The Science Fiction of Smart Homes

What does the future house look like? Is it filled with fancy smoke detectors and a computer voiced by Katey Sagal?

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Illustrations courtesy of Charles Schridde

Recently, I had friends over for dinner, and as is always the case, my smoke detector went off the moment I opened the oven. (I swear I am not a terrible cook; there is just bad airflow in my apartment or something.) Turning off the smoke detector was needlessly difficult, and in an attempt to not drive away my dinner guests, I had to pull the device out of the ceiling and remove the 9-volt battery to stop the horrible beeping. I have yet to re-install it.

So when Nest, the company that famously redesigned the thermostat, announced yesterday that their second product would be a household smoke detector, everything about it appealed to me: the concept, the design, and the potential prevention of future embarrassment (and design).
On the one hand, I commend the concept behind Nest: take ugly household products and redesign them to be smarter, more thoughtful, and better-looking. On the other hand, I can’t help but scoff at the $129 price tag (nearly ten times more expensive than the cheapest smoke detector listed on Amazon) or roll my eyes when Nest co-founder Matt Rogers says stuff like: “We are working on things that are incredibly serious and important, but we’re adding an emotional value that things have never had before.”

Is it “serious and important” business to think about the un-thinking devices around our house? Does everything need to have “emotional value”?

Nest represents just one of many efforts to turn the average household into a “smart home,” which, like your phone, seems to mean everything will be connected through wifi . I couldn’t help but think about a Disney Channel film I saw in middle school called Smart House. In it, a family moves into an automated house named PAT (voiced by Katey Sagal!) who handles all of the domestic duties: household chores, making dinner, getting the kids ready for school, and so on. The earnest crinkle in the story is that the son, Ben, hopes that PAT will be ample substitute for his recently deceased mother.

In Asimovian fashion, as PAT’s programming gets smarter, she decides the world outside the home is too dangerous for the family and locks them inside. In Smart House, the home becomes literally too emotional to function. A Disney Channel film might not be the deepest science fiction, but it does raise an interesting moral about the danger when the home becomes more than just the people who live there. As capable as PAT is, she’s no substitute for a mother, even if she has the emotional capacity to be one.

Around the same time in middle school, my English class read a short story by Ray Bradbury called “The Veldt,” in which a family inhabits a similarly automated home that cooks and cleans and basically parents the children. Unsurprisingly, Bradbury’s vision of the smart home — here called the “Happylife Home” — is far more sinister. The kids, Peter and Wendy (maybe named after the characters from Peter Pan?) have a virtual nursery that operates like a mind-controlled Holodeck: anything they imagine appears on the screen. When the parents become concerned that the children are too dependent on the Happylife Home, Peter and Wendy imagine an African jungle scenario in the nursery where the parents are devoured by lions. (Is this the sci-fi version of Chekhov’s gun? If a story features anything resembling a Holodeck, it will come alive.)

The cautionary lessons of Smart Home and “The Veldt” are farfetched when you consider that the most progress we’ve made in the wired home is a fancy thermostat that talks to the smoke detector. But they both warn us about the influence of technology in the home.

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A month ago, Futurama (another series featuring the voice of Katey Sagal) concluded what is likely to be its last season. The recurring theme of the show was that a thousand years in the future, many of the world’s problems have been seemingly solved but actually exacerbated under the guise of technological progress. (One of my favorite lines from the show: “Now this is what I call a thousand years of progress: a Bavarian cream dog that’s also self-microwaving!”) Rooted in Futurama‘s DNA was a skepticism for the sort of domestic tomorrowism found in The Jetsons, which clung so tightly to the optimism of future technology. As Matt Novak explains in his retrospective of the cartoon series, The Jetsons represented a techno-utopian promise in an attempt to mask the concerns over the Cold War and the Bay of Pigs. When the future was uncertain, The Jetsons offered an uncompromising American fantasy.

The way Matt Rogers and the other Nest co-founder, iPod designer Tony Fadell, talk about their company reeks of the same naïve idealism. The Nest Protect is progress for sure — and given that the Nest thermostat went from start up to industry leader in two years — it’s not unlikely to imagine a company like Nest reinventing all of your household’s hardware in the next decade. But what about the “emotional value” that Rogers spoke of? Can these banal objects ever be beautiful or well-designed enough to create a stronger relationship between a house and its inhabitants?

According to Alain de Botton, who lives to say stuff like this, we arrange our homes to reflect our own ideals and identity:

We look to our buildings to hold us, like a kind of psychological mould, to a helpful vision of ourselves. We arrange around us material forms which communicate to us what we need – but are at constant risk of forgetting we need – within. We turn to wallpaper, benches, paintings and streets to stanch the disappearance of our true selves. In turn, those places whose outlook matches and legitimises our own, we tend to honour with the term “home.”

By de Botton’s definition, a home is less about the things in the house, but how we organize those things around our own identities. How much those objects improve technologically defines how “smart” a home is, but has no bearing on how much it feels like home. That is to say, we imbue our homes with emotional value, not the other way around.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.