I came into the kitchen recently and saw my husband holding our smart meter with the kind of affectionate attention normally given to a newborn, his phone in his free hand. “You didn’t turn off the heat in your office last night,” he said. I didn’t like his tone.
“I did! I went in this morning to turn it on again!”
“You can’t have that. Appearance. “He waved his phone.” It took us 10 last night … “(Here he added a unit, presumably electricity, but all this stuff is Martian to me. Ten zaps? Ten whizzes?).” It should be that high Not be.”
“But I turned it off!”
But our smart home had spoken and it is far more reliable than me, his 26-year-old life partner. Our house now has app-enabled devices for remote control of the heating and the boiler, for controlling temperature, CO2 and noise levels and to see who is at the door. There are motion detectors in the garden that send us videos of a fox threatening my chickens or his turtles escaping. Since we installed a few solar panels, my husband’s smart home management has become more urgent and granular. An app tells him in real time how much we use, but also how much we produce. Now he rushes in in the sunshine and shouts: “We’re putting electricity into the grid! Use more! ”In the evening I watch Succession; he’s studying our energy statistics. Technology has made it a one-man home hub. “I used to think smart home technology was pointless,” he tells me. “But it really makes sense.”
I hate it. I don’t want my home to see me when I sleep and know when I am awake. I feel confused and disenfranchised: How do I make it warmer if I can’t just press a button on the wall? Why do I need an app to open the door? I’m also going defensive: The climate emergency means that my husband is absolutely right to limit our energy consumption, but in the end we argue about how long the heated clothes horse can run (“It’s 6pm!” I protest. “ That’s not nothing if you leave it on all night, ”he counters.)“ Don’t you worry, ”I ask him,“ you’ll end up like Facebook? The robots will malfunction and you need an angle grinder to boil the kettle? ”But he’s an engineer: no angle grinder scenario could upset him.
I’m the one who gets out of step: our houses are smarter than ever. Tools with cozy names inspired by nature (Nest, Hive) allow us to monitor and control houses even when we are not in them; other one-word devices (blinking, ringing) keep them safe. A 2019 survey found that 57% of UK households have at least one type of smart device; In 2018, YouGov found that 8% of households have two or more. It’s too early to do any final research, but it seems that living in Covid #stayathome, perhaps combined with the feeling that life is otherwise out of control, has heightened our desire to micromanage our surroundings. A government report found that nearly half of UK residents bought at least one smart device during the pandemic and more than half said their smart device use had increased. But what does this mean for the variable living environment that you cannot control with an app: human relationships?
“It’s almost inevitable that you two won’t be equally interested,” says technology writer Charles Arthur. “You almost have a new way of life in your house that you thought you knew, but now it’s: ‘Don’t touch it!'” For Hilda Burke, psychotherapist, couple counselor and author of The phone addiction workbook, Smart tech has eased a perennial source of relationship conflict: temperature and energy consumption. “It’s been around forever, but (now) it’s more data driven and quantifiable. You might not have had evidence before, but now it is. ”Burke wonders if the urge to control and manage our homes is some kind of evolutionary setback expressed through technology. “It’s probably down to something very basic and primal, like keeping a balance between being safe and warm and not exhausting resources.”
Many other I have a feeling that there are three people in their relationship and one of them joins. I asked around collecting their stories of domestic techno pain. Joel and Anna live in Sydney with two young children and a house full of smart tech: a voice-controlled home pod that uses Siri, Google Home for shopping lists, and a set of programmed, motion-activated lights. Joel is the enthusiast: “I’ve always been interested in computers and devices,” he says. “I tolerate it because a man has to have his hobbies,” says Anna. However, she finds some elements challenging. “I’ve been driven to little furies where the settings didn’t work the way I think they were set up. Joel isn’t here and I rush around trying to turn things on and off and it just doesn’t respond to me. “She’s also careful with the Home Pod:” It makes a little ‘boop’ sound, like ‘Me listen to what’s scary. “
Anna likes the smart lights that dim in the evening, turn red when using the toilet at night and switch on automatically when they come home. But even these cause problems, leave babysitters in the dark or turn on unexpectedly: Joel turned on the lights to notify him when an Uber arrived, then went to look for it, leaving Anna and her mother in one inexplicably blinking house back. “It was terrifying,” says Anna; “I see that was a mistake,” admits Joel.
Things get stranger when we invite Alexa, Siri, and friends into our relationships. A recurring complaint about virtual home assistants is their tendency to obey only half a couple. “Our Alexa refuses to answer me,” says Robert. “It is connected to our lights, only answers my husband, who has to save me when it gets dark. That morning she inexplicably turned on all lights. When I asked, she refused to turn it off. ”When Robert’s husband interfered, Alexa was“ fully compliant ”. My friend Rhian feels similarly snubbed. “Alexa is a patriarchal soldier,” she says. “Ignore me completely while he replies to Paul immediately. She refuses to listen to women. “
Joel and Anna experienced this too, although Joel believes that his technology is not inherently misogynistic. “Because I set it up, I know the exact phrase to use and Anna doesn’t,” he explains. “She will say something wrong, then I’ll say it and to her ear it sounds like I’m saying exactly the same thing in a calmer voice.” “It’s very annoying,” says Anna. Both of them also had trouble shopping for items that Google Home had mangled (“Mississippi” for miso soup; “Shut up, little Caesars” for sharp little scissors). Some have it even worse: “My Alexa interpreted ‘maple syrup’ as ‘nipple rings’,” says Leona. “It was an uncomfortable episode.” Rebecca’s Alexa said to her son: “Every Christmas present that was delivered to him.”
It’s not all the end of a relationship. There are happy robot-human threesomes out there. Some households have seamlessly integrated virtual assistants and see them as a symptom-free life improvement. That includes my friend Lydia’s. “Siri is a valued member of our family,” she says. “She tells us stories and jokes and how to write things.” Sara’s family use Siri to resolve disputes – “So much so that I feel like we need Siri as our therapist,” she says.
Intelligent technology can also be a godsend for people with a disability or a state of health. Lisa-Marie has limited mobility and fine motor skills after a spinal injury; She loves the Google Home installed by her partner: “I find it really useful, especially on days of poor health. The best way to turn the lights on and off is from the sofa or bed. ”Reluctantly, I see the benefits, but it annoys me to live in a house full of devices that I don’t understand and digitally highlight my mistakes (yes, maybe I left the heating on). Hilda Burke challenges those of us who feel left behind or irritated by a partner’s smart home technology to analyze whether their behavior or our reactions are the problem. “We can get pretty pushy when it’s your time and your choice,” she warns. For those like me who occasionally feel judged and deficient by a coalition of robot-collected data plus partners, Burke says, “There are options for parents, adults, or children to which we can respond. It’s not easy to be an adult: that parental voice – when someone says: ‘Did you turn on the radiator?’ – brings us back to childhood. ”The key to avoiding conflict is to respond calmly as an adult:“ Yes, I was cold ”instead of forceful banter.
Perhaps we deniers will love the cozy glow of a warm, bright house that greets us when we come out of the cold; a playlist starts while the Smart Lock lets us in. But that doesn’t end our problems: What if we’re not smart enough for our smart home? My husband is happy with all the circuits he learned in engineering because some intelligent technology is really difficult to install and maintain.
“I hope I die first,” is a common sentiment among tech-savvy housekeepers. “I’m afraid my husband will die before me because I have no idea how it all works and I’ll face a dirty, cold, home-bound life,” says Candida. Tom, who is responsible for the smart tech invasion of his home, fears that if he dies, his family will be unable to function and “mourn in the cold darkness accompanied by the sound of the burglar alarm.”
Spurred on by this and my husband’s upcoming two-week trip to the States, I cautiously ask what happens when he falls from the sky. “You have to find the breakers and remove them,” he says, and immediately loses me. “But it won’t be easy.” I urge him to update his will accordingly. The robot takeover may be imminent (I hope you said please and thank you to Alexa and Siri) but who will inherit them before it happens?