Homes as information-habitats

Merged in information flows and producing these flows ourselves in acts of domesticity, we accept surveillance

By Author Pramod K Nayar   |   Published: 15th Mar 2021   12:05 am Updated: 14th Mar 2021   10:21 pm

Alexa has more or less learnt to pick up your taste and choice in music. Smart devices, many of which are smarter than their human owners, mimic and adapt to the latter. Robots aid work around the home. If the novelists Ian McEwan (Machines Like Me) and Kazuo Ishiguro (Klara and the Sun) are to be believed, humanoid robots would become indispensable for human happiness, knowledge-making and companionship in the home as well. Welcome to the posthumanised home.

New Surveillance

It is a category mistake to associate surveillance with the state’s regulation of public spaces alone. Granted, even an innocuous toolkit or data-collection portal, the staging of a play or the language of objection can attract censure and worse because public spaces – educational institutions, baghs, writings by ‘known’ polemicists – are surveilled. But also emerging in the recent times is a domestic surveillance culture that appears unobtrusive, or even ‘helpful’.

The smart devices we  are organically attached to and dependent on are in fact surveillance devices. Working at the level of human wish-fulfilment and domestic utilitarian functionality, they are ambient surveillance systems that record patterns of behaviour, tastes in entertainment or socialising. All automated devices, including the ubiquitous refrigerator, are surveillance devices, whether they measure your tastes, routine cooking-preferences or electricity consumption.

In the case of safety mechanisms, from the more traditional burglar alarms to fitness-sensors on wrists are also surveillance systems, arguably more benign. Tracking devices for those with dementia provide a sense of security to their loved ones, should the patient wander off.

The tracking of  online purchases is now so old as to be practically ancient, and we do not see it as surveillance at all, primarily because of the potential benefits  to accumulating the points from various shopping ‘trips’. The shift we do not see is this: the home has moved from being a place of consumption and utilisation to one of quantification.

Home Labs

Building on the work of sociologist Matthias Gross (co-editor of The Routledge International Companion to Ignorance Studies) one can argue that the home is a laboratory experiment for sellers, manufacturers and the state. Gross has argued in a brilliant 2015 essay “Give Me an Experiment and I will Raise a Laboratory” in Science, Technology and Human Values that “it is the experimental setup outside the laboratory that is there first, with the activities normally associated with a laboratory setting only being decided upon and implemented post hoc… the risk-laden production of new knowledge by means of real-world experimentation amounts to a practice of relocating the context of discovery in society to laboratories of justification”.

Thus, the usage of, say, a device or a process in the home is monitored, except that the user is the family rather than the scientist, and the real-world conditions of the home serve as a laboratory. The user is willy-nilly a part of the experimental set up. This shift is a major one in the late 20th century, as Gross argues, and all users and families (or perhaps that should be family-as-users) are participants in the manufacturer-supplier-scientist setup.

All homes are increasingly information-habitats. First, we can treat the home as a space through which large quantum of information flows, from endless newsfeeds to medical reports. The home is built on information flows.

Second, if homes are laboratories that through their real-time ‘experiments’ with everyday gadgets and processes fuel the scientific and industrial experiments, they also function as sites of knowledge production. How users behave, respond and make choices is a matter of considerable interest to these parties. That is, the ordinary domestic action of purchasing groceries or turning on the air conditioner, browsing the net or orders for medicines are sources of knowledge for the sellers and the state.

State Homes

With the inevitable Smart Cities project arriving in many parts of the world, networked homes are inevitable too. Information about various domestic usages will be collected and analysed – for reasons ranging from monitoring of specific utilities to potential criminal activity or medical needs in a family.

Chile pre-empted this with its National Housing Monitoring Network, installing 300 sensors in homes in different cities. Writing on this project, design studies specialists Martín Morini and Matías Valderrama (2021) argue that we are witnessing a ‘sensor governmentality’. The data from these homes is to be used for decision and policy-making.  For instance, the state was interested in the energy consumption data from households in order to set new ‘slabs’ for consumption.

The second hoped-for result was ‘raising awareness or ‘helping’ users to achieve greater efficiency and sustainability in each home, shaping in the process the ‘normal’ behaviour of homes’, write Morini and Valderrama.  There emerges an ideal consumer/user/family in this data – and this is the normative user on which the policy can be enacted and who/that can be sent out as a model user as well.

It is not readily clear how the behaviour and habits, long ingrained, will change at the user’s home. The development of the model user is a form of governance where prescriptions for appropriate, thrifty or ‘in national interest’ usage are made available for adoption by ‘good’ citizens in the form of representative data collected from several hundred homes.

In Morini and Valderrama’s words, the data, state declarations on the data and individual user responses combine to “generate a sensitive governance of behaviours at a distance, either through national statistics and regulations or changes in behaviours in each home.”

The state enters the home in this indirect yet tangible fashion, even as the home (as a member of a collective) serves as a laboratory, a testing ground and a source of data for national-level analysis. The self-conscious epithet of ‘state homes’ is of course therefore ironic.

As we become more and more dependent on information flows and produce these flows ourselves in every act of domesticity, we accept surveillance, provided that it does not intrude too much. Ambient surveillance amplified, as the Chilean experiment shows, is the state’s attempt to monitor the environment of the home.

We are free citizens, yes, but we are now primarily information-subjects.

(The author is Professor, Department of English, University of Hyderabad)

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