Learning to avoid users infantilization

by Prof. Dr. Gaia Scagnetti

The ThingsCon report The State of Responsible IoT is an annual collection of essays by experts from the ThingsCon community. With the Riot Report 2018 we want to investigate the current state of responsible IoT. In this report we explore observations, questions, concerns and hopes from practitioners and researchers alike. The authors share the challenges and opportunities they perceive right now for the development of an IoT that serves us all, based on their experiences in the field. The report presents a variety of differing opinions and experiences across the technological, regional, social, philosophical domains the IoT touches upon. You can read all essays as a Medium publication and learn more at thingscon.com.

Twelve weeks ago we had a baby; by the day she was born my partner and I had already determined that we would not post any pictures on social media to protect her privacy. For us it was an easy decision, like disregarding the wipe warmer, choosing only gender-neutral colors, and eating more organic food during breastfeeding. Our friends believed that being parents would transform us into obsessive oversharers of baby pictures and eventually change our relationship with social media. Instead, having a baby turned out to be a reflection on the smart home, voice commanded apps, and data.

I need a robotic smart home

I have always preferred to interact with my environment in a quiet and reserved way: I favor text messages over phone calls, I choose to read a map rather than ask for directions. I did not develop an effective relationship with Siri or Cortana or any dictation app: initially because my Italian accent confused any voice recognition software, but ultimately because I would rather not vocalize my activities; I like to keep them for myself.

When the baby arrived, something changed. I found myself spending hours nursing, rocking, changing diapers, and expressing milk. What all these activities have in common is that they required the use of both hands.

For those of you who had never fed a baby, I’ll give you a quick rundown of the principal modern peculiarities of this activity. My house is quiet; the baby is sleeping. All of a sudden the baby is hungry and starts fussing. There are only about sixty seconds before she starts screaming at a pitch that can break windows (metaphorically) and wake up the entire neighborhood (literally). In that minute window, I pick up the baby, sit, and start nursing. A newborn can eat for five to twenty minutes. While sitting in the quiet again, I suddenly realize my needs; they emerge as the itching feeling during a meditation session. I would love to have a pillow to rest on under my elbow, maybe one behind my back, I want to search the internet, reach my phone, text a friend, do anything that keeps me awake. But both of my hands are occupied supporting the baby. The phone is twenty inches away but I can’t grab it, the computer might be just in front of me but I cannot type.

For the first time in my life, I want to be able to command everything by voice. While I am stuck supporting a hungry infant trying to grasp my mobile phone with my foot, I regret not having trained the Google assistant to understand me and perform activities when I speak. During the hours spent staring at something out of reach, I dream of a smart home where every single thing responds to my voice command and where objects communicate with each other. A house where the sensor of my baby’s onesie would turn on the bottle warmer when she starts fussing for food, where the bottle warmer would select the right container based on the date and time that my breast pump recorded, where my phone did not need my touch to record how long the baby slept, nursed, and when her diaper needed a change.

For weeks the Internet of Things seemed like a great idea. It might increase our quality of life!

This period did not last long, and already at ten weeks the baby could support her neck decently and I mastered the one-hand-football-hold. I also realized that even if my house was a high tech responsive environment as the one I helped design as a researcher in MIT a long time ago¹, I would have probably just been able to make an order on Amazon but not get it out of the box, start the laundry but not loading the washing machine, order food but not open the door. What I needed was more of a robotic house than a smart one. With a voice controlled device as Alexa or Google home I could have played Jeopardy², booked a restaurant³, stayed mindful with meditation⁴ and ordered, bought, and purchased as much as I want to. All the data I could record about me and my baby would be shared with companies to customize my ads, rather than to other devices to facilitate my activities.

The motivation behind the present development of our home technologies is deeply rooted in capitalist objectives more than in the desire of increasing the quality of life.

Technology should serve its users rather than the interest of manufacturing companies; in reality, the user is more often an element of the system rather than its beneficiary, the system is designed to persuade the user to perform specific actions, almost entirely of consumption.

The fundamental conversation we should have is about trust in the companies who are designing these devices. If Alexa was a real person working for Amazon — helping you around the house but also reporting back to her employer all you do and say — would you trust her? How would being listened continuously by someone who works and reports to a company feel? Would we be more comfortable with an independent OS for IoT? Could we DIY an autonomous device with no capitalist purpose?

I need full surveillance

Furthermore, this parenting experience changed my relationship with data. Since the day I delivered at the hospital we were encouraged to keep a log of the activities of our baby. How much she ate (ml per bottle) for how long she nursed (minutes at the breast), how long she slept (hours), how many wet and dirty diapers, and which shade of color their content. We measured height, weight and head circumference. This log helps new parents learn their baby’s behavior and pattern match it with the average. It allows spotting when something is wrong and reassures that everything is in the norm. The early days of parenting are made of data.

For the first time, I thought that a total surveillance through data collection was a great idea. It might lead to significant discoveries in human behaviors!

This period did not last long, because the data we collect are useful only when secondary to the parents’ intuition. An over-reliance on them disrupts the parents’ ability to listen to a baby needs. The normative average baby is anyway an illusion: “every baby is different” we are told over and over again by wise nurses. When using a paper log we are also keeping all the information for ourselves, the same way our simple fridge is not communicating with any other device. The data we produce stays with us. Collecting detailed data about my baby does not feel particularly problematic: it does not pose the same challenges of collecting data about an adult. Data collection can be a serviceable activity when the object of observation it is naturally subjected to the power of who owns the data. The subjection of the infant to the parents is proper, the subjection of an adult to a company is not. An infant is not yet able to survive autonomously and does not have freedom, the survival of an adult depends on her autonomy and freedom.

Do not treat me like an infant

Infantilization through technology is a thought-provoking framework to discuss the design of a responsible IoT. The concept of infantilization has been described as a treat of the postmodern adult⁵,⁶ by many⁷,,,¹⁰: Baudrillard¹¹ describes Disneyland as the archetype of this world, a metaphor of an American society where the cult of youth is used by capitalism to “infantilize the consumer as a means of non-aggressive control.”¹²

A responsible Internet of Things avoids infantilization. An infant is always at the center of the world and needs to be continuously heard and monitored by her carers. The infant gets fed, washed and changed, gets put to sleep and dressed: all trivial tasks are handled by someone else so she can fully dedicate her energy to growth. Consumption is the primary activity of the infant. The infant does not understand the system around her. She is not aware of how and why her world works and does not need to know: stories are designed to explain reality.

When we design artifacts with the assumption that we need a superior entity to make the right decision for us, we are infantilizing our determination. A technology that creates the illusion that we are of central importance treats us as children unable to understand the vast scale of our society. When we develop digital services and use data as a currency to access them, we are infantilizing and objectifying our users. Technological innovations delegating trivial tasks to free our time to for personal growth are trivializing our identities. When we hide the complexity of our systems behind over-simplified interfaces, we are paternalistic.

A responsible Internet of Things should be human-centric, where human refers to an adult with fully autonomous will, identities and rights.

Prof. Dr. Gaia Scagnetti

Professor Dr. Gaia Scagnetti is program co-coordinator and full-time Assistant Professor at the Pratt Institute’s Graduate Communications Design department in New York. Her current research projects focus on new pedagogies and decolonization for higher education in design. In 2010 Gaia Scagnetti completed a Post Doctoral research at the Design Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 2009 she obtained a PhD degree cum Meritus in Industrial Design and Multimedia Communication at the Politecnico di Milano. During the doctoral research Gaia has worked as a designer and researcher at the Density Design Lab in Milan, where she carried out research, design projects and teaching activities on Information Visualization and Mapping. Her works have been featured in several conferences and exhibitions and publications and showcases. Her complete portfolio can be found at www.namedgaia.com.

ThingsCon is a global community & event platform for IoT practitioners. Our mission is to foster the creation of a human-centric & responsible Internet of Things (IoT). With our events, research, publications and other initiatives — like the Trustable Tech mark for IoT — we aim to provide practitioners with an open environment for reflection & collaborative action. Learn more at thingscon.com

This text is licensed under Creative Commons (attribution/non-commercial/share-alike: CC BY-NC-SA). Images are provided by the author and used with permission. Please reference the author’s or the authors’ name(s).

  1. Scagnetti, Gaia, and Federico Casalegno. “Social Sustainability in Design: The Window as an Interface for Social Interaction.” In Cross-Cultural Design, 321–30. Lecture Notes in Computer Science. Springer, Cham, 2014. doi:10.1007/978–3–319–07308–8_31. ↩︎
  2. Sony Pictures Television. “Jeopardy!” Amazon.com. Accessed July 19, 2018. https://www.amazon.com/Sony-Pictures-Television-Jeopardy/dp/B019G0M2WS. ↩︎
  3. Google Assistant. “OpenTable.” Assistant.google.com. Accessed July 19, 2018. https://assistant.google.com/services/a/uid/000000e768ed4de9?hl=en-US. ↩︎
  4. Stoked Skills LLC. “Amazon.com: Mindful Meditation: Alexa Skills.” Amazon.com. Accessed July 19, 2018. https://www.amazon.com/Stoked-Skills-LLC-Mindful-Meditation/dp/B0784GXF2M/ref=lp_14284837011_1_5?s=digital-skills&ie=UTF8&qid=1531937136&sr=8-5. ↩︎
  5. Bernardini, Jacopo. “The Infantilization of the Postmodern Adult and the Figure of Kidult.” Postmodern Openings/Deschideri Postmoderne 5, no. 2 (2014). ↩︎
  6. Bernardini, Jacopo. “The Role of Marketing in the Infantilization of the Postmodern Adult.” Fast Capitalism, Search Results The University of Texas at Arlington, 10, no. 1 (2013). https://www.uta.edu/huma/agger/fastcapitalism/10_1/bernardini10_1.html. ↩︎
  7. McHugh, Molly. “How Technology Is Creating a Generation of Adult Babies.” The Ringer, January 25, 2018, sec. Tech. https://www.theringer.com/tech/2018/1/25/16933668/2018-ces-rocking-bed-infantalization. ↩︎
  8. Cain, Benjamin. “The Ironies of Modern Progress and Infantilization (by Ben Cain).” Three Pound Brain, February 4, 2014. https://rsbakker.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/the-ironies-of-modern-progress-and-infantilization-by-ben-cain/. ↩︎
  9. Elkus, Adam. “The Infantilizing Nature of Technophobia: A Matter of Will.” Medium, April 20, 2015. https://medium.com/strategies-of-the-artificial/the-infantilizing-nature-of-technophobia-a-matter-of-will-813ef97efab9. ↩︎
  10. Singer, Natasha. “Technology That Prods You to Take Action, Not Just Collect Data.” The New York Times, December 21, 2017, sec. Technology. https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/19/technology/technology-that-prods-you-to-take-action-not-just-collect-data.html. ↩︎
  11. Baudrillard, Jean. America. Verso, 1989. ↩︎
  12. Silva, Erick da. “The Infantilization of Society and the Cult of Youth.” The Ivory Tower, September 4, 2015. https://the-ivory-tower.com/the-infantilization-of-society-and-the-cult-of-youth/. ↩︎




Experts from the ThingsCon community explore current challenges and opportunities of responsible Internet of Things. Learn more at thingscon.com

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ThingsCon explores and promotes the development of fair, responsible, and human-centric technologies for IoT and beyond. https://thingscon.org

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