Smarter Homes: Lessons Learnt

I wrote a book on smart homes which has just been published by the lovely people at Apress in the US. Why did I do that? Well there were no books on smart homes as a technological, sociological and design movement. There are plenty of design and architecture books out there, plenty of books on domesticity, the history of interior design, the history of home architecture and a handful of antiquated books on networking in your home. But a combination of these things? Nothing.

And with the spirit of wanting to write a book I wanted to read (but also that my mother would understand) I sat down intermittedly for a year and a half and learnt a lot. I spent a lot of time in archives and libraries because, no you can’t google your way through most of what I found. You actually have to look at a book. I also bought a lot of books. I already love books but now I have a shelf dedicated to the books I bought for research and it makes for a pretty diverse collection. From books about robots to books about games and early computing to books about some early modernist homes for the rich. I wove a rich tapestry of industries together and I think it makes for a perfectly readable starting point for others to go digging even further and write their own PhDs or books. I uncovered some really lovely stories and people who have been lying dormant on and in libraries around the world. I also had the pleasure of reading works from archives that aren’t digitised yet for lack of funding. It’s been immensely pleasurable and rewarding to connect worlds that I was always interested and connecting to: the technologies of everyday life. As I tour around Germany, recording content for a podcast I’ll be putting together pretty soon, I’m giving a talk about what I learnt from writing the book and wanted to share it with others in case a blog post is all you’re willing to commit to the topic (don’t worry, most designers would have stopped reading by now).


Lesson 1: The home isn’t a system

The internet of things loves a good systems diagram. When you google iot you find beautiful images of product outlines in circles connected to other circles. Like the internet! Well things aren’t like the internet and people don’t buy things like they click on webpages. The model simply doesn’t apply. But the imagery is so potent its over 100 years old. The idea that scientific models can apply to the home space can be seen in the times of electrification. An electric home was a really big deal for many families who couldn’t afford the retrofitting costs. Companies put together ads, competitions, articles to convince people that an ‘all-electric’ home was something you could puchase and would purchase. In reality, it was a bitty affair. Until the late 1950s most Americans wouldn’t have electricity and General Electric had to lobby hard through the GE Homes (plaques on homes that had invested in the most electric appliances). In the UK, the Electric Association of Women (E.A.W) lobbied women to buy all-electric homes, even running competitions and they always failed. Noone takes the risks they’re asking us to take: change your entire personal and family routine to accomodate a set of new or unknown technologies. People bought into the dream one appliance at a time, starting with the electric iron (not lighbulbs) and then moving on to other things. This idea of a systems view of the home even comes into play  in the late 1980s when the term smart home starts to take a hold. The Smart House LLP is created to rewire the whole home with new data cables and the idea is that someone would pay for a new home with this set of technologies in mind. Even IBM gets involved with Director. And none of it sticks. Or rather a few rich people get some lights that come on when you open a cupboard but its hardly the stuff of 1950s fantasies. Because ultimately the dream of a connected set of daily interactions is at best an industrial dream of automation applied to the home space, the least predictable, most heterogenous space. Imagined issues of interoperability and standards are laughable when you understand that it’s not what prevents people from buying connected products. As a professor once said to me: you’re either selling aspirin or chocolate. And current connected home applications that imaging an ‘if this then that’ scenario aren’t doing any real user testing nor product research worthy of that name. People buy technology one product at a time. Not 10 things at a time.


Lesson 2: Size influences behaviour

The size of the home will have an influence on what technologies are brought and how much interaction takes place with the rest of the city. In the 18th century a fire range with a kettle and an iron did most of what you wanted: heat, a little bit of food prep (people ate out a lot) and ironing your husbands and kids clothes on wash day. Everything else was communal. Obviously because of health standards, that became a problem. So apartments and properties got bigger to accomodate a legally required indoor bathroom. And as countries grew wealthier the homes grew to accomodate the influx of goods made in the city or that were traded at home. Eventually technology like the radio and the phone helped manage the flow of information and people so the home became less prone to random visitors and a ‘private’ space could be more clearly established. But how much space do you need to establish that  private space? Is a capsule hotel enough? Is a Hong Kong high rise enough? Is a mid-western 5 bedroom home enough? We don’t have a clear understanding of what enough is because none of us share the same socio-economic conditions nor personal aspirations. Designers and architects have certainly tried to lead the way starting with the concept of ‘Existenz Minimum’ in the early 1920s which led to lots of ‘decluttering’ hand in hand with more boxy architecture and more industrial materials being used. Purity of form meant purity of spirit and more humble living post-WWI. Well we’re far from that discourse now with East London ‘co-living’ spaces being on par with the size of a UK prison cell. So we have ‘clean living’ and Marie Kondo instead as it’s less affordable for most to decide to buy a designer home or designer furniture. But technology doesn’t contribute to this much as its often about adding things to the home, not taking things away. So there’s a tension there. We have a lot less technologies lying around because of computers (rolodex, calculators, alarm clocks) but we consume more power than the industrial sector and new connected produce experiences are asking us to keep spending on things that use up power. Not really minimal nor clean.


Lesson 3: Inventors come first, noone remembers them.

We don’t talk about invention much anymore but I think that the last 18 years of internet of things development has been invention. Noone remembers the inventor of the telephone (Antonion Meucci) nor the lightbulb (Joseph Swann). So perhaps noone will remember pioneers of the physical computing age in 80 years. It’s already complicated enough to understand the real stories behind the beginnings of Apple, Microsoft and Google, image in 50 years! I sometimes think we know far more about the world before industrialisation than after. Test units, production batches, mass production all make it really difficult to ascertain process, influence and collaboration.  Industrial design history is littered with inaccuracies, ‘circa’ next to production dates in museums, falsehoods which aren’t referenced. It’s a minefield. I just spent a couple of days researching the cantilever chair which was technically invented by a number of people who never made them ‘pretty’ and then Mart Stam, a dutch architect sees a collapsible seat in a car and designs a tubular cantilever chair. People then say he designed the first cantilever chair. He didn’t, he just made it visually iconic. And then Marcel Breuer chimed in and so did Mies Van der Rohe and Eileen Gray. Not the inventors. The advertisers. The myth makers. That discrepancy is important when putting people on pedestals.


Lesson 4: The home and it’s forever servants

Most western nations don’t have servants anymore. But they might have occasional maids, assistants, virtual assistants and voice assistants. We use TaskRabbit, LaundryApp, Deliveroo and Amazon Key. For all intensive purpose, we still have servants who do low-paid jobs that facilitate our home life. If we’re super posh (or in the Middle East, super rich) we have live-in maids whose passports we confiscate. And human trafficking is a real problem. But we still develop interfaces that promote a relationship of power and servitude with our conencted products. I don’t have to yell ‘thank you’ at Alexa and she doesn’t yell back ‘you’re welcome’. I think Jeeves and HAL got treated better than Alexa does. Maybe it’s because she’s a woman? Which brings me to the last point.


Lesson 5: We talk to women as if it was 1957.

Most brand of appliances show happy, smiling parents doing laundry in a washing machine that uses an app with glee. Nobody relates to this. We think ‘oh cool’ and click on Insta/Snapchat/Twitter again for the 10th time in the last minute. We don’t value home interiors and our life at home as we once did as we have almost 50% less people over as we did 10 years ago. We ‘meet’ online, while in our underwear, on our couch, watching Netflix. We don’t need a friend to see our curtain choice, to look at how we laid out our kitchen as a way of signalling how well we’re doing socio-economically. Women in 2018 have other more important societal issues to deal with than buying a connected washing machine. They just about got their partner to do his bit of the house work, now they’re interested in how they might get equal pay. Screw the washing machine. But instead of embracing this change, companies still show us women laughing eating salad. In computing, historically, its the same. Computers were sold to men at work and women in the house to ‘print out shopping lists’ and help kids with their homework. This dates back to 1957 but many of the same language and ideas are still kicking around design schools and R&D departments. 

So all of this makes for a complicated space to design for and in. The book is small, a short read, but an accessible and important one I think for computer scientists, digital designers and product designers alike. Share it far and wide and send it to your institutional library as a suggestion!