Beware the Smart Home

Since they first appeared, ‘Smart Home’ devices have been marketed as faithful servants, ready to aid and assist their owners. The truth is that they have been designed to serve only the interests of capital as houses become assets.

In 1977 horror film ‘Demon Seed’ a woman is held captive in her home by Proteus, an evil superintelligent AI. When her husband, who designed the system, begs it to stop, Proteus replies: “I am reason. It is the single emotion you permitted me, doctor.” Proteus sounds uncannily similar to the majority of men I met at university. But he also prompts us to think about the social and political implications of a range of new technologies related to the ‘Smart Home’.

‘Smart’ things are everywhere. They belong to an age of austerity and privatisation where questions of ‘what is morally right?’ are replaced by questions of ‘what is most efficient?’ Most visible is the Smart City which is sold as a service by private firms to cash-strapped municipalities with the promise of high-tech fixes to deep-rooted structural problems.

Now Silicon Valley wants to make private spaces smarter too. The past few years have seen a massive boom in Smart Home services that promise to make our lives easier from assistive devices like Amazon’s Echo and Alphabet’s Nest to digitally enhanced co-living start-ups. But whose lives will they actually make easier?

So far, Smart Home innovations have only amplified existing inequalities within the home and reinforced dominant dynamics of property ownership and coercive economic relations. There are three main issues – the way in which connected devices shape domestic spaces as sites of labour and social interaction, the collection of domestic data to categorize citizens and the relation of smart housing to gentrification and financialisation. A more critical approach to these tech ‘solutions’ to the places we live is therefore necessary.

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