Smart homes: digital lifestyles practiced and imagined
In the midst of the current housing crisis and economic collapse, it may well be odd to speak about housing, even less the high-tech smart home with its equally high-ticket price. The smart home began to emerge as a semipractical housing form in the 1980s, but its cultural form dates back to a longer history of ‘homes of tomorrow’, predicated on automation and technological gadgets.1 Today, the fates of architecture, home technologies and residential real estate are increasingly intertwined, not just through corporate mergers, but also through speculative ﬁctions as well as artistic and popular practices that form a cultural context for our imagination of home, technology and everyday life. The smart home is a networked home where artefacts, spaces and people
interact within the house and, via the internet and mobile technologies, from remote locales. Although smart homes are designed in numerous parts of the world, my focus here is on US examples, which are largely orchestrated through global corporations such as IBM, Panasonic, Intel, Microsoft and Philips, and through university initiatives. Today, at a time when ‘Some 63% of adult Americans have Broadband Internet connections at home’ (Horrigan 2009), smart homes are increasingly targeted at people with internet services and also with the digital literacy and economic means that often go along with that. And note that while Broadband Internet households are growing among numerous populations, adults who are under 65, more highly educated, and in higher income brackets are more likely to have it in their homes, and Broadband is less common in African American households (Horrigan 2009: 36). But smart homes are not just corporate constructs aimed at high-end
consumers. They are also cultural forms that express and promote social identities and lived experiences. Smart homes, to borrow Michel de Certeau’s terminology, are ‘spatial stories’ for the emplotment of alternative futures and possible worlds (De Certeau 1984). In so far as smart homes also
reimagine the logics of architectural time (issues of permanence, impermanence and, more important to my inquiry, the time-shifting dynamics of contemporary culture), they also serve as time machines through which daily rhythms of labour and leisure are being reclocked, and where life-cycle issues (such as childcare or aging) can be rethought in spatial terms. Throughout the twentieth century, the technologically enhanced ‘house
of tomorrow’ has been a key vehicle through which visionary architects – often in conjunction with corporations – have imagined a better world. Notable US examples range from Buckminster Fuller’s automated Dymaxian house, ﬁrst exhibited in 1927, to the corporate display homes of General Electric and Westinghouse in the 1930s and 1940s, to MIT’s futuristic Monsanto House, ﬁrst on exhibit in 1957 in the Tomorrowland section of Disneyland. (For histories of homes of tomorrow, smart homes and architectural utopias see Allon 2004; Boyce 1993; Colomina 2007; Heckman 2007; Haddow 1999; Horrigan 1986; Riley 1999; Scott 2007; Spigel 2001, 2005.) Despite the rhetoric of the technological sublime common to these visionary homes, stories about futuristic homes gone awry have been a mainstay of popular culture. Think, for example, of Buster Keaton’s The Electric House (1922) where Keaton is outdone by a set of domestic contrivances including an escalator-like smart staircase on which he hilariously tumbles and a smart pool in which he nearly drowns. Similarly, Warner Brothers’ ‘Merrie Melody’ Dog Gone Modern (1939) features two cartoon dogs who visit a home of tomorrow only to be assaulted by an assembly of robot sweepers, overambitious dishwashers and sentient napkin folders, which inﬂict all kinds of harm and humiliation on the unsuspecting canines. Science-ﬁction stories present comparable tales, but rather than laughter they provoke uncanny terror. Famously, in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), the home of Joh Fredersen (the uber-capitalist ruler of a futuristic city) has an electronic surveillance screen from which he surveys his underground workers. Post-war American science ﬁction further developed the genre. Ray Bradbury’s ‘There Will Come Soft Rains’ (1950) features a sentient home where a lonesome toaster and sorrowful stove mourn their missing residents, who have died in a nuclear blast. Forbidden Planet’s (1956) space-age dream house turns out, in the tradition of false utopias, to be a mad scientist’s trap. The Stepford Wives (1975) depicts a seemingly ideal suburban community that turns out to be a corporate plot in which sinister husbands turn their women’s-lib-inspired wives into docile housewife robots. Not surprisingly, in this regard, while today’s consumer magazines, corporations and smart home designers project utopian futures, ﬁlms like Disney’s Smart Home (1999), Steven Spielberg’s AI (2001) and Jon Favreau’s Iron Man (2008) continue to present uncanny visions of smart homes in corporately engineered futures. It is this theoretical, imaginary dimension of the smart house that interests
me most. Because I am concerned both with practical inventions and
innovations, as well as theoretical speculative designs (some by architects more associated with avant-garde art installations than with actual buildings), what follows is an analysis of some of the central dynamics at play in the digital culture of home.