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Will the Internet of Things set family life back 100 years?

Will the Internet of Things set family life back 100 years?

3 September 2015 Written by By James Pallister Journalist

This article is part of The Design Economy series.

The Internet is disrupting the established rules that control the way we live our lives. From business, to entertainment, to government, we have already experienced the far-reaching effects of a technology that connects us in unprecedented ways.

Now, with the advent of the Internet of Things (or IoT), ‘connection’ is evolving beyond our mobile phones, tablets and computers.

It’s predicted that by 2020, 50 billion devices will be connected to the web, from cars and doorbells to your pet dog’s collar and the kitchen stove. Everyday household objects increasingly hold the potential to become, in techno parlance, ‘a gateway to a delta of services’.

While it is clear that the number and variety of connected devices is exploding, what is less clear is the social impact of this trend.

Optimists would have us believe that the IoT will free us from the mundanities of running a household. You’ll be able to read a book while a driverless car takes you the best route home before arriving home to dinner cooked to perfection in your smart oven.

Pessimists sell us a dystopian vision of an insecure and terrifying world where everything can be hacked – by governments, corporations or other people – including your car, your burglar alarms or even your pacemaker.

Others point to it ushering in a major political shift.

Science fiction writer and futurologist Bruce Sterling, in his 2014 essay The Epic Struggle for the Internet of Things (Strelka), describes IoT as ‘an international effort to bring everything that wasn’t internet within the purview of the techno-elite that currently dominates the internet.’

To date, the debate about the impact of IoT has focussed predominantly on these techno-legal-political narratives. But what about you and me? What will it be like to live in this hyper-connected world where we’ve invited previously mundane objects to monitor, track and report on our lives?

How will this transformation play out in our homes? How will it affect our relationships; make us think, feel and act? Will it be like living in Downton Abbey where the behaviour of the owner class adjusts to the presence of the serving class?

In this piece we’ve asked designers, sociologists, technologists and psychologists to speculate on the IoT-affected family life of the future.

Imagining possible futures

Internet of Things, an area where power relationships are ambiguous and the exact use of technology yet undetermined, is a fruitful realm for the technique of design fiction – or seeing design as a means of speculating about how things could be.

Uninvited Guest, a short film by design practice Superflux, is a project in this vein: it imagines the life of Thomas, aged 70, who lives on his own following the death of his wife. (The film was created with support from Professor Christopher Speed, Chair of Design Informatics at University of Edinburgh, and ThingTank, a research group that explores the potential of IoT-enabled objects to design other objects.)

The titular guests are the smart devices that Thomas’ children use to track and monitor his health, diet and sleep from a distance. The film asks, ‘In a world where ‘smart objects’ will increasingly be used to provide care at a distance, how will we live with these uninvited guests?’ (Spoiler: Thomas uses his smart fork, which scolds him for eating too much fat and transmits the data back to his kids, to shift salad around on his plate – while he cleans off a plate of bangers and mash using old-fashioned utensils.)

For Anab Jain, co-founder and director of Superflux, an important question about the embedding of IoT into our lives is “whether we become passive, coerced consumers, or whether we can become active and engaged users, or even find methods of hacking the systems. There are many speculations right now,” says Jain. “But the main question is: as machines take on more agency, where does human agency lie?”

Ethnographic research with Fitbit data

The intimate nature of familial relationships can make them difficult to study. Throwing in a technology that has yet to mature adds to the challenge. Despite this, research is being done that investigates how early versions of IoT may play out in familial settings.

Michael Brown, a research fellow at the University of Nottingham, was one of the lead authors of an article that examined the interpretation of data from the Internet of Things in the home. The experiment focused on how increasing the availability of data about household members’ activity would impact their social dynamics.

Each participant wore a Fitbit motion sensor. This broadcast data on a screen in the kitchen or living room of the house, where everyone could see each other’s activity levels. The metric chosen was number of footsteps.

Real-time scrutiny

“At first the amount of footsteps you make in a day seemed such a benign thing to share,” Brown says. But as the study went on, and as the frequency of reporting data increased, “participants became increasingly uncomfortable and aware of the potential for harm: more granularity meant more exposure,” says Brown.

Participants were quick to deduce how the technology was set up and how best to game the system. “People very quickly built up a mental model of how the Fitbit corresponded with the public display,” says Brown. “Because the Fitbit used Bluetooth – with a limited range – to communicate with the display that was based in the home, people quickly worked out that it acted as a proximity monitor, too.” This meant that there was no ambiguity about who was in the house and when, which had implications for privacy and made for some uncomfortable interrelationships.

“People were quick to add levels of interpretation on the data. They would layer it with their own meanings,” says Brown. “And often the interpretations of what data meant about other household members were based upon a worst-case scenario, often drawing on their own insecurities.

“If in a shared house, it became clear from the data that one member had been missing between midnight and 2AM, then one member may assume they had been out clubbing and be concerned why they hadn’t been asked. Or they may quiz a housemate about why they had ten minutes of activity in the middle of the night.”

In the households of families with young children, less ambiguous power hierarchies made for smoother relationships, says Brown. “Where there was an authority figure who defines the meaning of the data, it seemed to smooth things over. They may say to their child, ‘You were very active today, Johnny – did you have sports day?’”

For Brown, the most significant issue that the monitoring experiment introduced into all of the participating households was the removal of ambiguity that often smooths the wheels of relationships. “The big concern was that it removed the capacity for white lies. It removes socially useful ambiguity,” says Brown.

Telling ourselves stories

The ways that we interpret data have serious implications when data is sensitive and interrelates with other data in a more complex manner. Brown gives the example of using data to inform children’s grades at school.

“Clearly there’s potential for tension when a system is trusted by authority figures but not by persons lower in the hierarchy,” says Brown.  “If you don’t have similar levels of trust in the system and understanding of it, then conflict seems inevitable.”

Brown suggests that contested meanings, inaccurate interpretations and difficulties in understanding data will be almost inevitable as IoT expands and becomes more integrated in our lives. “The only way the Internet of Things becomes powerful is when you are using multiple sensors,” says Brown. “But it’s precisely when you do this that it becomes more and more difficult to understand meanings.”

More monitoring, more stress

Dr Reenee Singh is a family therapist, co-director of the Tavistock and UEL Family Therapy and Systemic Research Centre and editor of the Journal of Family Therapy.

Specialising in children and adolescents, she has already seen the effects of technology’s expanded presence in the home – smartphones have become protagonists in her consultancy rooms with, for example, the issue of cyber bullying. For her, the rise of IoT-enabled monitoring would exacerbate an already pressured home environment for children.

“Imagine if children were constantly competing to beat their own records all the time, but also against online national or international norms. It would be impossible to do well,” she says. Such comparisons would be detrimental to children’s self-esteem and fuel parents’ neuroses.

“When the quantified self comes into the home, schools would have the potential to track children’s reading speeds, sleep levels, bowel movements and other usually private data,” says Singh. The result may be more envy and competitiveness between siblings and higher expectations from parents.

“Schools may be hypercompetitive,” says Singh, “but at the moment parents can be protective of the home as a sanctuary and keep the home free from this atmosphere.” If the school is tracking how long it takes a child to complete homework, and who is doing it, this separation looks less possible.

Charlotte Faircloth, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Roehampton and founding member of the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, is also wary of the downsides that may come with increased parental monitoring of children. She sees the growing interest in using IoT to monitor children as part of a wider shift in parenting cultures.

She believes that IoT’s spread into the home will amplify the trend towards what she calls ‘performative parenting’.  “Rather than just playing with your kid because it’s nice or what you feel like doing, it’s now a way of ‘optimising brain development’ or ‘modelling good behaviour’. I can only see that increasing with the IOT,” she says. 

“So far, sociological research into the growing technologisation of family life seems to point towards an increase in anxiety for parents, rather than a lessening,” she says. “Technologies like nanny cams or stimulating iPad programmes haven’t reduced the burden for mothers, but rather added another thing to their to-do list.”

Faircloth raises the prospect that data originating in the home may be used by government agencies. “Far from being the ‘private’ sphere, in the context of growing state surveillance of parents, records from these devices may be used in custody disputes or ‘early intervention’ initiatives. Even the thought of that would be enough to make many parents act in more deliberate ways.”

“You could speculate that, as the home becomes more technologically complex, your feeling that you are the owner of your own house may shift,” he says.

Foregrounding background

For Richard Banks, Principal Design Manager at Microsoft Research, the problem with IoT-enabled devices is that they go against the grain of how we like our technology. “People buy technology as foreground,” says Banks. Even in houses where a minimalist aesthetic prevails, the TV will often be centre stage. Do we want more technology competing for attention?

Nest is beautiful,” says Banks, referring to the home thermostat that learns your heating preferences and controls your heating more efficiently. “But making everyday devices or infrastructure web-enabled makes them foreground. I never used to worry about my thermostat. I’d like to continue along those lines. The danger is that with more [connected home devices], they could start to become something of a background clamour.”

Home life seems complex enough without the extra noise. “Life is messy, and people’s lives are complicated. The typical family is constantly juggling resources and adjusting schedules,” says Banks.

“Technology has very successfully integrated into people’s lives in the entertainment sphere. But less so in the home productivity area.” He gives the example of the paper family calendar on the kitchen wall.  Much work has been done by tech companies, including Banks’ own research group, to explore alternative home scheduling systems– yet the kitchen planner endures.

However, Banks’ team has explored with more success a different IoT-enabled technology: Whereabouts Clock, a prototyped device for display in the home that shows whether family members are in the vicinity of work, at home or travelling.

Unlike the unease experienced by the Fitbit displays in Brown’s experiment, Whereabouts Clock proved popular among families. Banks credits this with the balance between a useful level of information with sufficient ambiguity.

“We found that individuals didn’t feel it was invasive. There is a fine line between what families need from a reassurance point of view versus the level of detail which is necessary for privacy. It’s a fine line but I think you can ride that,” says Banks.

Designing human-centred devices

Cryptographer and privacy specialist Bruce Schneier explains his reluctance to outline an IoT scenario of the future: “This is a social question.”

Citing mobile phones as an example, he explains: “We are really good at predicting technical developments. We’re really bad at predicting the social behaviours that result from those technological developments.”

Like Schneier, author Bruce Sterling recommends looking to the mobile phone for a vision of some of the ambiguous power struggles, particularly within families, that could come with the Internet of Things. “For some it's a leash,” he says, “for some it's a lever.”

Sterling says that IoT is “basically about selling early-adapter Dad the remote-control for everything.” But he warns that it’s an illusion: it’s “selling Dad the illusion of control of everything, while the provider mines the metadata from a new class of connected products that are designed ‘at’ the user rather than ‘for’ the user.”

So there we have it.

The Internet of Things is adding another layer to our increasingly complicated world, and it is going to have far-reaching social consequences. The risk of letting this new frontier of connectedness be controlled by technology owners, rather than by the users, poses a clear and present risk, and a significant design challenge.

To make the IoT work for us, rather than it becoming a self-censoring force in the privacy of our own homes, will take not just technical know-how, but sensitivity to social interactions and a human-centred, empathetic approach. This is where design has a fundamental role to play.

Other articles in The Design Economy series:

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