Optimistic self-improvement is a boom market, especially at this time of year, with apps such as Habitshare, Habitica, Done and Productive, which are designed to help users form better life habits, topping download lists. The concept of a smart home offers a similar promise of domestic utopia, the untold potentials of efficiency and convenience through transformative technology and home connectivity to simplify tasks and thereby enrich daily life.
This is also the underlying sell of the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, an extravaganza of 4,000 companies exhibiting and revealing their latest gadgetry. Originally a showcase of in-home consumer electronics – think Coachella, but instead of musicians, it’s television sets that are headliners – this year sees the requisite debut of bigger and better 8K TV sets and 5G smartphones. But the lineup is also rife with presentations on the potential of driverless cars, the impact of sleep-related tech and indoor air quality sensors on productivity, along with panels brainstorming ways to increase smart home adoption, which has lagged compared to industry projections.
I’m glad the smart-home revolution has been delayed, but I worry that it’s coming.
Consumer companies have been trying to make the smart home happen since the 1950s. The “Design for Dreaming” promotional video for General Motors’ 1956 Frigidaire concept kitchen, for example, sold push-button homemaking that enabled a newlywed housewife to do better things with her time. The kitchen included rotating storage for dry, refrigerated and frozen foods, self-rinsing cabinets and an electronic recipe file.
Around the same time, in the late 1950s, RCA and Whirlpool’s sleek “Miracle Kitchen of the Future” model toured around the world. Here, the housewife worked a control panel with a transmitter that acted as the “heart and brain” of the home and was eventually exhibited at the American National Exhibition in Moscow. It was a fitting location to wind up in because what’s planned for the future is basically a Soviet dystopia of all-seeing, all-hearing appliances.
The essential difference between then and now is that, unlike today, 1950s household gadgets weren’t a pretext for data-gathering mechanisms.
In November, Amazon opened a smart home pop-up at Toronto’s Eaton Centre, its first foray into physical retail in Canada. The three living spaces had turquoise honeycomb branding and were designed with the same sleek anodyne finishes of a typical condo model suite. And virtual assistant Alexa was integrated throughout, as were compatible products from partners such as the Ecobee thermostat, responsive light effects from Philips Hue, iRobot Roomba and Sonos soundbar. On request through its app, the Samsung Family Hub smart fridge shares a photo of what’s inside. As though having to pry open the fridge door and jot down a few supermarket necessities were a grievous imposition.
Computing is already woven into everyday lives and consumer product companies would have us let more sensors, cameras and microphones into the domestic ecosystem. First, with the Nest and other smart thermostats, it was the promise of virtue by automating energy use and saving money; next came the peace of mind of integrated security with smart camera doorbells.
These devices are expected to become more popular in the coming years: Intel anticipates that the number of connected devices in a typical home will grow from the present 10 to more than 35 by 2020, which is also the year leading tech manufacturers promise full Internet of Things-ready intelligent products and next-gen virtual assistants.
And these gadgets are getting smarter. Tech investment firm Loup Venture recently did its annual speaker IQ test. In December, it ran the same 800 test queries in categories ranging from local knowledge and navigation to commerce and commands through Alexa, Siri, Cortana 800, and Google virtual assistants, with the top performer, Google, getting them 88 per cent correct (up 7 per cent from last year’s test). All the while, they’re tracking habits – patterns of behaviour, preferences – as closely as Mrs. Wilson, Helen Mirren’s briskly efficient housekeeper in Gosford Park. “What gift do you think a good servant has that separates them from the others?” she asks, rhetorically. “It’s the gift of anticipation. … I know when they’ll be hungry and the food is ready. I know when they’ll be tired and the bed is turned down. I know it before they know it themselves.”
Putting aside the domestic espionage possible with these devices – eavesdropping on kids play dates, checking the fridge for what teens hanging out in the basement after school may have put in it, Fresh-r sensors that notice the increase in CO2 levels in case those teens are having a party when you’re not home – it’s the corporate surveillance they enable and a fundamental illusion about who’s in control that is worrisome. That Samsung smart refrigerator? Once you log into the app, it quickly moves from showing you the contents of the fridge to offering shopping suggestions, third-party grocery retailers, schedule-sharing platforms and its own messaging software, all in the guise of a helpful digital hub that will streamline the chaos of a busy family life. As Shoshana Zuboff explains in her chilling and essential new book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, every pattern, habit and command is harvesting data and the lack of transparency about the end use, or whether it’s being accessed and sold to third parties at all (consent be damned) should be unacceptable.
There have been similar issues to the tech-enabled home raised around wearable tech and the quantified self. Elizabeth Wissinger, a professor of sociology at City University of New York who studies how wearable tech data mediates bodies and relationships, made the comparison when I spoke with her last year. Social science researchers such as Wissinger are concerned with the ethical implications of embodied computing and the data privacy trade-offs for learning about ourselves or for the sake of convenience. Whether wearing a product or giving a smart speaker a voice command, it’s really you who are the product. “Invasive biometrics are being sold as more precise and granular data about health and performance,” she explained, and smart homes are on that continuum. “People get creeped out when they find that they’re a product – even though it’s anonymous data, it can be triangulated back to the source.”
If there’s any doubt about benign information being manipulated by Big Data, consider that in a talk at the recent Business of Fashion Voices conference, data scientist Christopher Wylie outlined how his work at the British marketing firm Cambridge Analytica weaponized innocuous Facebook “likes” on fashion brands as inputs to build algorithms and target people politically. (People who were interested in brands such as L.L. Bean and Wrangler were more likely to embrace right-leaning messaging, he said, while those who favoured labels such as Kenzo were not.)
In the 1950s, a prescient observer of so-called modern conveniences, comic genius Jacques Tati made Mon Oncle about the implications of a smart home called Villa Arpel. Inept humans allow the house’s automation to control its inhabitants, even trapping people inside while eroding their human relationships. The cinematic satire was billed as a farce – it won best foreign language film at the Oscars in 1959 – and it’s a hilarious send-up until the reality that the supposedly helpful house was actually outsmarting us all hits home.
Live with style. We have a weekly Style newsletter on fashion and design trends, plus shopping tips and inspiration. Sign up today.