An Engineer Critiques Our Slack-Powered Doorbell

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Reader Bob Williamson argues that my solution for coworkers forgetting their key fobs was too “Epimethean”—it requires users to make a mistake first. In mythology, Epimetheus accepted a cursed gift (Pandora and her box) without giving thought to its future consequences. Compare him to his brother, Prometheus, who stole fire from Zeus knowing he’d be punished harshly but would reap a long-term gain. A Promethean solution, Williamson says, would protect my colleagues from forgetting their keys in the first place:

Pandora offers jar to Epimetheus (Wiki)

Efficient error recovery is important in engineering systems, but prevention is better.

How about an IoS button on the inside of the door that sends you a reminder to take your keys before you lock yourself out, again? At first I thought it could go on your chair and trigger when standing, but it would be nice to serve more than one distracted user. Could you identify the recipient by proximity to the exit? Ideally you’d get the message just before the  door closed, but that timing could be part of the training impact of the system.

You could call this one dumbbellbot. ;-)

A good point! It’s a challenging engineering problem—getting a “do you have your keys?” notification every time you approach the door sounds a bit overwhelming—but there must be some way to make this work. Thoughts? Update from reader Wes:

I like the idea of the proximity sensor-based reminder, but I think it is predestined for failure in real use. I am reminded of various plane crashes and nuclear accidents where repeated—and therefore quickly ignored warning notices—paradoxically were contributing factors in the issue they were designed to avoid. I don’t know how the relevant safety agencies solve the problem, but it might take you down a fruitful path.

My suggestion off the top of my head is to combine the key with something you would never forget. For your house key, for example, you might velcro it to your shoes. I personally put my office key card inside my cell phone cover.