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"Smart homes" and women's domestic labor


At the New Inquiry, Ava Kofman refutes the idea that “smart homes” will lead to a revolutionary change in the organization of domestic life. Instead, argues Kofman, smart homes as currently envisioned will only perpetuate or even exacerbate the disproportionate amount of domestic labor that women do. Here’s an excerpt:

An even simpler nightmare lies beneath Smart House’s techno-dystopia: the familiar story of a man-child who, to avoid the horror and shame of performing household work, programs a woman to do it for him. It doesn’t make a difference to this narrative whether this woman is seen as a robot, a computer, or is, in fact, a robot pretending to be a woman. The trouble is that her programmer doesn’t think about redistributing, reinventing, or reworking the conditions of domestic labor. Despite being one of the most persistent narratives about the future, the smart house is the story of what happens when we fail to reimagine social relations.

From air conditioning systems in office buildings to the omission of menstrual-tracking in Apple’s first HealthKit, able-bodied male metrics continue to dictate the standards for user experiences. The smart house, too, has been designed with this man in mind as the measure of all things.

Intelligent homes have been continually marketed as sites of conservative and traditional leisure: a man drinks a cold beer proffered by his smart fridge, while a woman cooks recipes suggested to her by her smart stove. Sometimes, the woman even gets to “have it all,” eyeing her kids in the living room while telecommuting from her home office.

The same year that Smart House was released, the sociologist Anne-Jorun Berg noted that despite “integration, centralized control and regulation of all functions in the home” envisioned for the twenty-first century smart house, “housework is not part of what this house will ‘do’ for you.” As an analysis by the researcher Yolande Strengers confirmed last year, advertisements for smart homes published in the last decade rarely mentioned domestic labor like cooking, cleaning, laundering, or childcare.

Despite their technological leaps of imagination, futurists can’t seem to envision social transformations. “In a future kitchen full of incredible technology,” the journalist Rose Eveleth has asked, “why can we still not imagine anything more interesting than a woman making dinner alone?”

Image via New Inquiry.