Beware of Bureaucrats Bearing Gifts

While harboring a vague unease with big government, I’ve never been one to spout conspiracy theories from under my tinfoil hat. Still, I’m leery of where we seem to be headed. In deference to Orwell’s 1984, I tend to look askance at some of these apps that track our whereabouts, or “services” like OnStar that can start (or stop) our cars from the satellites. Most of the time, though, when I mention what I view as dystopian governmental overreach, my kids just roll their eyes.

And then this happened. The city of Fort Collins, where I live, is magnanimously offering to install a new thermostat in my home, one that I can control from anywhere on the planet. They claim this marvel of modern technology could save me up to ten percent on my heating and cooling costs. Oh, did they mention? It also allows the utility to have its way with my HVAC system. A chipper young woman with a sing-songy voice called from the city the other day, to invite me into this brave new world.

“When you enroll in the program, contractors will professionally install your Peak Partners web-programmable thermostat in your home,” she read from her prepared material, the way you’d read a potty-training book to a 2-year old. “This allows you to change the settings from anywhere you might be, as long as you have internet service.”

“But if I’m not home, why would I want to change the temperature in my house?”

She forged ahead as if I was speaking Elvish. “On selected days in May through September, we’ll automatically cycle the compressors of participating customer’s central air conditioners off and on to help balance the demand for electricity. These are called ‘conservation events.’”

“Wait, so someone else will take control of my environment?”

She still wasn’t going to let me steer her off the script. “For all cycling events, the fan will continue to circulate air, even though the compressor has a reduced operating time. Most participants won’t notice the average one to three degree rise in temperature during a typical conservation event.”

“But I’m already setting my thermostat at 78 degrees in the summer, as recommended by the city. What more do you want?”

She hesitated – that question apparently never came up in training. Maybe I just hadn’t heard her the first time. “On select days in May through September, we’ll automatically cycle the compressors…”

“Yeah, I got that part. I guess I have concerns about, you know, how much this feels like Big Brother. Having the city make my climate decisions for me.”

“But you can override two conservation events per summer through the mobile application,” she said with an air of benevolence.

“Two, huh. How many do they expect?”

“Fort Collins anticipates about 4 events per month, so no more than 20 per summer.”

“And the city overrides me the other 18 times. Will you send flowers or candy afterward?”

Surely appealing to my pocketbook would placate me. “The cost of the new thermostats is 250 dollars, but they are being provided free by the city of Fort Collins, including installation,” she offered, somewhat exasperated that I would balk at this chance to possess such wondrous technology.

“But how much is your freedom worth?” I asked, somewhat exasperated by her inability to smell what The Rock was cooking.

Then she tried the ‘saving the planet’ angle. “It’s for the common good. Participation helps reduce peak energy usage and thereby reduces power plant emissions.”

“I have an electric lawnmower…I’m already reducing emissions.”

Sensing she was losing me, she decided to bail out. “We’ll be glad to send you all the information in an email, so you can review it at your convenience.”

“That’s fine. Send me the information and I’ll take a look.”

“Well, you have to make an appointment for an installation before we can send you that.”

“So you’re asking me to commit to something before I have all the details. What if I decide, after reading the fine print, that I don’t want to participate.”

“You’re free to opt out at any time.”

“Great. How about I opt out now.”

She paused again before spitting out “Have a nice day” as insincerely as anyone has ever uttered the phrase.

Hanging up the phone, I immediately reached for the tinfoil.

Image courtesy of


12 thoughts on “Beware of Bureaucrats Bearing Gifts

  1. Exactly so. While this isn’t precisely related to thermostats, a friend told me just yesterday about a recent event that’s so weird, I don’t know what to make of it.

    She was sitting in a chair with her iPhone in her lap. She was going to send an email, and decided against it. In the process, she accidentally hit the video button, and recorded a few seconds of herself, just sitting in the chair. When she realized what she’d done, she turned it off.

    A half hour later, a neighbor showed up at her door, panic-stricken. It seems she had sent the video after all. But, attached to the video was a message she never sent. It said, “I’m not feeling very well today.” Her neighbor thought she was having a heart attack, or was sick, or needed some kind of help.

    She never appended that message to the video. As she said, auto-correct is one thing. Auto-messaging? That’s flat creepy. Who was it who saw the video, and who decided what the message should be? What if her neighbor hadn’t been able to raise her, and called the police or EMTs?

    I swear there are things going on between government and corporations that we know nothing about. I’ll correct my own spelling, send my own messages, and set my own thermostat, thank you very much. Maybe the new slogan should be, “Never trust a programmer under thirty.”

  2. I have work on the IT side of law enforcement for thirty years and it never fails…. At Thanksgiving diner, sometime between the passing of the turkey and cranberry sauce, an in-law will joke about me fixing a parking ticket or expunging their youthful indiscretions. I tell them no… but that only makes them more conspiratorial.

    Indeed we have facial recognition software. Yes, we can give you the make and caliber of a weapon fired anywhere in the city within milliseconds of the event using our acoustical sensing system – and yes there are cameras everywhere – but I have to ask people, “Why makes you so special that you think we would be interested?”

    I then gently remind them how boring and insignificant they are.

    But then I learn that a whole lot of cops were stalking another cop (a woman) through our interface to the driver’s license database. (See Wired Magazine) It is the kind of thing that makes you beat your head into a wall.

  3. You know what WE got from Xcel last winter? A letter saying Xcel thought we’d like to know we were using more daily BTUs than our neighbors!! WTF ?!? Our neighbors go to AZ for the winter! Besides that kind of peer pressure doesn’t work on me and it’s just creepy to send that kind of letter that tells me anything about me neighbor’s behavior or vice versa!

    Off the grid is looking more appealing, no question!

  4. We’ve had those thermostats in Los Angeles for several years now I think–I never fell for it so I don’t have one yet. With the current “drought” they are telling us how much water we should be using, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they started installing water control devices in our houses.

    I’m not a fan of all this government monitoring, but ultimately I think it’s difficult to evade.

    Arlee Bird
    A to Z Challenge Co-host
    Tossing It Out

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