My Electric Toothbrush’s Nervous Breakdown, and Other Anxieties of Domestic Technology

My Electric Toothbrush’s Nervous Breakdown, and Other Anxieties of Domestic Technology

My electric toothbrush kept me up half the night like a squalling newborn.

The trouble began yesterday. My husband and I were sitting downstairs when we heard a thunderous rumbling on the second floor. I ran upstairs to find my toothbrush whirring to life, all on its own and for no reason, while standing in its specially-designed recharging stand next to its specially-designed, ultraviolet microbe-killing sanitizer unit that looks like the world’s smallest nuclear reactor and glows a sci-fi blue when working.

Just as suddenly, the toothbrush stopped. Then it started again. I took it off its stand. It still vibrated and whirred frantically. I unplugged the wall unit. I deployed my favorite technological fix: I pushed random buttons. My first instinct when confronted with a “check engine” light in the car is to change the radio station and hope that helps.

I guess I’ve come to see my gadgets anthropomorphically, because I had the toothbrush “lay down” on the side of the sink, which helped for a while.

Then the racket resumed. The toothbrush, unprovoked, was jumping about in the sink on the force of its own vibrations like Linda Blair in her bed in The Exorcist.

Eventually the toothbrush’s rumbles settled in to a distinct pattern.

“That’s an S.O.S signal,” my husband informed me confidently.

An S.O.S.?  This isn’t exactly the Titanic, or the Andrea Gail battling 100-foot nor’easter waves. It’s a toothbrush.  What possible S.O.S. does it need to send?

True, it’s no ordinary toothbrush. It’s a Phillips Sonicare. It comes with superhero settings, like MaxCare, that promise a thrilling, gum-abrading adventure. I hesitate to tell you how much the toothbrush costs, although my dentist implored me to get it, since I’ve had gum trouble in the past. It’s one of those wincing tale of two worlds moments, when you must confess that your toothbrush costs more than trash pickers in Mumbai slums would see in months.

If you have one, you know how outrageously expensive it is.  If you don’t, then imagine the very highest price that you think you could pay for a toothbrush, and multiply it by 15.

My toothbrush had a bad night last night. It had three outbursts. By 4 a.m., I resorted to technological domestic violence. I banged it hard against the linen closet shelf, and then smothered it in a thick pile of towels. I fantasized of John Wayne shooting the damn thing.

Apparently, the high-strung toothbrush has suffered a nervous breakdown, or a psychotic episode.

It lay at peace this morning at the bottom of the towel pile where I left it, so, apprehensively, I turned it on and tried to brush my teeth. One shouldn’t start one’s day frightened of a toothbrush, I don’t think.  

I’m unsure about how to dispose of it, when the toothbrush must finally be “put down.” Given its tendency to violent outburst, even when freed from any discernible power source, I don’t think I can put it in the regular garbage, as it might rumble to life and injure someone. I’ve considered putting it under the floorboards like Edgar Allen Poe’s telltale heart, as a constant warning about my domestic techno-dependence, and of all the ways that technological design irritates my life as much as it makes it easier.

Technology that promises to remove small annoyances of one kind introduces small annoyances of another. I think of the jittery, hyper-receptivity of Word—whole lines of text moved because I accidentally hit a key combination with some macro function I didn’t know—and I see technology as a painfully over-solicitous waiter, who talks about what “we” are going to eat and is always right there with the pepper mill in your face.  

At some point, excessively solicitous service, or design, becomes its own sly form of aggression.

Another analogy comes to mind when I do my Beep Inventory.  Make a list of each and every object that beeps, bings, blinks, or otherwise “speaks” to you in the morning.

One school day I got beeped at 10 times in 25 minutes: the alarm clock; the timer on the stove for the eggs; the microwave; the end of the dryer’s cycle; the I-phone as it rumbled to tell me that I had a message; my laptop as it awakened from its own slumber with that Pavlovian Windows tune;  the car as I chirped it open; the car as I failed to put my seatbelt on fast enough; a neighbor’s car, somewhere, that sang its futile Car Alarm Blues, the beeps and ululations that a friend of mine in L.A. heard so often in the 1990s that she could sing the tune by heart;  and the phone, in the car, with an inconsequential call.

Reviewing my Beep Inventory, what comes to mind is Technology as Nagging Spouse. Do I really need my microwave beeping at me to get a move on? (“Honey, you forgot the popcorn. It’s been sitting there a half-minute now…;” “Would you please put your seatbelt on?”).

Like a nagging spouse, the technology thinks we’re stupid, so if you don’t rush to respond to the first beep, it will continue beeping until you do.

After my dishwasher’s “brain” had a glitch, it periodically uttered a “Da-da-DAH” distress jingle at me the entire day. Since the dishwasher’s brain is utterly inscrutable to me—there is no taking it apart and rigging it back with grey tape (it doesn’t even have buttons)—I had to call in a technician, which cost a fortune, just to get the high priest to materialize.

An axiom: the smaller the annoyances or inconveniences that your appliance is designed to “solve,” the larger the bill to fix it. It cost a lot to fix a problem that wasn’t even a problem. The dishwasher wasn’t mechanically broken, it was just mentally deranged. Appliances don’t break today so much as they have breakdowns, of the nervous kind.

Enfeebled, I move each day in a membranous web of domestic technologies that I don’t understand.

If these strange deities get angry I know there’s little I can do, a meek and ignorant end-user, to beseech them back to good temper. If it's a computer problem, I'll let a ghostly invisible hand, a lovely metaphor of technology's mystical omnipotence, temporarily possess my computer to fix it from afar. Even my husband, who does sophisticated computer modeling, and could program in his sleep, stands helpless before my psychotic toothbrush.

Many of us live at the mercy of things for which we have no intuition. This can’t be good.

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Meet Dr. Jennifer Doudna: she's leading the biotech revolution

She helped create CRISPR, a gene-editing technology that is changing the way we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

Courtesy of Jennifer Doudna
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

Last year, Jennifer Doudna and Emmanuelle Charpentier became the first all-woman team to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their work developing CRISPR-Cas9, the gene-editing technology. The technology was invented in 2012 — and nine years later, it's truly revolutionizing how we treat genetic diseases and even how we produce food.

CRISPR allows scientists to alter DNA by using proteins that are naturally found in bacteria. They use these proteins, called Cas9, to naturally fend off viruses, destroying the virus' DNA and cutting it out of their genes. CRISPR allows scientists to co-opt this function, redirecting the proteins toward disease-causing mutations in our DNA.

So far, gene-editing technology is showing promise in treating sickle cell disease and genetic blindness — and it could eventually be used to treat all sorts of genetic diseases, from cancer to Huntington's Disease.

The biotech revolution is just getting started — and CRISPR is leading the charge. We talked with Doudna about what we can expect from genetic engineering in the future.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Freethink: You've said that your journey to becoming a scientist had humble beginnings — in your teenage bedroom when you discovered The Double Helix by Jim Watson. Back then, there weren't a lot of women scientists — what was your breakthrough moment in realizing you could pursue this as a career?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a moment that I often think back to from high school in Hilo, Hawaii, when I first heard the word "biochemistry." A researcher from the UH Cancer Center on Oahu came and gave a talk on her work studying cancer cells.

I didn't understand much of her talk, but it still made a huge impact on me. You didn't see professional women scientists in popular culture at the time, and it really opened my eyes to new possibilities. She was very impressive.

I remember thinking right then that I wanted to do what she does, and that's what set me off on the journey that became my career in science.

CRISPR 101: Curing Sickle Cell, Growing Organs, Mosquito Makeovers | Jennifer Doudna | Big Think

Freethink: The term "CRISPR" is everywhere in the media these days but it's a really complicated tool to describe. What is the one thing that you wish people understood about CRISPR that they usually get wrong?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: People should know that CRISPR technology has revolutionized scientific research and will make a positive difference to their lives.

Researchers are gaining incredible new understanding of the nature of disease, evolution, and are developing CRISPR-based strategies to tackle our greatest health, food, and sustainability challenges.

Freethink: You previously wrote in Wired that this year, 2021, is going to be a big year for CRISPR. What exciting new developments should we be on the lookout for?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Before the COVID-19 pandemic, there were multiple teams around the world, including my lab and colleagues at the Innovative Genomics Institute, working on developing CRISPR-based diagnostics.

"Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time."

When the pandemic hit, we pivoted our work to focus these tools on SARS-CoV-2. The benefit of these new diagnostics is that they're fast, cheap, can be done anywhere without the need for a lab, and they can be quickly modified to detect different pathogens. I'm excited about the future of diagnostics, and not just for pandemics.

We'll also be seeing more CRISPR applications in agriculture to help combat hunger, reduce the need for toxic pesticides and fertilizers, fight plant diseases and help crops adapt to a changing climate.

Traits that we could select for using traditional breeding methods, that might take decades, we can now engineer precisely in a much shorter time.

Freethink: Curing genetic diseases isn't a pipedream anymore, but there are still some hurdles to cross before we're able to say for certain that we can do this. What are those hurdles and how close do you think we are to crossing them?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There are people today, like Victoria Gray, who have been successfully treated for sickle cell disease. This is just the tip of the iceberg.

There are absolutely still many hurdles. We don't currently have ways to deliver genome-editing enzymes to all types of tissues, but delivery is a hot area of research for this very reason.

We also need to continue improving on the first wave of CRISPR therapies, as well as making them more affordable and accessible.

Freethink: Another big challenge is making this technology widely available to everyone and not just the really wealthy. You've previously said that this challenge starts with the scientists.

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: A sickle cell disease cure that is 100 percent effective but can't be accessed by most of the people in need is not really a full cure.

This is one of the insights that led me to found the Innovative Genomics Institute back in 2014. It's not enough to develop a therapy, prove that it works, and move on. You have to develop a therapy that actually meets the real-world need.

Too often, scientists don't fully incorporate issues of equity and accessibility into their research, and the incentives of the pharmaceutical industry tend to run in the opposite direction. If the world needs affordable therapy, you have to work toward that goal from the beginning.

Freethink: You've expressed some concern about the ethics of using CRISPR. Do you think there is a meaningful difference between enhancing human abilities — for example, using gene therapy to become stronger or more intelligent — versus correcting deficiencies, like Type 1 diabetes or Huntington's?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't.

There's always a gray area when it comes to complex ethical issues like this, and our thinking on this is undoubtedly going to evolve over time.

What we need is to find an appropriate balance between preventing misuse and promoting beneficial innovation.

Freethink: What if it turns out that being physically stronger helps you live a longer life — if that's the case, are there some ways of improving health that we should simply rule out?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The concept of improving the "healthspan" of individuals is an area of considerable interest. Eliminating neurodegenerative disease will not only massively reduce suffering around the world, but it will also meaningfully increase the healthy years for millions of individuals.

"There is a meaningful distinction between enhancement and treatment, but that doesn't mean that the line is always clear. It isn't."

There will also be knock-on effects, such as increased economic output, but also increased impact on the planet.

When you think about increasing lifespans just so certain people can live longer, then not only do those knock-on effects become more central, you also have to ask who is benefiting and who isn't? Is it possible to develop this technology so the benefits are shared equitably? Is it environmentally sustainable to go down this road?

Freethink: Where do you see it going from here?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: The bio revolution will allow us to create breakthroughs in treating not just a few but whole classes of previously unaddressed genetic diseases.

We're also likely to see genome editing play a role not just in climate adaptation, but in climate change solutions as well. There will be challenges along the way both expected and unexpected, but also great leaps in progress and benefits that will move society forward. It's an exciting time to be a scientist.

Freethink: If you had to guess, what is the first disease you think we are most likely to cure, in the real world, with CRISPR?

Dr. Jennifer Doudna: Because of the progress that has already been made, sickle cell disease and beta-thalassemia are likely to be the first diseases with a CRISPR cure, but we're closely following the developments of other CRISPR clinical trials for types of cancer, a form of congenital blindness, chronic infection, and some rare genetic disorders.

The pace of clinical trials is picking up, and the list will be longer next year.

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