Digital Home-Making: Isn’t it Time your Home got to Know you?
Alex Hawkingson took his family on vacation to their winter home in Colorado a few years ago, only to be met with an unpleasant surprise. During their absence the electricity had gone out, the pipes burst, and the basement flooded. A month of water seeping through the house destroyed nearly everything, costing the family tens of thousands of dollars in repairs. Hawkingson realized he could have prevented the mess had he only known what was going on with the house while he was away.
He decided to embed sensors throughout the new home and he designed a solitary hub to keep a watchful eye on the incoming data stream. Now if the temperature dropped too low or the power went out, the sensors would send messages directly to his phone and he would be the first to know. This early warning system served as the foundation for his startup company, SmartThings, which at the time of this writing, earned the second highest round of funding for a technology project through Kickstarter.
The programmers at SmartThings, like their CEO Hawkinson, aim to bridge the gap between the physical and digital world. They tap into the Internet of Things to provide households with the digital smarts we discussed in the previous issue. Hawkingson’s home is a prime example of the company’s objective to create houses that “know” their owners.
Today, Hawkingson lives in a six-bedroom Tudor home located on a 5-acre piece of land in Great Falls, Virginia. When Wired Magazine’s Bill Wasik toured this residence in 2013, he described it as a home with a “a nervous system: a network linking together the home’s very sinews, its walls and ceilings and windows and doors.” This nervous system is hidden from view, and is composed of more than 200 sensors that track and monitor the family’s activities. These sensors collect data on various patterns of behavior and interact with, and activate, a number of household objects.
For example, every morning, the alarm clock signals to the coffee pot when to start brewing a fresh pot. Automated lights and locks react to movement in each room. Sensors on the front porch activate the sound system to frighten off criminals, while sensors in the kitchen activate music to entertain guests in the dining room or put children to sleep in their bedrooms. Hawkinson’s car even communicates to the thermostat that the house is set to 58 degrees when he is out and 68 degrees if he is home. His office texts his wife when he leaves work and lets her know if he is picking up groceries on the way home. Even the children’s trampoline is wired to monitor their use.
According to Hawkinson, the key to SmartThings’ success is the open nature of its digital platform. In a recent interview, he elaborated this point:
As an open platform, we have a fully life IDE – integrated development environment – and toolkit for both developers and device makers, on the Kickstarter base of a thousand people who signed up. It’s more than 5,000 active developers and device makers on the platform now. Before… everyone was building things privately. They build apps for their own environments and device types for their own experimentation. We hadn’t begun opening all of the innovation that was happening on the platform to the rest of the user-base. And SmartThings Labs was the first step toward doing that.
As the “Internet of Things” begins to gather momentum in the free market, Hawkinson does not want to “go it alone.” Rather, he wants to embrace further innovation by offering entrepreneurs space to create on his platform. This is clearly a savvy business model, and it certainly explains the popularity of SmartThings for programmers.
Yet, the supply of Internet enabled coffeepots and alarm clocks alone is not enough to explain the growing demand.
So what is it that drives a consumer to purchase programmable “things” for his smart-home?
I think the answer can be found in our current (mis-)understanding of the role technology plays in homemaking. To borrow the argument of Kentucky farmer and prolific writer, Wendell Berry, we currently employ technology in the home to distance ourselves from the work of household chores, thereby undermining the difficult realities behind true home-making. In his essay entitled “Men and Women in Search of Common Ground,” he discusses the problematic conception of home taking root in modern (or, industrial) society:
“According to the industrial formula, the ideal human residence (from the Latin “residere, “to sit back” or “remain sitting”) is the one in which the residers do no work. The house is built, equipped, decorated, and provisioned by other people, by strangers. In it, the married couple practice as few as possible of the disciplines of household or homestead. Their domestic labor consists principally of buying things, putting things away, and throwing things away, but it is understood that it is “best” to have even those jobs done by an “inferior” person, and the ultimate industrial ideal is a “home” in which everything would be done by pushing buttons.
Undoubtedly, the smart home is designed to produce a “calming” effect on its residents. I am sure Hawkingson feels a degree of peace in the knowledge that threats to his family’s wellbeing or the wellbeing of his home is being monitored constantly. Perhaps he is calm knowing that the digital devices that make this home function are embedded into the periphery of household life and do not require attention. And perhaps there is also a higher level of financial calm due to the savings made possible by the efficiency of his technology. Consider the amount of money saved not only through the prevention of crises such as flooding, but also through the more subtle ways of climate and energy control. Calibrating room temperatures, lights that automatically shut off, and water use that is regulated during the day, are just three obvious ways a smart home will save residents’ money, not to mention sanity.
Yet in all this calm, it seems Berry’s vision is all too accurate. The smart-home promises a higher degree of freedom from the mundane aspects of household maintenance. Just as The Jetsons taught me as a child, there is something enchanting about a world where we are free from setting the thermostat, turning off the lights, locking the doors, doing the dishes, or taking out the garbage. If we can create the technology for these chores, the argument is that we will be free to pursue more important matters with greater attention. What those matters are is often left open to interpretation as well as criticism.
I am not here to offer either. Rather, I want to conclude with an alternate view of homemaking. Berry’s essay encourages me to see that a household is not something where “no work” is to be upheld as the ideal. Rather, home “making,” as the term implies, involves action. This offers a stark contrast to the home of Alex Hawkinson, and in some ways, puts my own childhood home in context.
Growing up, my mom told me she was a home-maker. When I was a child, (and thought like a child), I assumed the job-description for home-maker was one who stayed at home and had fun with friends (i.e. drank wine) while their children went to school and their husbands went off to do “real” work. But when I left the home my mother had made, I had no choice but to put away such childish thoughts because it dawned on me that making a home is a lot of work.
In reality, both of my parents were (and are) homemakers because they actively pieced together our home. This involved making fires to keep us warm, making meals to keep us alive, and making sacrifices to educate us in a Christian school. My alarm clock was not linked with a coffee maker, but I cannot remember a morning waking up to anything other than my dad putting me in a headlock or dropping down on me with a body slam, bringing me downstairs to a kitchen that smelled of fresh coffee, thanks to a mom who desired to make this for us rather than sleep in.
There were six of us in a 1500 square foot house, and I shared a room with three brothers that is smaller than my bedroom now. Rarely would one describe our home as calm. In fact, the house often echoed with laughing, debating, fighting, or crying. Sometimes all four at once. Neither was our home always efficient. If we remembered, we locked the doors, turned out the lights, or turned up the air conditioning. Pipes froze and burst. A stray ember threatened to burn down our home one time, and our car was stolen right out of our driveway. Twice!
Despite the noisy imperfections that characterized our home, this was a place that my family made through love and hard work. And somehow, there was a pervasive sense of “calm” in our home. This was not a calm created by the assurance of hidden sensors that tracked our every move. Rather, this calm flowed from parents who replaced sensors in taking the responsibility to monitor the well-being of the residents inside the home. It was a calm knowing that your parents were tracking with us enough to care where we were on the weekends. Tracking with us to make sure that “we didn’t get all A’s in our classes, but fail life,” to use a great line from Dr. Louis Markos. Yes, we lost possessions and destroyed some nice things, but all of us came out intact.
Our house may not have been “smart,” but it sure was fun.
*Note: This is the second article in a series on the Internet of Things, published in Christian Renewal.