Smarter Homes: how technology has changed your home life (an introduction)

I’ve spent the last year writing a book on smart homes for Apress. It’s obviously not to get rich, but to explore some personal obsessions and share my findings in public. I’ve had the best time writing too, but I know that not everyone will want to commit to this read. So here’s a short introduction.

Who is it for?

I wrote the book for my mum who is only starting to understand what I’ve built my career on (the internet of things). I wanted her to understand that my attraction to electronics and computing concepts was really historically connected to the early home economics classes she would have experienced as a young woman. I also wrote the book for women everywhere who are the core audience of technology companies looking to sell into the home. I wanted them to make the connection between their husband’s (sterotyping massively here, bear with me) shed full of electronics prototypes and their own history of home purchases. I wanted my peers in the technology sector to realise how much of their livelihood is connected to purchases those women will make. Many technology companies will struggle to understand *how* they’ll make that case and return to some 100 year old expressions women have grown tired of. Finally, I know industrial designers don’t do that much reading but I think there’s something in it for them. History of design books always focus on the best looking products in history as opposed to what is actually at the root of that product and the reasons why it needed to be redesigned (it needed to sell!) and why that redesign sometimes isn’t a guarantee of commercial success.

My book therefore connects broader social changes, technical innovation and the fluid image of ‘good home living’ that fuels the economy at large. All of this makes up the ‘smart home’ many of you will have been reading about for over a decade.

The smart home is not new

At it’s heart, the book makes the case that the smart home isn’t new. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing and a repetition of old ideas, some of which were failures, that are revisited and sold as new, as part of a digital and internet-enabled landscape that has added in effect very little to home habits. We still sleep in beds, we still do dishes, we still hang our clothes to dry. Who does them and how they do them differs, but a living room from the 1970s and ours now is comparable (go visit the fantastic Geffrye Museum when they reopen in 2020).

Alone or together?

If anything, we interact less with our homes than we once did. We don’t host as much as we used to, and since the 1970s and the introduction of central heating and air conditioning, we live in boxes isolated from our natural environmnet. The internet changed our access to information, our relationships to one another, our relationships to the city and its services, but not our homes per se. Many new technologies in fact have productised and individualised a communal experience which would have brought with it many social and psychological benefits. I discuss some of the attempts to re-communalise individual home experiences and their failures. We’re in the middle of a second attempt at this with co-living.

I discuss how privacy as we consider it now was a long, slow process of shutting out the world from our own lived experience. Sitting alone at home with the television on, browsing on a phone, like so many elderly people (or teenagers) do, is experiencing the world as we wish to see it, without changing ourselves, nor having to adapt or learn. Not only this but I discuss how we offer a well-curated window into our home lives with social media without actually inviting people in.

The home dictates what works and what doesn’t.

But history is also littered with product ideas that are unable to fit into the physical fabric of the home. Edison, as one of the examples I mention, was convinced that people would listen to music with cylinders, refusing to admit that stacking vinyls in a bookshelf was much easier.

The computerised home

I address the role of computers of course, arguing that the idea of a computerised home (or what eventually became a smart home) was dictated by the technical capabilities of home computers and not inspired by home life. Home living was not the starting point of computer development but became its biggest audience. The history around the arguments used to convince the general public that this was a worthy purchase are almost identical to the ones used to sell radios 60 years before. I also had the great pleasure of interviewing Jim Sutherland, creator of the first computer for the home (it took up the whole basement) and find out about his motivations.

Smart House

One of the most enjoyable bits to write about was the history of the term ‘smart home’. I was able to talk to David Jerry MacFadyen who organised the first event in the world to coin the term ‘smart house’ and and Ralph Lee Smith who wrote a fantastic book documenting their vision in the 1980s. I also dive into the history of domotics briefly, a cousin of the smart home. As a form of marketing it almost succeeded even if it failed as a project.

The future of the home

I finish the book by discussing some possible home futures with references to the pioneering thoughts of artists like Mark Leckey, Wesley Goatley, MAIO architects, Superflux and others. One of the last chapters even breaks down the whole home and what connected product you could now buy (but may not be around long). The present and the future merge into one as images of future home living from the 1950s and 60s weigh heavy in our consciousness. We must strip ourselves of their power to examine exactly what it is we want to experience at home (alone or with our loved ones) in the future and in my closing chapter I point us to some directions based on what’s happened in the past.

What’s next?

I’ll be talking more about the book in the coming months and will be organising a launch party in East London where I’ll be selling books (sign up to the newsletter to get the latest details). I’m also organising 2 guided tours across Europe where I’ll invite participants to explore some of the themes of the book through museum visits. It’s in September and October, so join me and share with your colleagues and friends! If you’re out of ideas, it would make an excellent Christmas gift too.