, is a widget, as is the Scramble word game on your Facebook page. Touted as an “Internet buffet,” the Chumby will play endless loops of widgets: whale-watching cams, daily horoscopes, video clips from the Late Show or 60 Minutes, weather and traffic reports, etc.

Or so I’ve been told. In our office building, the Chumby has difficulties grabbing onto the wireless network. I connect it to a computer manually with a USB cord.

“Hmm,” says our I.T. guy, “I don’t like the way it’s scouring the network. It just doesn’t look like a well-behaved network device. Sorry to be a computer nazi about this, but can you disconnect it?”

We unplug the baked potato. I.T. Department = 1. Chumby = 0.

Day 2

I take the Chumby home. I don’t have wireless DSL at my place ... but the neighbors do.

What was that quote the Chumby makers say encapsulates the essence of their business strategy? “Whoever you are,” said Blanche DuBois, “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.” I’m adopting that strategy as well.

And to good effect: success! The Chumby is up and running. I go to Chumby.com and choose widgets I’d like the Chumby to play. Now, every 30 seconds, the Chumby’s screen changes: Daily Horoscope. NBA scores. Surf reports. Today in History. Japanese syllabary flash cards. Thanks to Shamu Cam, I can see that SeaWorld’s big whale is flippering around in his tank. Occasionally, he butts up against the camera. Panda Cam at the San Diego Zoo shows nothing but foliage. Via a widget called Chuck Norris Facts, I learn stuff I never knew I needed to know: “Chuck Norris can slam a revolving door.” This is the Web’s stream of consciousness.

Reverently, I place the Chumby on the kitchen counter. It comes packaged, inexplicably, with an assortment of rubber charms. An egg. A ham. A squid. A two-headed planaria. You hang the charms on a silver button on the side of the Chumby. The operative principle being, if you plan to make something weird, why not make it really, really weird?


Day 3

Chumby teaches me about battle. From Sun Tzu’s The Art of War widget, I learn The Use of Spies: “Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men. ... Hence the use of spies. ... Without subtle ingenuity of mind, one cannot make certain of the truth of their reports.”

Meanwhile, a widget called ChumbySpy lets you watch random security-camera footage from all over the world, yet it won’t tell you where you’re looking exactly. This is frustrating. And postmodern.


Day 4

It’s a testy little machine. Sometimes the Chumby senses the network. Sometimes, sluggish, it does not. Plus, its screen has grown warm to the touch. Is Chumby running a fever? This is normal, I’m told. I repack it in its original cloth drawstring pouch, in which it sits for the rest of the afternoon, like a severed head in a burlap sack.

Day 5

After several restarts, the Chumby is back in business. It’s like leaving a very small TV on all the time. That’s just what the world needs, right? Another computer screen to stare at? We are in a state of love-hate, Chumby and I.


Day 6

Chumby and I sleep together for the first time today. It feels so wrong yet so right.

“Barack Obama rescued you from drowning,” Chumby says.

“Barack Obama baked you a pie.”

“Barack Obama held your hand when you were frightened.”

“Barack Obama gave you a puppy.”

At night I fall asleep to the Chumby widget based on the non-Chumby Web site that recently became a book called Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle: 366 Ways He Really Cares. The tiny 3-inch monitor glows softly in the darkened room. I dream of baked potatoes and American presidents.

 


Day 7

Chumby never seems to be playing the widget I want it to play. When I look at it, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Loch Ness cam, it gives me the BBC News headlines. In this sense, Chumby seems to have a mind of its own.

Like Tom Hanks’ volleyball friend, Wilson, in Cast Away, Chumby has a personality. Cute and cuddly Chumby is ripe to be anthropomorphized.

“Aren’t you, Chumby?” I say, petting it on the head. “Yes you are. Yesh yooou are.”

Its planaria charm dangles roguishly.

Day 8

There are things the Chumby cannot do. The Chumby cannot take a bath with me. Well, it could, but that would probably be the last thing it ever did. I cannot keyword-search on the Chumby. I cannot buy things on the Chumby. I cannot surf the Net with the Chumby. I cannot make a phone call on the Chumby. I cannot stash the Chumby in my pocket and whip it out during a meeting, all slicklike, to casually check e-mail. The Chumby is the anti-iPod.

I turn the Chumby off for the afternoon. Something about its perpetually cycling through endless loops of widgets unnerves me. It’s been there in the background for days, lurking in my peripheral vision. At times, I catch it staring at me. Literally. I’ve loaded it with a widget of a giant human eye. The retina darts back and forth, as if peeping out from behind the screen. The honeymoon is definitely over.

 

When I turn Chumby back on again some hours later, a “Skillet Corn Bread Pudding with Ham and Pepper Jack” recipe from the Food Network’s Recipe of the Day widget pops up ... while I’m eating corn bread. Now, this is creepy. Had the recipe been cycling all day, subliminally implanting me with the desire to eat corn bread? Or did Chumby sense the food present in the room and dredge up content to match? That’s ridiculous, of course. The Chumby isn’t psychic.

Is it?


Day 9

“Why would you spend $180 for an alarm clock?” a friend asks.

“But it’s not just an alarm clock.” I mumble something about the 500 widgets across 28 categories.

“Of course not,” he says. “It’s an alarm clock that will steal all your passwords.”

Is the Chumby going to steal all my passwords? Can I trust you, Chumby?

Digital devices are the new frontier for information stealing. A couple of years ago, a credit union hired a security company to find out how easy it would be to break into its network. The hackers-for-hire snuck into the parking lot early in the morning and scattered infected USB flash drives on the ground. Employees picked them up, plugged them in, and the virus began e-mailing information back to the hackers. Too easy.

Then, this February, a little-publicized story broke about Chinese digital photo frames being sold at Best Buy, which came pre-installed with a Trojan Horse virus. Once you plugged the frame into your computer, it blocked 100 kinds of antivirus software and began stealing passwords. It spread by hiding itself in any portable storage device that plugged into the infected computer. The security-company analysts who studied the virus — they called it “the nuclear bomb of malware” — believe the Trojan, which only stole gaming passwords, was an early test for a future, bigger attack.

“Can the Chumby give my computer a virus?” I write the Chumby creators.


Day 10

Duane, VP of software development, writes back. Because Chumby is not a storage device, it cannot be used as a vector for virus propagation. “We wouldn’t ever claim that the Chumby is a 100 percent secure device that could never be exploited, because that’s simply an impossible thing to claim,” Duane says. “However, the system is locked down pretty tight — first off, by being a Linux-based system; secondly, by using unmodifiable, read-only file systems; and thirdly, by using a sandboxed virtual machine for our application layer.”

Phew! Chumby, you’re not so bad. The Chumby rolls with its own posse of Chumby fans — alpha geeks, all — via a Web site, blog and community forum.

I’m reminded of the second quote encapsulating the Chumby business strategy. Mao Zedong said: “Let 100 flowers bloom; let 100 schools of thought contend.”

Perhaps the Chumby is a harbinger of cultural revolution. For good, for bad, it is a shift in the winds about how we relate to the Internet.

The device is open-source, which means that anyone can write software for it. Moreover, it is meant to take advantage of the hundreds of so-named “continuous partial attention” moments during the day. That moment between waking up and brushing your teeth, for example. Why, that moment is painfully blank! Might it not be more usefully filled with stock quotes, perhaps, or the weather report or spiritual advice from Buddha? Or a piece of advertising from the Gap. If you don’t believe that sort of marketing ploy actually works, then I have a freaky story about corn bread to tell you.

 


Day 11

Drat! The neighbors are on to me. Their Wi-Fi is now locked. “Failed to obtain IP address,” Chumby mourns. “Chumby.com is unreachable.” There will be no crackling miniature fire flickering on its screen tonight. No Shamu or panda or polar bear or dolphin updates. No romantic vistas from atop the Eiffel Tower. No views of current traffic on the Hollywood Freeway.

I could look these up online on my real computer, of course. But it just wouldn’t be the same. Chumby Industries CEO Steve Tomlin writes on the “Chumblog” that on a big computer, widgets, as “side-information,” interfere with productivity. Those funny facts about Chuck Norris are “low-information-value pixels” that get in the way of “high-information-value pixels” — like your budget spreadsheet. But when you transpose the Chuck Norris facts onto a smaller, entirely separate screen, their value increases. They become the big fish in a small pond.

Oh, Chumby. How do I miss thee ... let me count the ways.


Day 12

Chumby wakes me up with the goofy, spelling-impaired cats from I Can Has Cheezburger. Obligingly, it plays classical music from Radio Free Chumby while I take a shower. How is this possible, you ask, if the neighbors have wised up and placed password protection on their previously unsecured, “free” Wi-Fi access? It’s possible because I have bought Chumby a peace offering: our own wireless Internet hookup.

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