It’s Alive, It’s Alive!

Your home, that is. It soon may be, anyway.

Earlier this week at the Worldwide Developers Conference, Apple introduced HomeKit, an iOS 8 application that will integrate the various devices and apps which together transform an ordinary home into a “smart home.”

The “smart home,” like the flying car, has long been a much anticipated component of “the future.” The Jetsons had one, and, more recently, the Iron Man films turned Tony Stark’s butler, Edwin Jarvis, into JARVIS, an AI system that powers Stark’s very smart home. Note, in passing, the subtle tale of technological unemployment.

But the “smart home” is a more plausible element of our future than the flying car. Already in 1990, the Unity System offered a rather rudimentary iteration. And, as early as 1999, in the pages of Newsweek, Steven Levy was announcing the immanent arrival of what is now commonly referred to as the Internet of Things, the apotheosis of which would be the “smart home.” Levy didn’t call it the “smart home,” although he did refer to the “smart toilet,” but a “smart home” is what he was describing:

“Your home, for instance, will probably have one or more items directly hot-wired to the Internet: a set-top television box, a game console, a server sitting in the basement, maybe even a traditional PC. These would be the jumping-off points for a tiny radio-frequency net that broadcasts throughout the house. That way the Internet would be, literally, in the air. Stuff inside the house would inhale the relevant bits. Your automatic coffee maker will have access to your online schedule, so if you’re out of town it’ll withhold the brew. Your alarm clock might ring later than usual if it logs on to find out that you don’t have to get the kids ready for school–snow day! And that Internet dishwasher? No, it won’t be bidding on flatware at eBay auctions. Like virtually every other major appliance in your home, its Internet connection will be used to contact the manufacturer if something goes wrong.”

Envisioning this “galaxy” of digitally networked things, Levy already hints at the challenge of getting everything to work together in efficient and seamless fashion. That’s exactly were Apple is hoping to step in with HomeKit. At WDC, Apple’s VP humbly suggested that his company could “bring some rationality to this space.” Of course, as Megan Garber puts it, “You could see it as Apple’s attempt to turn the physical world into a kind of App Store: yet another platform. Another area whose gates Apple keeps.”

When news broke about HomeKit, I was reminded of an interview the philosopher of technology Albert Borgmann gave several years ago. It was that interview, in fact, that led me to the piece by Levy. Borgmann was less than impressed with the breathless anticipation of the “smart home.”

“In the perfectly smart home,” Borgmann quipped, “you don’t do anything.”

Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Geoffrey Fowler, gave one example of what Apple projected HomeKit could do:  “Users would be able to tell their Siri virtual assistant that they are ‘going to bed’ and their phone would dim the lights, lock your doors and set the thermostat, among other tasks.”

There’s apparently something alluring and enchanting about such a scenario. I’m going to casually suggest that the allure might be conceived as arising from a latent desire to re-enchant the world. The advent of modernity disenchanted the pre-modern world according to a widely accepted socio-historical account of the modern world. Gone were the spirits and spiritual forces at work in the world. Gone were the angles and witches and fairies. Gone was the mysticism that inspired both fear and wonder. All that remained was the sterile world of lifeless matter … and human beings alone in a vast universe that took no notice of them.

Technologies that make the environment responsive to our commands and our presence, tools that would be, presumably, alert to our desires and needs, even those we’ve not yet become aware of–such technologies promise to re-enchant the world, to make us feel less alone perhaps. They are the environmental equivalent of the robots that promise to become our emotional partners.

Borgmann, however, is probably right about technologies of this sort, “After a week you don’t notice them anymore. They mold into the inconspicuous normalcy of the background we now take for granted. These are not things that sustain us.”

Christopher Mims landed even nearer to the mark when he recently tweeted, “Just think how revolutionary the light switch would seem if until now we’d all been forced to control our homes through smartphones.”

Finally, in his WSJ story, Fowler wrote, “[Apple] is hoping it can become a hub of connected devices that, on their own, don’t do a very good job of helping you control a home.”

That last phrase is arresting. Existing products don’t do a very good job of helping you control your home. Interestingly though, I’ve never really thought of my home as something I needed to control. The language of control suggests that a “smart home” is an active technological system that requires maintenance and regulation. It’s a house come alive. Of course, it’s worth remembering that the pursuit of control is always paired with varying degrees of anxiety.

13 thoughts on “It’s Alive, It’s Alive!

  1. Ive just spent six months in the exact opposite. A home with no running water, no eletricity, no internet, and no money. Even something as simple as having a “bath” (no bath or shower) meant chopping enough wood to boil a pan of water on the stove (45 minutes to an hour) and then crouching on a bare concrete floor tipping and spongeing hot water over myself. It was bliss, but something you could only manage onec a week or so. We had internet access but only if we fired up our somewhat tempermental generator, which eventually died after hours of ineffectual fault finding and tinkering. In the evening we cooked by candle light and oil lamps. We prayed for rain to fill our cistern. During the day we worked on the vegetable patchs and the vineyard. At night we talked, and read books. I was never bored, or depressed. I was intimately connected with all the things that I needed to do and to have to keep myself going from day to day. Yes, a lot of time was spent doing things that in the “normal” world we don’t give a moment’s thought to. But none of it was “wasted”. I did not spend hours trolling the internet, or listening to “news”, or watching media. I spent hours using my hands, body and brain, solving problems, and providing (not buying) for myself. The “smart” home sounds like a nightmare. The truth is this stuff controls us, disempowers us, makes us stupid, dull, and possibly mad.

    1. Thanks for this comment. Your experience is the flip side of Adam’s perspective below. Also, you may enjoy Albert Borgmann’s “Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life.” Although, you’ve discovered from experience what he theorizes.

  2. I smiled when I read about the alarm clock ringing later on snow days so that parents and kids can stay longer in bed.
    One of my nicest memories when my children were younger is about snow days. Waking up as usual, see that gorgeous, thick blanket of snow, hoping for a snow day, then listen to the radio to find out if my kids’ school had school or not, and then returning to bed. That was bliss.
    What would really be useful? Smart appliances doing the cleaning. Bathroom cleaning that nobody likes. Not even people paid for that. That would be useful.
    I like what David, above, wrote. I have also lived with various levels of comfort. Although I appreciate very much the high tech tools we now use to communicate, I’m wary of too much control that is supposed to make our lives easier. Do we really need Siri to lock our doors, switch the lights and draw the blinds? Although nothing will stop Apple of any other company to move on, I still hope that smart houses remain elements of dystopian fiction. Except to clean the toilets. Maybe.

    1. Thanks, Evelyne. As I mentioned to Adam below, what we need is a way of thinking more clearly about what tasks might be usefully automated/offloaded and which we do better to sustain. Much of what would be involved in this sort of thinking would be an attempt to weigh what is often unquantifiable or consider what cannot easily be measured. That itself makes it a challenge given our proclivity for thinking in the mode of cost/benefit analysis.

  3. Michael:

    Interesting essay. You’ll want to read Nick Carr’s new book (“The Glass Cage”), which raises some of these same issues. It’s out in September. I just finished reading the advance copy his publisher sent me.

    Anyway, some brief thoughts.

    The problem with Borgmann’s lament (“In the perfectly smart home, you don’t do anything.”) is that it just isn’t true. After all, our homes have been getting “smarter” for decades now, and yet our activities have expanded as well. When we automate one task, we open up time for another. Human ingenuity is boundless. The power tools and yard tools in my garage have made it much easier to complete tasks that used to take weeks or months, and yet I never seem to run out of garage and yard-related work to do! Even if I could fully automate the chores I don’t want to do, I’d find other uses for those tools or my time. I spend a great deal of time using my tools just for fun these days (like last month when I used my power tools to build a new storage unit for all vinyl albums) instead of worrying about how to keep my home standing or its technological systems running.

    Moreover, I’m not too worried about the Frankenstein-like scenario you’re hinting at in the final paragraph: “It’s alive, it’s alive… a house come alive”! No, I don’t think so. It’s not a living, sentient creature. It’s just a bunch of dumb gear and gadgets that we’re trying to make work a little better to make our lives a little easier. I just can’t see what’s so worrisome about that.

    Contrary to what you say, however, it is true that our homes our “an active technological system that requires maintenance and regulation.” Even in the days of mud huts and log cabins that was somewhat true. We had to maintain the (admittedly more primitive) “technologies” of those times (stoves, roofs, shutters, etc) with whatever system we had at our disposal. Of course, it took a lot more human effort to do so precisely because it was so hard to automate those technologies and tasks. Eventually we would come to automate more and more routine home technologies and tasks (heating, cooling, cooking, cleaning, etc). The fact that we learned how to do so was a great boon to human welfare as it improved our quality of life in various ways. In the process, it freed up more time for us to use our brains and bodies to do a wide variety of other activities that we previously did not have the time to engage in or enjoy. I am confident we will continue to go on doing so.

    Human ingenuity expands to fill the time at our disposal; time that in many cases we now have thanks to automation!

    Cheers – Adam Thierer

    1. I’m reading through Nick’s book just now, too. Only a third of the way through, though.

      Let me clarify, the Frankenstein clip was mostly for fun. I don’t think our houses will come alive in some sort of weird Transformer-like development. I did think it interesting, though, that the smart home promises to be something in need of control. Along these lines, I thought the metaphor of animation intriguing. What the smart home offers, whatever we call it, I would suggest, is in a different category from whatever maintenance mud-huts and log cabins, etc. required. After all, the promise of the fully realized smart home is not only that certain tasks are mechanized (as with a furnace in the case of heating), but that AI takes over the control of these systems in a way that assumes cognitive as well as manual labor. It is “alive” in the sense that actions might be performed independently of the home owner’s direct intervention. This is not necessarily a “bad” thing, but it is a different sort of thing about which some thinking may be in order.

      Actually, taking heating as an example (Borgmann deploys it too), I’d suggest that there are three moves that you might be eliding in your comment: mechanization, automation, and … I need a third word here. So the work of building a fire (coal or wood) gives way to a furnace or central heating: this would be mechanization (interesting social, psychological, and economic trade-offs already take place here as Borgmann notes). A thermostat then automates that same work. What “smart homes” offer is a third step in which the automation is networked and the system gains a degree of agency. Still not sure what nifty word to give this third step. But these seem to be important distinctions.

      As for Borgmann’s quip, it was offered in a spoken interview which allows for more casual comments. I think that it might be better to say that in the perfectly smart home, you don’t do anything of consequence or, using his own word a little later in the interview, you don’t do anything sustaining. This too may be an overstatement, but it needs to be understood in the context of Borgmann’s theory of focal things and focal practices. (I take a shot at summarizing it here.)

      You’ll be glad to know that the work you’re doing with your tools sounds like the kind of engaging work that Borgmann champions. That said, though, I think that the story of how the promise of labor-saving innovations play out is not always quite so neat as it has been in your experience. Ruth Cowan’s “More Work for Mother” is, I think, still the classic treatment of this subject.

      This exchange also reminds me of the recently tweeted tech-utopian manifesto from Marc Andreessen, and really a lot of the discourse surrounding automation, robot labor, etc. It seems to me that there is something kind of gnostic or Platonic about the line of though that suggests we are being liberated from all manual or physical labor for the sake of “intangibles,” for mental, philosophical, intellectual activity. It may even be seen as a retooling of the medieval via contemplativa. There’s something not quite right about that, though. It seems to me that what we need is an account of manual or physical labor that allows us to think about what work is worth hanging onto even if we could automate it. Right now, it seems that we’re automating by default because we can on the assumption that the end result is always beneficent.

      Anyway, some thoughts off the cuff. As always, thanks for pushing me to think a little harder about this stuff.



      1. Mechanization, Automation and Everyware perhaps. Kitchen and Dodge discuss it at length in Code/Space, which I’ve mentioned before but it’s Adam Greenfield’s term from “Everyware:the dawning age of ubiquitous computing” which I haven’t read yet.

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