It would be a stretch to call Alexa the third rail in my relationship, but she’s probably the closest thing we’ve got. Eric believes Alexa, along with her cronies the “smart lightbulbs” and “smart speaker,” improves our home life. I believe our life would be at least 5% better without her in it.
And so when designer Stephanie Tang Waldrop reached out to tell me about a growing body of research on gender and the so-called “smart home,” I jumped at the chance to vindicate my position—er, learn something new that I could share with all of you. As it turns out, a lot of scholarly ink has been spilled over the questions that threaten to break up my marriage before it begins: are smart devices actually labor-saving? And at what cost?
A long and fraught history
Before I answer that, some context is in order. There is a long tradition of (mostly) men coming up with cool gadgets intended to make (mostly) women’s lives better. If you’ve been to DisneyWorld, you’ve seen a prime example of both the technology and the utopian narrative that often accompanies it: the Carousel of Progress, which depicts American homes (well, one imagined—and very whitewashed, if memory serves—home) over the past century. Disney’s website describes the attraction well:
Follow an American family over 4 generations of progress and watch technology transform their lives.
During each era, learn how the technological marvels of the day made life more comfortable—and paved the way for unimaginable innovations…
See how the automatic dishwasher and television set transformed the American household.
Today’s high-tech marvels include virtual-reality games, high-definition televisions and voice-activated household appliances.
To be clear, I am not advocating for a return to hand-cranked washing machines or woodstove heating. Though some have accused me of Luddite tendencies, I am not anti-technology. Rather, I am against technologists who overpromise the benefits and underestimate the consequences of their innovations.
In the case of household technology, the promise is often a reduction in domestic labor: buy a dishwasher and you’ll never scrub a pot again! Purchase a microwave and you’ll never have to turn on the stove to reheat some soup! But there are at least two problems with this reasoning. First, new technologies often generate new labor. Dishwashers must be loaded, unloaded, and repaired. Vacuum bags and filters must be changed. Clothing must be sorted before it can enter the washer and dryer.
Second, standards and expectations change in keeping with what’s considered reasonable. In earlier eras, laundry might have taken a woman (or her hired help) most of a day. Clothes were washed when they were dirty, not necessarily every time they were worn. But as tasks get easier with the help of technology, we tend to expect them to be done more often, and to a higher standard. Or, we fire the servants who once helped with such tasks.Or, we simply redistribute the “saved” labor toward new ends. While women today do spend considerably less time on housework than they did in the mid-twentieth century, a lot of their hours have been transferred to caring for their children and managing their home, in line with changing parenting standards and the increased complexity of modern life.
The latest incarnation
Given this backstory, you can understand why I might be skeptical of the lofty promise offered by smart home device-makers – a largely male cohort – to make home life “easier, quicker, and more elegant.” And after a deep dive into related human-computer interaction (HCI) literature, I can now say with confidence that I am right.
I’m half-kidding here, but there are a few big problems with the smart home as currently conceived. Leaving aside the legion privacy concerns, which others have spoken about at length, here are two that particularly irk me:
Problem #1 – Digital housekeeping
The software updates and installations. The organization of digital files. The inevitable troubleshooting of malfunctioning hardware. HCI scholars call this “digital housekeeping:” the set of “small, routine tasks associated with the set-up, placement and maintenance of networked technologies to keep them operating smoothly as part of household routines.” Because of this required housekeeping, digital tools—whether laptops or smartphones or smart lightbulbs – are far from “set it and forget it.”
In the case of a computer, the cost/benefit tradeoff seems worth it: yes, I need to update my software way more often than I’d like, and yes, every few years I find myself in the Apple store desperate for a technician to fix my malfunctioning laptop. But I could also Zoom with my family at the height of the pandemic, and I don’t have to write my book longhand, and so on.
The calculus seems different with many of the devices purported to be the future of the smart home. My biggest beef with our current setup is the lightbulbs. Yes, it is nice when they automatically dim after dark, or when the tone changes from bright white to golden. But I am not convinced this represents a vast improvement over the humble light switch. There is always something going wrong with these darn lights. The wifi goes out and the lights no longer work. Someone (never me) fiddles with the settings and suddenly Alexa refuses to respond to the lighting-related commands she once loved. The lights timed to a bedtime routine go out abruptly while I am up late finishing a juicy novel.
My partner has spent countless hours on digital housekeeping related to these lights.To be fair, he doesn’t seem to mind (more on that below). I mind, though. And I have yet to learn about an Alexa skill that excites me enough to make the costs (reduced privacy, increased digital housekeeping, general annoyance) worthwhile. If you know of one—or if you’re confident something good is coming down the pike—please leave a comment and change my mind!
#2 – Assorted gender s**t
To quote the media theorists Jolynna Sinanan and Heather Horst, “Automation in the home is often presented as a value neutral process which makes life easier, more efficient and more productive…[But] these technologies are rarely value neutral and often work to reinforce gender dynamics in the household.” Boom.
The most glaring problem here is also the most obvious and well-covered, so I won’t belabor it: most voice assistants are feminized (in voice, name, etc.) by default. Yes, you can change the settings. And no, I don’t believe that voice assistant defaults are the hill many feminists would like to die on. But still: here is one more way women’s position as assistants and household managers and cheerfully subservient beings is reinforced.
Less obvious—and less clear-cut—is the issue of who does the aforementioned digital housekeeping. The research I’ve seen confirms that my household dynamic is common: one partner, usually though not exclusively a man, takes on the role of digital guru. Many of these gurus see digital housekeeping as pleasure rather than work: it’s a form of tinkering, even a hobby. There is satisfaction in solving a problem, setting up a fun party trick to wow your guests, or experimenting with a new function. (Though it seems plausible that the novelty will give way to drudgery eventually.)
On one hand, this is positive: it’s not as though these men are bringing in new labor and then pushing it off on their partner. (Like the guy I interviewed who bought a smoker and then expected his wife to start making smoked meats…)
On the other, this pattern mirrors an issue I call the special projects problem. Men in different-gender couples do a fair bit of cognitive labor for their household. But it tends to be the stuff they opt into and can take care of on their own time—the fun and discretionary stuff. Women in different-gender couples, meanwhile, more often operate on an opt-out model: they take care of everything that hasn’t been specifically delegated to someone else.
This is not to say they don’t get enjoyment out of some of this work (we might compare looking up new recipes to fiddling with the settings on Alexa). But a large chunk of it is critical rather than discretionary and must be done at frequent and regular intervals. Feeding the children cannot be put off to the weekend or shrugged off if the workday was especially long and tiring.
To be fair, I have not seen data showing that the time men spend on digital housekeeping is replacing time they would otherwise have spent on other, arguably more critical, household tasks. But I do think it’s a real possibility. I also worry that men’s digital housekeeping will take on outsized narrative importance for couples: he isn’t totally checked out, he’s our tech guru! This weird form of synecdoche shows up often in my interviews, where one salient task or domain (long-term finances, lawncare, technology management) stands in for “his fair share.”
In a good op-ed, a writer anticipates objections to her argument and preempts them. Today, I have something better, as my opponent is sitting in the next room. Here is Eric’s response to my case against smart home devices:
I agree with Allison that new technologies come with risks. As she notes, some men may use digital savviness to obscure shortcomings in other domestic areas, and tech companies’ product design may indeed be subtly reinforcing gender inequalities. But these are largely extensions of existing inequalities - rather than new problems caused by smartphone devices. If a couple already has an unequal balance of labor, the introduction of new home devices will likely reflect this underlying pattern. And similarly, if the product managers creating new devices are themselves gender-biased - or if they believe their customers are - their products will likely mirror such biases.
Allison also glosses over the very real benefits of technology in the home. If past innovations like the washing machine enabled parents to reallocate energies from physical chores to nurturing their children’s development, that seems like a good thing to me. In this way parents are shifting their focus to higher value-added activities yielding greater benefits for their families and society at large.
As a cognitive labor researcher, Allison should also appreciate how voice technology aids all sorts of cognitive labor. You can instantly ask Siri/Alexa/Google what’s on your calendar, add items to your to-do list, or find out how long a trip will take. That seems an improvement over pen-and-paper planners for the over-burdened parent whose brain constantly pings with concerns about household tasks to be done.
I will admit that the smart home technology experience today is far from seamless. Tech companies should do more to prevent device outages and to connect different software systems. But those are design and technology flaws that the market will solve over time - just as it did with the internet. [Ed. note: Do we really think the internet’s flaws have all been “solved” by the market??]
Using smart home technology also requires upfront investment from users to understand how to use it. But some people (by some people I mean Allison) refuse to download the apps or learn the commands. [Ed. note: Sick burn, Eric!] Just like cooking, parenting, and other domestic chores, if you always rely on others to do the cognitive labor of organizing systems, you will find yourself helpless when left without assistance. The tech companies should do more to make it easy for couples and households to jointly manage devices, but there’s no substitute for investing in knowing how to do things yourself.
Eric makes some good points: I may be giving up on the technology too soon; there may be use cases (e.g. new parents, people with disabilities) that, while not personally relevant to me, are quite compelling. But at the very least I remain convinced that we need to be a little more discerning about what miraculous new gadgets we welcome into our home.
Who’s right, me or Eric? Leave a comment and let me know. I promise not to unsubscribe you if you agree with him!
Or so I hear - my strategy is to just wash everything on cold.
My point is decidedly not that we should bring back servants for the middle-class. There are a whole host of problems with the advice to “just outsource it,” not least of which is that this perspective fails to consider the impact on working-class women and, disproportionately, women of color. But that’s a topic for another day.
Soon, the hours will not be countless – I’ve recently started tracking outages and problems in a note on my phone, because I’m petty like that.
I also learned in my reading that smart home devices are being coopted into intimate partner violence. Because men often understand and manage the devices, they are better able to turn them against family members. This is undoubtedly an edge case, but still worth noting as a possible unintended—and dangerous—consequence.
great piece! If women allow so-called more techie men to take over the household it can become another form of disempowerment or gender erasure. The trend discussed here is only just starting, but the implications are pervasive and dangerous. Its easy for a man to learn to deal with women's domestic machinery, washing machine, dishwasher etc. Low techie stuff. But dealing with the electronic home is a more complicated take-over. Warning: sophisticated smart homes may be dangerous to women's well-being. Not to mention the fact, as Allison points out, that many of these woofers and tweeters (to use the buzzword from macho chatter about stereo systems) are closer to gaming than domestic time savers or improvements. Here's an example: My brother has a pool which he generously offers to children and grandchildren to use whenever they want. But only he controls the heating through his phone. So while in theory anyone can use the pool, in practice he MUST be contacted----wherever he is-- and he alone sets the thermostat and other features. He has total control.
Allison, are you in my home??? This is a source of constant debate. My husband welcomes our robot overlords and I'm much more sceptical. I do, however, like our IKEA smart lights as both my son and I need light in the morning to wake up, which in Scotland, is not guaranteed. He's programmed it so our little lights next to our beds go off about 20 minutes before the alarm, to ease us into the world more gently. His goal is to replace all the lights in the house so he can switch them all off at once, which I can see from a powersaving perspective, but eh...
I like Alexa only because my son can say "Alexa, call Papa!" and connect directly with my parents, without me as an intermediary. On the kitchen counter, it seems to facilitate more regular contact, and feels like they are joining us for meals from Portugal.
I find the time required to research, purchase, and maintain all these things annoying though. If you want to fiddle with technology, go put a load of laundry in :)