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Masthead Weekly 07.26.19

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What to Know: “Smart” Diapers

By Sidney Fussell

Eric Lafforgue / Art In All Of Us / Corbis / Getty

What we’re watching: If a technology is “smart,” that simply means it can record data (usually via sensors), send that data to servers, and adapt to a user’s behavior over time. The Lumi’ baby-monitoring system, which includes a camera, microphone, and detachable diaper sensor that sends alerts to your (the parent’s, not the baby’s) smartphone when it detects moisture, is smart.

I’m trying to see the bright side of smart tech, but then something silly like this comes along. I’m not a parent, but I am working within a moment of major change in journalism. I write about surveillance—about the steady creep of data colonialism, or how technology is collecting data from every aspect of our lives: smart TVs that watch us back, home speakers that advertise food when they hear chewing, doorbells with eyes, and so on. These devices gobble data, but I’m trying to find a balance between alarm and composure by focusing on the ways smart products can enrich our lives. The smart diaper, though, only encourages cynicism, because it treats parenting—one of the most human experiences—like any other mundane task to be hacked. The ad for Lumi even showcases a dashboard app detailing “what you need to know about your baby at a glance.” (Pampers did not respond immediately to a request for comment.)

Why it matters: A joint effort between Google, Pampers, and Procter & Gamble, Lumi goes several steps beyond a traditional baby monitor. Patents for technology detecting wetness go back to 1992, but an activity dashboard offering hourly wetness and sleep-cycle updates on a baby is different. Parents can even download and share the data with physicians if they have concerns. That’s the biggest issue with outright dismissing any smart product—quantified data are useful in many occasions. Maybe not data about the doneness of toast or the wetness of diapers. But certainly, tracking and sharing things such as information about weight loss, body fat, and sleep cycles are cheaper and easier than ever before. But this new smart landscape is also sort of a distraction. Smart products add value, but not exclusively to consumers.

Consider the invention of the dishwasher. That took something people did manually and automated it. The technology was new. But making existing products smart doesn’t necessarily create something “new,” and in many cases, it doesn’t lead to improvement. Decades ago, diapers were washed and reused before they became conveniently disposable. Smart-home inventions are less of an innovative leap than a pivot. In many products, the only added value is the data they collect, which generally flow to a big company, not the consumer. If we’ve reached a point where new technology is just old technology with a sensor added, how do we define real innovation?

What we’re asking: At what point does the smart trend stop? We have smart diapers, toilets, sex toys, and so on; is there a limit to what people will accept as smart? The biggest criticisms of smart technologies center around data privacy. That will always be a concern, but in the case of the diaper, I have an even simpler question: How does this add value? How does this improve over the “dumb” version?

What’s next: The Lumi system doesn’t have a price yet. Once the baby monitor becomes available, I honestly can’t wait to speak with parents who use it. It seems, if anything, like a way to offer young parents, raised on screens and broadband internet themselves, a reprieve from fearing that they’ll miss something while caring for their baby. In this case, smart technologies become talismans of reassurance. And I suspect that’s what parents actually want to buy.

The One Thing to Read

  • The Next Data Mine Is Your Bedroom” (The Atlantic). Sidney reports that Google smart-home technology is eavesdropping on its users, and explores the consequences—and dangers—of that.

What to Expect

Notes on the news to come

Arts and Culture

Earlier this month, the R&B singer R. Kelly was arrested in Chicago. The musician, who has always denied allegations that he abused underage girls and young women, is now facing his first-ever federal charges, in Illinois and New York, and will appear in court on August 2. The federal indictments come after an investigator watched the Lifetime docuseries Surviving R. Kelly. They allege a disturbing, wide-ranging machine of abuse: R. Kelly is believed to have paid members of his “enterprise” to arrange for girls and young women to be brought to him (sometimes across state lines), and to safeguard the sex tapes he produced with them. He is currently being held without bond.


After a months-long struggle with the state government, Missouri’s only abortion clinic is staying open—for now. The Planned Parenthood clinic in St. Louis almost lost its license in June, but a judge granted a temporary restraining order on the clinic closing until a hearing on July 31. Abortion access in Missouri has been in peril for some time: The state had five abortion clinics a decade ago, but now is down to one. If this last one was to close, Missouri would not have any facilities that offer abortion—becoming the only state in the U.S. to not provide abortion access since Roe v. Wade.


When David Malpass was confirmed as the head of the World Bank in April, European governments backed him without voicing any potential objections about placing a loyalist of Donald Trump and a former Bear Stearns employee at the top of an important global economic institution. America and Europe have traditionally divided the leadership of the bank and the International Monetary Fund between themselves, and with an American secure at the bank, Europe is now ready to extend the custom at the fund, following the recent resignation of its managing director, Christine Lagarde. France will coordinate Europe’s pick for the IMF by the end of the month. A number of candidates are in the mix, but one thing unites them: All are European. The pick will need America’s support, too, and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin has loudly hinted that it will be forthcoming. “We appreciated the support for David Malpass,” he said to Reuters.

Politics and Policy

Sand is running through the hourglass on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which will lapse August 2 unless Russia returns to compliance with its obligations. The treaty bans both nuclear and conventional U.S. and Russian missiles globally. Russia has been in violation for several years by testing and deploying missiles in the restricted range (between 500 and 5,000 nautical miles). In the meantime, U.S. military commanders in the Pacific have long wanted to deploy conventional missiles to counter China’s burgeoning military capabilities, but Europeans are justifiably anxious. As the Trump administration exits the treaty, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg is shouldering the burden of holding the alliance together.

Items this week by Hannah Giorgis, Karen Yuan, Matt Peterson, and Kori Schake. Illustrations by Matt Chinworth.

What to Remember

The INF Treaty terminates next week, ending decades of a U.S.-Russia nuclear-weapons ban. Here’s what an Atlantic editor wrote of the treaty when it first became effective.

“NATO thinks victory goes to the side with more ‘tail’—a thicker logistical umbilical cord for pumping in fresh men and supplies as soon as they are needed. Is NATO right? In the wake of the INF treaty, which will eliminate U.S. intermediate-range nuclear weapons from Europe, that question has taken on a new edge. In the burgeoning field of security studies, it has touched off a sophisticated, vituperative, and arcane debate, featuring such exotica as ‘Lanchester attrition models,’ ‘armored division equivalent scores,’ and algebraic models of what might happen if the armies actually clash on the German plain.”

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If multiracial democracy cannot be defended in America, it will not be defended elsewhere.

The Apollo Engineer Who Almost Wasn’t Allowed in the Control Room

JoAnn Morgan stood out against the sea of men in skinny ties and glasses. But she was right where she belonged.

The Stock-Buyback Swindle

American corporations are spending trillions of dollars to repurchase their own stock. The practice is enriching CEOs—at the expense of everyone else.

The Tragedy of the Congress

There’s basic agreement between Mueller and Democrats in Congress on the facts of what Trump did, but no one wants to be the one who does something about it.

Race, History, and Memories of a Virginia Girlhood

A historian looks back at the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow in her home state.

Why you should read Chuck Klosterman on “The Problem With ‘Good’ Taste

“The idea here seems to be that there is this dichotomy between liking something authentically, as an individual, without trying to impress others, and liking something for social reasons (in which case, your enjoyment is in some sense fake). But the interaction between society and the individual, when it comes to the formation of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ taste, is not nearly this simple. On the contrary, all tastes, whether ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ are socially influenced. And, depending on who you want to impress, you might embrace ‘bad’ taste in order to seem more authentic, or even just more approachable, as in the case of a politician being overly enthusiastic about Budweiser or pizza. People have reasons to fake ‘bad’ taste, too.”  — @gemmaellen, a member, writing on the forums

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