With What is the smart home?, I started a series that looks at the implications of the Internet of Things taking over our homes. The thesis is that the Silicon Valley geniuses who are designing smart thermostats don’t know much about how heating systems work, and the people designing smart houses don’t know much about houses or the people who occupy them. In 1956, if someone wanted a vision of the smart house of the future, they would go to architects; now it’s all about interconnected sensors designed by engineers. As much as I continue to praise the dumb home, we are going into an era of tumultuous change in how our houses work and how we interact with the things in them.
On e-flux, a journal "of critical discourse surrounding contemporary art, culture, and theory," Justin McGuirk worries about much the same thing in his wonderfully titled Honeywell, I’m Home! The Internet of Things and the New Domestic Landscape. He writes:
For the first time since the mid-twentieth century—with its labor-saving household appliances and rising quality of life—the domestic is once again the site of radical change. And though domestic space appears to fall within the realm of architecture, architects themselves have been almost mute on the implications of such change. Architecture, it seems, has given up its dreams of imagining how we might live, and so into that void technology is rushing. That tired old trope of “the house of the future” has been replaced by what is now called the “smart home.”
However we are beginning to see how all this smart technology is beginning to change the way we live. Our TVs have become big enough and Netflix good enough that we never go to the movies anymore. Even takeout food is easier with the new apps. My mom has a necklace that knows where she is and calls me if she falls; McGuirk says that will be built into the broadloom soon. More and more of us are working from home, able to dispense with those things that made the office essential such as printers and file cabinets and meeting rooms. Instead, we do it all with the cloud, Slack and Skype. In fact our houses are changing functions:
It is a truism worth restating here that our homes are increasingly the primary sites of production. This is not just true of new flexible labor models that allow many people to work from home; it also applies to the so-called “sharing economy” (read the digital rental economy) that allows us to commodify our private spaces so effortlessly. Already, the idea of the home as a retreat, a sanctuary from work, comes into question.
If your smart treadmill doesn’t clock a certain number of miles a day, your insurance premium will go up. Furthermore, smoking or enjoying the taste of bourbon just a little too much may constitute deviant behavior that renders you uninsurable.
McGuirk understands where the market is for smart thermostats and vents: “if the smart home is to become a reality, it will have to adapt itself to the majority of existing homes or be doomed to a tiny market of wealthy eccentrics.” Most existing homes are terrible and leaky, and the worse they are, the more money a Nest thermostat will save its owner. In fact if a house is designed properly, you don’t need much of this stuff — no automatic blinds for windows that are properly sited and shaded, no smart thermostat for a house that doesn’t change temperature.
McGuirk asks “What are the implications for architecture? Do these developments have spatial ramifications?“ I believe there will be many and they will be profound. That’s in fact what this series is about; these are the questions I'm trying to answer. Stay tuned.
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