"A smart home is an application of ubiquitous computing in which the home environment is monitored by ambient intelligence to provide context-aware services and facilitate remote home control."
Alam et al 2012:1190
Understanding the messiness of digital technology
The idea of a 'smart home' has recently caught the attention of many scholars, journalists and marketeers who think of 'smart homes‘ as environments offering unprecedented connectedness and control over living spaces. But the idea of a 'smart home’ does not only exist as a particular future vision, rather, 'smart’ appliances and devices are, in many contexts, already part of people’s homes. In this project, I want to take one of these devices, a so called 'smart meter', as a starting point to explore not only the concept of a smart home ‚put into action‘ in a specific household, but to also look at the way we can think (anthropologically) about the changes and transformations set in place by those technologies.
[note: in order to explore this website in the intended way, it is useful to read the following description after seeing the project]
The smart meter is a device provided by British Gas for some of its costumers to overview, control and track gas and light usage and spending. According to British Gas, households who, in their words ‚join the revolution‘ and use smart meters, can make easier and quicker payments, reduce carbon emissions and thereby save money. However, what this project shows is that frictionless management, ease of control or heightened connectedness might all be intended features of smart home appliances but, in practice, they cannot be assumed as results.
In this project, I look at a two storey, seven bedroom house in London, owned by a rental agency. The rooms are rented out by the agency, typically to EU-foreigners coming to London to work or study there and who stay, on average, a couple of months or a year in the house. The fluctuation of household members, then, is remarkably high, with new sharers coming in every two or three months. The household is in many ways an atypical living constellation for thinking about the idea of smart homes, as they are usually not envisaged as a target group by producers and marketeers of those devices. Not least, is this shown by the fact that the smart meter works on the assumption that its user is a uniform and single-paying household that makes decisions together as a group – something like a family.
The reality of smart homes, then, is often not what popular images and ideas make us think. The approach I am taking for this project is purposefully chosen to draw out two specific ideas. First, the project focuses on the kitchen as a field site. The kitchen, in many ways, is the epitome of the mundane, quotidian and common. But especially for this project's household, where communal spaces are spare or avoided and individuals have their individual bedrooms that they lock when leaving the house, the kitchen is the main site of convergence and functions as a notice board to announce, denounce, mediate and negotiate. In picking this field site, I try to push against 'smart home' as a form of future vision and pull forward a perspective that is interested in the reality of use and the messy ways in which technology is (re)appropriated, fought with and rejected. Secondly, in this project I want to play with the idea of digital technology as a particular kind of thing that is often seen as taking over or somehow dehumanizing (in that it strips humans of their agency), but also as something immaterial. I want to do this by deliberately excluding people from the field site and only focusing on artifacts. An archaeology of digital technologies one could say. The question, then, becomes: How much can we know (digital technology) by only looking at things? What is excluded, overlooked and lost in such an approach? And what is won?
We know that objects transform in ways that "leave the world we inhabit changed forever" (Küchler 2006:32). One of the things that become evident while browsing this web space is that by looking at the digital devices, papers, notes and lists in the field site we can uncover the human and make visible people's practices. The role of the smart meter here is particularly interesting. In a household where flatmates feel like strangers and sociality is often kept at bay, the smart meter acts as a kind of authority that guides behavior and is used to impose and legitimize rules, or even legitimize its imposition. The smart meter creates and shapes all sorts of social relations in the house. It makes people write notes and makes them confident in imposing rules for others, while these others are willing to obey by them, precisely because the smart meter here acts as objective evidence: Everyone can see the smart meter’s flashing numbers, signs and alert lights that warn of declining budgets and possible power blackouts. But similarly, everyone can turn the smart meter off, unplug the device and simply ignore its numbers and calculations – as practiced by some of the household members.
The things we can find out by looking at these modern artifacts is quite remarkable. As the project makes evident, digital artifacts can sometimes only be understood with and through their modern 'counterparts': documents and written notes. It is in this way, through looking, say, at a sign on the heater that warns of boiler damage, that we find out about specific actors, in this case an otherwise hidden authority, the rental agency. It is by taking the smart meter as a starting point for my exploration that I also reveal the complex infrastructure that surrounds single devices. The way I present this project is an attempt to problematize the focus on bounded technological devices: digital technologies are always embedded in wider ecologies of artifacts. The way the household's email account is used, for example, can only be understood by looking at the papers, pens and fridge magnets in the kitchen.
Navigating this website
It is evident that what I try to do with this form of representation, a kind of virtual tour, is step out of the picture of the field site and give the visitor time and space to explore it for themselves. The visitor to the website will first see a large image of an unknown place. The size of the image and lack of other elements on the website draws the attention to the objects depicted. A not too distracting 'plus' sign on the side can be clicked to expand a menu of navigational options. Visitors themselves decide when they are ready to turn their eyes away from the image and find out more about the place they are seeing. The navigational options have very straightforward titles and sound like commands. I try to give the visitor a sense of being in the field. Hyperlinking gives me the option to hand over decisions on where to go and what to see to the visitor (Harper 1998:19). Do they want to read about the things they see or just explore it visually? Do they want to look at an artifact more closely or just skip it? I avoid interfering in the field site or explaining the things that are shown or the connection between them. Here, hyperlinking allows me to simulate the way one would explore a new environment, by observing, making incremental connections and linking up and making sense of things in the field. The way I built this website is to let the visitor engage with the field site directly, as if he or she was an ethnographer in the house.
This approach, however, is problematic in various ways. The website creates the illusion of unmediated and autonomous exploring. It creates a sense that seeing the field site in an unbiased way is possible, that one can get to the 'real' and 'authentic'. But this form of representation is not less mediated than textual forms. What's more, in contrast to most anthropological texts, this website completely conceals the author and the context of production. This obscures methodology, it hides how the data was collected, who collected it and under what circumstances. The sense of immediacy created through this form of representation pays no attention to how choices of form and representation (Why were the pictures taken the way they were taken? Which artifacts are highlighted, which are ignored?) might influence the way the field site is perceived. But choices of form are inevitable. More importantly, in order to simply make possible something like a virtual tour, one is forced to anticipate the interests and the ways of seeing of the ‚visiting‘ online ethnographers.
Nevertheless, we should not altogether dismiss the opportunities that these digital tools offer. It is important to understand that these kinds of representational forms do not require less, but often more attention to descriptions of who produced the content and how it was produced. But in many ways, digital tools can liberate from restricted and guided forms of reading, produce non-linear narratives that highlight relations, nodes and connections and can thus do more justice to the messiness of our field sites.
Alam, M.R., M.B.I. Reaz, and M.A.M. Ali. 2012. “A Review of Smart Homes: Past, Present, and Future.” IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics, Part C: Applications and Reviews 42 (6): 1190–1203. Harper, Richard. 1998. Inside the IMF : An Ethnography of Documents, Technology and Organisational Action. Computers and People Series Y. San Diego ; London: Academic Press.
Küchler, Susanne. 2006. “Process and Transformation.” In Handbook of Material Culture, edited by Chris Tilley, 325–28. London: SAGE.