Friday, 6 June 2014

Gender and the smart home / internet of things

Yesterday, I watched a panel discussion at the Cheltenham Science Festival on the Internet of Things. I've also been doing some work on security threats to smart homes, so its an area I've been thinking about a bit.   The format of these public interest panels running at less than an hour mitigates against depth, but the event did get me thinking. This panel had three white guys acting as experts and a female chair moderating. Two of those panellists made jokes about their internet connected home appliances or smart gadgets annoying their wives and families (which did not stop their installation and use). It just triggered a thought or two about the gendered nature of smart homes and maybe IOT in general. The tech industry, including tech media and tech academia has its own fairly well documented gender inequalities, but as with many technologies I'm thinking about control and how these technologies are both shaped by and (re) shape power dynamics.

An audience member followed up the jokes by asking what panelists' families thought, but I wanted to ask about control. Who will make the decisions about the settings in the smart home (and scaling up in the smart city)? How are conflicts between family members going to be resolved? The panel felt that the "killer app" (or trojan horse) that will bring "smart" into our homes would be energy monitoring. The model that seems to be displayed in a lot of the promotional media is the male head of the household, remotely aware of the state of his home even whilst physically remote and exerting his will at a distance.I don't know if this is a clumsy gender analysis, but there might be something about exerting control over a space that has been traditionally gendered as female. Not so much taking on some of the unevenly distributed household labour, but automating it and taking control of it. There are questions here to be resolved, if somebody turns the lights off remotely, can I turn them back on from inside the house?

The power dynamic is there even without a gender analysis. The assumption in much of the tech press is that the resident is also the owner, and also the person who chooses to install the technology, primarily for convenience. I think we are more likely to see all that overpriced rental property in the UK making use of smart (surveillance) tech to discipline tenants. Imagine: "We know from the chemical sensors that you had a BBQ last week without informing us in advance, so we've added a penalty to your rent. In addition, your direct debit failed, so we've remotely recoded the locks till you pay up."

Much smart home technology currently appears to be a solution in search of a problem. The current problems seem minor. How many eggs do I have? Did I leave the light on? Can it be warm when I get home rather than twenty minutes after?

What if the search for problems was more egalitarian? What would a feminist smart home look like? And how would we get to one? I wonder if there's something in the history of other "labour-saving" appliances int he home. This might be a place for some design fiction. Here's a quick example: Imagine a smart home with climate control, variable lighting etc. Every household member gets their own remote, with equal weighting, which tally up the "votes" for the desired temperature/lighting, etc. How does that work out in practice? Is it better than the traditional one-remote, person who holds it makes the decision unless somebody is able to convince them to part with it?


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