Mod cons

Flooded Modernity – installation by Danish artist Asmund Havesteen-Mikkelsen (a replica of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye)

PETER KING finds some household technologies turn security into anxiety, and convenience into control

The modernist architect going by the name Le Corbusier famously described the house as “a machine for living in”. This view was very much associated with the modernist movement that favoured function over form, or better stated, saw function as form. We like to believe that we have left this dreary modernism behind, but in fact what we have achieved is to make the houses we dwell in not machines in themselves but assemblages of many machines, from Echo and Siri to home security products like Ring.

Just as Le Corbusier saw the machinic aesthetic as transformation, so these new assemblages are transforming how we use our dwelling spaces. We are told that these machines do new things and so will allow us to live differently. They will allow us to keep in touch with the dwelling when we are remote from it, and to allow possible intruders to know we are in touch. They can ‘learn’ our speech patterns, and simply act on our commands.

Are devices like Echo and Ring distinctly different from earlier technologies in dwellings, and will they affect how we use them? These devices use wi-fi to link our dwelling with the external world directly without our intervention and to allow us to connect with our dwelling remotely.

Ring is a home security product that notifies the householder if someone comes to the door or is in the vicinity of the house. It offers real-time video and audio and so allows one to ‘answer’ the door even when one is out of the house. We can, then, keep watch over the dwelling when physically absent, provided we have a wi-fi signal and a charged phone or tablet.

Echo is a hands-free voice activated device that connects with the web and with compatible devices in the dwelling. These may all still be emerging technologies and some or all them may just be passing fads. They may, though, prefigure a major shift in the way we use dwellings, and that is certainly how they are being promoted. We might see it as part of a move towards the connected dwelling, where we can control all aspects of the dwelling from one device, and where there is the possibility of devices ‘learning’ from our behaviour and regulating the dwelling environment accordingly.

This, it would seem, is a case of technology leading use. The technology makes it possible so it can – and perhaps should – happen. Some may find a certain kudos in being early adopters, while others will wait to see their obvious utility (if any) before committing to them. But whether one now sees them as attractive or not, there had been no great call for these technologies, and they had not been developed to meet any pressing need. The demand for them was, and is, latent at best. We might see this as an example of Say’s Law (1), of supply creating its own demand: there is a device available and affordable (to some) and so we use it and now tell ourselves we need it. The demand, however, did not exist before the invention of the device.

These devices are marketed in terms of the control and flexibility they allow us. We can be aware what is happening to our dwelling when we are away. We can alter the dwelling environment as our circumstances change and be in immediate control, even when remote from the dwelling. It is convenient, with technology taking on the burden for us and perhaps even pre-empting our needs, having learnt how we behave and what our needs apparently are.

At this point, we might ask if these devices do represent a step change, or are they really just a development from existing technologies, such the thermostat and the timer clock? The fact that these new devices can ‘learn’ appears to make them different, but they still depend on how they are programmed and how we use them. They may learn from our habits, but they still depend on these habits. They depend on the regularity of our use, that we have distinct patterns of behaviour. The device learns what we do on certain days and at certain times, and reacts accordingly. In this sense, it is merely being programmed in a less conscious manner, but we are still doing it as if we set up the heating clock differently for each day and adjust it as conditions change with the seasons. The device in no way alters the habitual nature of dwelling, and perhaps it even embeds it further.

But do these devices make us feel any safer? This presumably is the point of products such as Ring. We can feel more secure about our dwelling and our possessions even when we are away. In one of the adverts for Ring we see a rather smug householder in a supermarket queue who remotely warns a possible intruder, having been warned of his presence from an app on his phone. The intruder, surprised and worried he might be identified, scurries off and the camera returns to the contented householder looking up from his phone. A potential burglary has been prevented, and no nasty surprises await the stout householder on his return home. The device is marketed as preventing crime and giving us peace of mind. Of course, it may just shift the crime to next door or to the next road, but we might not get to know about this, and it is not us who are suffering. So we can remain smug as we warn off the burglar. If our neighbours had any sense, they would be doing the same as us and investing in this new gadget.

However, the device connects only to a rather particular notion of safety. We may consider one the main aims of a dwelling is to keep us safe and secure, to protect us from the elements and from intruders, and to keep the world at bay. But the issue here is the safety of the dwelling and its physical contents. By definition, we use the device when we are absent and so in no personal danger from intruders. Using a device like Ring suggests our main concern is with the integrity and safety of the dwelling, of preserving it as an asset. We should obviously not dismiss the trauma and sense of violation caused by invasion and the loss of valuable and familiar items, but is Ring nothing more than a possession to help protect our other possessions? Ring protects the things we own, but it does not make us safer.

Indeed, we ought to ask whether controlling the dwelling from outside enhances or detracts from private dwelling? We may feel in control, but we have to notice that we are. We cannot take our control for granted. We might even suggest that video security externalises the anxieties that we might have. We take our anxiety with us when we leave. We get no respite from it, and it only becomes heightened. The device emphasises the notion of a dwelling as an asset and not as a tool. Accordingly, our use becomes conscious and deliberative. The way the dwelling works as an object becomes more transparent to us and more obviously contingent by being so overtly linked to technology. It heightens the sense of dwelling as an end in itself – a material object with a quantifiable value – rather than as a means to pursue our own ends.

Using Ring means that we are constantly guarding the dwelling. Its purpose is to allow us to be continually aware of the integrity of our dwelling. But this too means being continually aware that it is under threat. Our focus is now on our need to protect the dwelling, rather than on it protecting us. The dwelling thus becomes a burden, an expensive asset that might turn into a liability. It becomes a cause for anxiety instead of a place of caring. We worry that something might happen to it instead of it keeping us safe. We remain on guard. We now see a greater threat of invasion precisely because we have taken steps against it.

What about control inside a dwelling? Echo aims at making our domestic lives more convenient. But we might question whether we are becoming more dependent on technology and so less able to use and control the dwelling ourselves. With these devices, there is extra layer of mediation between us and the dwelling. Using Echo – asking Alexa – might make us less capable. We feel safe, we feel more comfortable, but pre-programmed devices are acting – making decisions – for us on the basis of algorithms and common assumptions made outside the dwelling, and based on generalised presumptions of behaviour.

In the advertising, Echo is shown doing tasks that are basically inconsequential, such as playing a particular piece of music or turning lights down. They can certainly do more than this and, as the technology develops, they will doubtless do so, connecting up many other areas of our lives, such as banking and bill paying. In a few years, this might become the norm, and we should therefore ask if it is something to be welcomed or indeed if it matters to any great degree. Should not we welcome it and see it as progress? What makes our lives easier surely must be a good thing. But we also need to remember that what these devices are replacing are the perfectly straightforward arrangements that we already have. We have no great difficulty in turning on a light or putting on some music, and there are already perfectly convenient and accessible means of paying our bills.

What may alter the situation though is when access through certain devices becomes the default. They may be taken up by government and the large companies and institutions we deal with, and as such we are forced to use them ourselves. There are many examples of this shifting of the default, such as the general insistence of paying salaries and wages into bank accounts in the 1980s through to paperless on-line billing in 2010s. There is a presumption here that we wish to use the technology and are capable of using it. A majority may be able to become accustomed to this, even if some may cavil at the imposition of having to do so. But some households will struggle with it, whether due to financial reasons or because of age and infirmity. There will also be knock-on consequences in terms of access to services. We are already seeing that one effect of on-line banking is mass branch closures, causing difficulties for some people in accessing their accounts.

Technology forces us to remain up to date (on a timetable set by others) and to alter our behaviour to fit into the new norm. It tends to do this under the banner of convenience and flexibility (even as if panders to our anxieties and insecurities). It will make our lives easier and we can then focus on more pleasurable things, like playing with the children and shopping on-line. There indeed does tend to be a short period of flexibility, where several options are offered. However, within a relatively short period a new norm is imposed, and the older options dropped as obsolete. It is certainly convenient to use on-line banking and once we have become accustomed to it there is no need to use any other method to pay bills and control our finances. But should we have a choice over whether we wish to manage our finances in this manner? If we lack the choice, then are we not becoming dependent on particular technologies? If they stop working, then so do we.

Those with relatively recent laptops will now be encouraged to use cloud storage for their data. It is doubtless useful to be able to store and transfer large amounts of data and to gain access to it when we choose and via several devices. But the virtual ‘warehouse’ where our data is stored has to be reliable and permanently accessible, as does our connection to the internet. If the cloud goes down, then we have no access to our data and no alternative means of retrieving it. The cloud is now the default, sold to us on the assumption that we do need to store lots of data but require quick access to it. The software and hardware that is available is now configured on this basis, and so it becomes self-fulfilling. Of course, we can alter the default, but we have first to understand what is happening. We are being offered a fixed path, from which we can only deviate if we are sufficiently aware. We are presumed to want to go down this route; we are told that it is what we want, and most of us, most of the time, go along with it. We may not notice or care that we are being directed, but it is happening nonetheless.

Our dependence on technology allows us to maintain the illusion of safety, control and convenience, all of which masks our dependency on technology that we cannot fully understand. Of course, being an illusion, we do not feel we are dependent. We feel that our lives have been made easier, and to an extent they have been. But it means an increasing distance from a dwelling as something that we have made, and continue to make, ourselves.

A certain dependency on technology is not though by any means new. We have always been dependent on some form of technology. A few months ago we had a local power cut. We spent all of 30 minutes without any power in the house whatsoever. It was 7.30 on a warm May morning, so there was no need for light or heat. However, power was cut for the whole neighbourhood, taking out the local mobile phone masts as well. So we had no TV, radio, wi-fi, phone signal, no kettle or toaster, and the fridge and freezer were turned off. This is as near to isolation as we can get in the modern world and it was a little discomforting. It occurred to me that other than going out and trying to find someone to talk to – who would probably know no more than me what was going on – I had no means of finding out the cause or extent of the problem, and whether it was a small or large issue. For all I knew, the nuclear winter was about to start.

This mild anxiety was partly due to my expectations about how connected I am to a range of devices. We tend to get used to what we have and take it as normal: what are in reality add-ons and incidentals to our lives become necessities. Prior to 1998 I had no TV, wi-fi, and no mobile phone. I relied on radio and my CD player (iTunes was still five years away). So a power outage in 1998 would have caused less of a problem.

When discussing the idea of need with my undergraduate students, I would ask them the following question: “Imagine your house is on fire. You know all humans and pets are safely out. You can take one thing with you. What would it be?” I asked this question many times, the purpose being to bring out the difference between needs and wants, and identify the concept of the imperative. Over the years of asking this question more than half of the students said the same thing: they would reach for their mobile phone. A few mentioned their wallet or credit cards, and one person said she would take her wedding photo album. But the majority felt they could not manage without their phones. This led to interesting discussions about what we actually do need, and why we feel we need things that are actually fulfilling wants and desires.

It is a cliché, and therefore true, that many people live through their phones. Not because, properly speaking, they have to, but because that is how we can all now live. What is properly incidental – the opposite of existential – now seems to be all important to us. We have to stay connected, to be able to contact anyone immediately and be ourselves contactable. We cannot miss a message or lose our contacts. We use our phones to find out about the world, and to store our memories. It is a torment to have to wait an hour, let alone a day, to be in touch with others. But many of us can remember a time when we had access only to public payphones and relied for information on three TV channels, newspapers (carrying news of yesterday’s events) and the public library. Computers were the size of a house and outside of the experience of most of us. I do not see this as an idyllic time – in the 1970s we also had to make do without central heating or double glazing. My point is one of expectations and the opportunities and aspirations that create them. We had a different sense of what was normal for us to expect and so we acted accordingly.

During the half-hour power cut I did not really need the technologies I usually have at my disposal. At 7.30 am, the biggest problem was not being able to boil a kettle to make a pot of tea. There was nothing I wanted to watch on TV, nothing I needed the internet for and no one to ring at that hour. There was nothing that could not wait for an hour or two if needs be. What troubled me though was the possibility of connection – or rather, the lack thereof. I felt isolated by not being able to connect even though I did not particularly need to. Of course, like my wife, if I had slept for another hour, I might not have even noticed any issue. But I was awake and all the clever devices around me were not.

What was being knocked here was my complacency. I could not use my dwelling as I would expect to. My normal routines of a leisurely breakfast while looking at the news on-line had been stymied and I was put out, albeit mildly and only for a few minutes. I could no longer take for granted my use of these devices. I had to notice how dependent I had become on them. We accept and accommodate to what we are used to. When a new device comes along, we might see this as new and a real change, but we soon assimilate it into dwelling and take it for granted (for as long as it works). We may soon not notice what Ring, Echo or what as yet uninvented devices follow it do in our lives. But we will come to expect them to keep doing it.

Editor’s Note

  1. Named after French economist Jean-Baptiste Say, 1767-1832, who expressed the theory in his 1803 book A Treatise on Political Economy (Traité d’économie politique), although some economic historians say he was not the first to make the argument