Future Tense

Should This Thing Be Smart? Christmas Lights Edition.

Twinkly puts you, the aspiring arboreal lighting designer, in the proverbial driver’s seat.

A Twinkly product shot.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Twinkly.

In Should This Thing Be Smart?, Justin Peters examines a smart object and tries to determine whether there is any good reason for its existence—and how likely it is to be used for nefarious reasons. Previously on Should This Thing Be Smart?: the $60 smart fork, the $199 smart socks, the $80 coffee mug, the $99 button, the $99 toothbrush, the $99 dog collar, the $1,199 mirror, the $199 bike lock, and the $60 microwave.

Name: Twinkly LED String Lights

Price: $129.65 on Amazon

Function: Twinkly is a Wi-Fi-enabled LED light string that is controllable via your smartphone. Once you’ve hung the lights as you see fit, you can use the Twinkly app to change the lights’ colors, create patterns and animations, and synchronize the lights with music. The Twinkly app is basically a lighting board for your phone, which should thrill all you former tech crew members out there. If you’ve been looking for Christmas lights that will remind you of your time spent building sets for the junior class production of Annie Get Your Gun, then the Twinkly LED String Lights might be the Christmas lights for you.

The case for the smart Christmas lights: Twinkly is a very interesting set of Christmas lights! It is much more versatile than your standard set of Christmas lights, which feature approximately three settings: on, off, and please kill me. The last is the most common Christmas light setting, as anyone who has ever tried to find the one burned-out bulb in a dysfunctional strand knows full well. Most Christmas lights are so, so dumb.

But Twinkly is smart! It works in concert with your smartphone camera to map the position of every single light in the strand. Then, you can use the map as a design template with which to create a functionally infinite set of lighting effects. (The app comes with several standard effects, such as the “vertigo” effect, which I can only assume makes your tree look like Kim Novak.) Want to make your lit-up tree resemble a candy cane? Want to create a waterfall effect? Want to make your tree blink the words SOY BOMB to the tune of Bob Dylan’s “Love Sick”? Twinkly’s got you covered.

Twinkly puts you, the aspiring arboreal lighting designer, in the proverbial driver’s seat. You can use the app to adjust the speed and intensity of the lighting animations and the color that the lights display at any given time. You can even synchronize multiple Twinkly strands to create sequential lighting effects. This last feature might prove useful if you have a very, very big tree, for instance, or if you choose to erect a complicated lighting display that takes over your entire front yard. With Twinkly, your yard will be your canvas.

The Twinkly lights can be used at any time of year. Though I’m calling them Christmas lights—because, after all, ’tis the season—they would work just as well as Halloween lights, Valentine’s lights, or Arbor Day lights. Do not be dissuaded by the fact that “Arbor Day lights” aren’t a thing. With Twinkly, you can make them a thing. Live your dreams, people!

Did I mention that Twinkly synchronizes to music? You can use Twinkly to create your own “light show,” as it were. You can choreograph the lights to music, perhaps something by Phish or the Dark Star Orchestra. Neighborhood stoners will crowd around your windows to see the psychedelic display. A thick fog of marijuana smoke will soon envelop your neighborhood. Twinkly will give your neighbors a contact high. Merry Christmas, neighbors!

Twinkly pairs with Google Assistant to allow for voice activation—a boon for those of us who cannot or will not easily use the smartphone app. “Activate snake,” you will say, and—presto—a “snake” effect will play out on your tree. “Activate Snake Plissken,” you can also say, and while Kurt Russell probably won’t drop down your chimney in response, it’s Christmas and you never know. I say it’s worth a shot!

Twinkly comes from Italy, a festive land. “Buon Natale!” you will say as you decorate your tree with this product. “Basta!” you will say when it comes time to take the tree down. “Io parlo un po l’italiano, ma no molto bene,” you will say if you are subsequently inspired to take Italian language lessons. You will feel like a citizen of the world when you use these lights.

The case against the smart Christmas lights: The smart Christmas lights seem sort of exhausting. The humble Christmas tree is currently the least hectic thing about Christmas. It is peaceful. It is a fragrant tree that lives in your house for a month, and it exists largely to mitigate the many other holiday stressors that complicate our lives each December. By making your tree “programmable” and thus creating a tacit obligation to fiddle with it, rather than just let it be, Twinkly threatens to disrupt the sense of peace that a low-tech Christmas tree confers on all those around it. The holidays are stressful enough already without feeling compelled to turn your tree into a laser light show.

The smart lights are expensive. The current price of $129.65 is for a single 175-light strand, which, according to the Twinkly website, only gives you enough lights to cover the front half of a 6-foot tree. If your tree is bigger than that, or if you want to cover the entire tree, you will need more lights, and that’s probably more than you are willing to spend for a product you’ll use for four weeks out of every year. You will be almost forced to use these lights in all seasons in order to get sufficient value out of them.

If, like the blockheaded protagonist of A Charlie Brown Christmas, you desire a simple, old-fashioned Christmas tree with “heart,” then Twinkly is not for you. Your Twinkly tree may well reveal itself as a flashy, jumped-up tree that has no heart. Attempting to compensate by drawing a pulsating heart on the tree via the Twinkly app will only heighten your sense of seasonal disaffection. “Aaaaaaugh!” you will say. You will cope by dancing to piano jazz in a herky-jerky fashion.

If, in an attempt to wring value out of your expensive smart light strands, you do indeed create a Twinkly light display for every single holiday, then you will soon acquire a reputation in your neighborhood. You will become known as “Holiday Guy,” and your adult neighbors will gradually come to resent you, because you make their own unadorned houses look bad, and also because perhaps they don’t want a constant contact high. You will be decried in letters to the editor and discussed in homeowners association meetings. Twinkly will make you a local pariah.

These lights will make your life a living hell if you have kids. It will be like hanging your kid’s weird drawings on the refrigerator, but worse, because now your kid’s weird drawing will be rendered in animated LED lights on your home’s most prominent seasonal feature. Imagine the arguments that will ensue when one child hogs the Twinkly app, or when one kid’s design gets changed by another kid. “One more fight and I’m taking the tree down!” you will yell. Twinkly will raise your blood pressure.

Smart as they may be, I will bet every dollar I have that the Twinkly lights will get just as bunched-up and tangled as your standard Christmas lights.

Security risk factor: Relatively low! As with any smart product, there’s a risk that a hacker might snoop on your Twinkly usage habits to get a sense of the hours when you are and are not at home—but he could get that information just as well by driving by your house to see if the lights are on. I can’t find anything wrong with these. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I kind of want some!” Jamie Winterton, director of strategy for Arizona State University’s Global Security Initiative, told me recently in an email. (Winterton is a Future Tense fellow; ASU is a partner with Slate and New America in Future Tense.) “I downloaded the app, and it let me poke at the settings without having purchased the lights. It’s pretty simple; it doesn’t seem to include any capabilities that could be used for surveillance. It doesn’t listen for your voice or monitor your presence. I’m not sure where the risk would be—maybe that your hacker neighbor would create a glowing middle finger on your Christmas tree, or turn your house lights an unpleasant shade of puce?” Some people like puce. The joke’s on you, hacker neighbor!

Are the smart lights more likely to be used to solve or commit a crime? If you do end up lighting your entire front yard with Twinkly lights, then I feel like you will be basically encouraging your sleep-deprived neighbors to dream of committing crimes against you.

Should this thing be smart? This thing should be smart. The Twinkly LED String Lights present a relatively low security risk while promising to make your holiday celebrations both more merry and more bright.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.