Fart Jokes, Pranks, Selfies and Other Applications of Smart Technologies
Germaine R Halegoua / University of Kansas

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A preferred imagination of the smart home as a friendly concierge service

In previous essays for FLOW, I highlighted different implementations of “smart” technologies and their imagined uses. In terms of infrastructure, I started to think about what stories inactive as well as active networks tell us about smart cities and opportunities for Internet access. After the prevalence of Alexa connected devices at the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show, I considered how people make sense of and make room for intelligent agents within domestic spaces. What types of interaction and engagement with the world, and with each other, do these responsive information managers present? Underlying these questions is a concern about the meaning of “smart” technologies and spaces, not only in origin or definition, but in current implementations and imaginations of the term. The rhetoric at trade shows and smart city summits seems to contradict the traces of everyday experience with smart technologies and sentient objects shared in unboxing videos, memes, comments sections, and conversations. While technology designers and smart city developers laud the transformative capabilities and “intelligence” of the Internet of Everything to improve quality of life, users seem to appreciate technologies for playful engagements or misuse rather than their utilitarian efficiencies. Or perhaps different social groups are still searching for ways to make smart technologies relevant and meaningful in domestic and urban spaces; still working to figure out how and what it means to live “smart” with the limited tools and visions currently provided.

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Images of people (including the author) taking selfies at digital kiosks in smart cities

“Smart living” is currently undergoing a period of interpretive flexibility. At the moment, living with “smart” devices and systems is built on the promise of transformation, however vaguely defined. Cities, homes, and people are regarded as entities with bad habits or with “problems” in need of digital “solutions.” These spaces and individuals are imagined as complex organisms that can be guided by digital aides and computational processes to make “better” decisions and change behavior to improve health, efficiency, productivity, and safety. While “smart” technologies are generally understood as adaptive, responsive, and predictive, underlying these definitions is that idea that if given information or data about their everyday activities people will transform themselves, their activities, and the places they live. First, observed activity is transformed into digital code. Smart systems transmute everyday actions and bodies into legible data that can be read and understood by human as well as machine — with the promise that being able to read and observe ourselves in and through data will giving us a sense of control or efficacy. Sarah Murray describes the transformative promise of “smart” technologies in terms of “self-actualization” or self-improvement, pointing to activity trackers as well as TED talks as efforts toward creating a “smart self.” [ ((Sarah Murray, “Get Smarter: The Wearables, Carriables, and Shareables of Digital Self-Actualization,” The University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2016, http://gradworks.umi.com/10/14/10142454.html.))]

A similar type of transformation has been lauded in the contemporary smart home and smart city based on the idea that more data about activities and environments will “optimize” people and places. Although the trope of transformation as improvement through sensors and responsive technologies has gained traction in self-tracking and quantified-self movements, the promise of digitally aided transformation in the home and city seems to be a harder sell. It is unclear how smart technologies have or will transform or improve the city, the household, or our lives as residents and citizens, and what exactly stands to be improved.

Critics of contemporary smart spaces and technologies call attention to the blinkered imaginations of how these systems and services become integrated into everyday life. Architects, urban planners, and researchers have repeatedly asked: What can people actually do with smart city technologies? What can smart city technologies do for people? These questions evoke several notable contradictions between “smart” and city. Dan Hill observes that while the smart city is based on a drive toward efficiency, the reasons why people want to live in cities are often incredibly inefficient. [ ((Dan Hill, “Essay: On the Smart City; Or, a ‘Manifesto’ for Smart Citizens Instead,” Cityofsound, February 2013, http://www.cityofsound.com/blog/2013/02/on-the-smart-city-a-call-for-smart-citizens-instead.html.))] Building on this idea, Shannon Mattern recognizes that the image of the optimized, efficient smart city might be attractive because it “frames the messiness of urban life as programmable and subject to rational order.” [ ((Shannon Mattern, “A City Is Not a Computer,” Places Journal, February 7, 2017, doi:10.22269/170207.))] In an abbreviated version of his arguments against the smart city, Greenfield notes that interconnected systems of smart technologies and their affordances are “distressingly hard to understand, even to people exposed to them on a daily basis.” [ ((Adam Greenfield, “The City Is Here For You To Use, One Hundred Easy Pieces,” WIRED, December 3, 2012, https://www.wired.com/2013/02/adam-greenfield-the-city-is-here-for-you-to-use-one-hundred-easy-pieces/.))] When aggregated, these contradictions highlight an overwhelming aspect of what it means to be “smart,” namely that people aren’t always sure why their spaces and lives need to be smart or smarter.

In researching smart cities and smart homes, I’ve watched more videos than I ever expected of Amazon Echo “easter eggs” and Alexa farting, telling jokes, being used to prank companions or repeat risqué words to children. After watching these videos and reading press releases and tweets from municipal officials and innovation experts who seem to struggle with justifications for why digital kiosks actually transform or improve urban life, I was reminded of how many times I’ve heard these technologies referred to as “cool” rather than useful or important. While these texts depict people exploring the parameters and playing with smart technologies, these videos and instructions for joking with or about smart technologies are also reminiscent of Carolyn Marvin’s analysis of jokes as boundary-work in her research on electric communication. [ ((Carolyn Marvin, When Old Technologies Were New : Thinking About Electric Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1988).))] 19th century electricians used jokes in order to differentiate themselves as experts and carve out a place for themselves within emergent social hierarchies. Often these jokes would poke fun at minorities, women, and immigrants as outsiders and technological newcomers who didn’t understand technical processes or made mistakes when talking about or working with new technologies. It is possible that smart technology users are enacting a similar practice of constructing the other and exercising social control and status. However, in this version sometimes it is the technology that is laughed at for making mistakes and serves as the butt of the joke.

Within these jokes, pranks, and street selfies are unspoken fears and desires for how early adopters and innocent bystanders understand the intersection of smart technologies with their everyday lives (or don’t). The reactions in the “Simon Says” genre of Amazon Echo and Google Home pranks illustrate the boundary between clever and “creepy” – intelligent agents are clever when they can provide requested information, harmless when they can imitate human bodily functions, but creepy when they know too much. If the smart kiosk really is a “giant iPhone,” it is not surprising that passersby use kiosks to take selfies, but also articulate privacy concerns about the personal data being collecting through the camera, email services, and WiFi connection.

In short, being “smart” is not enough. Although this statement may be cliché, what is less obvious is how we break away from this critical platitude toward creating more pleasurable and equitable digital spaces and mediated social relationships. As other scholars, urbanists, and architects have argued, we need to rethink the meaning and current imaginations of smart cities, smart homes, and smart technologies to include people and diverse communities. However, we should also take more time to read and understand the inherent critiques and desires articulated by early adopters (as well as non-users) of smart technologies. Even if these traces exist in the form of pranks and the sound of flatulence.

Image Credits:

1. Amir Zmora
2. Author’s personal collection
3. Author’s personal collection

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Make Room for Alexa
Germaine Halegoua / University of Kansas

Alexa home device

The Amazon Echo

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held its annual tradeshow last weekend. Reports from the “smart home” front heralded 2017 as the year of where voice and gestures will control Internet-connected household appliances, robots, and artificial intelligent agents. Whirlpool, and an extensive list of other companies, showcased prototypes and devices that interact with the Amazon Echo’s voice-controlled, digital personal assistant, Alexa. Journalists declared that that Alexa was “everywhere” and that “we’ve seen the future and it’s Alexa enabled.” Although there are other smart home systems on the market including Google Home, ivee, Apple HomeKit, and Athom Homey, at present, the connected home seems to be connected to Amazon. In approximately 5.1 million living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms across the United States people have made room for Alexa.

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A media home as envisioned by Motorola

Previous media studies scholarship has attended to the culture and architecture of domestic spaces where television, radio, desktop computers, mobile devices, or other electronic media or audio/visual/digital technologies are installed and engaged. Television, radio, telephony, and the Internet have all been regarded as “windows on the world,” which blur public and private space and re-organize participation in everyday life. [ (( James Bennett, “’Your Window-on-the-World’ The Emergence of Red-Button Interactive Television in the UK.” Convergence 14 no. 2 (2008): 161-182.))] The voice activated smart home console that ruled CES this year is also a “window” or portal to the world. But what kind of screen-less window is this? How do users make sense of and make room for intelligent agents like Alexa within quotidian, domestic spaces and activities? And what type of interaction and engagement with the world, and with each other, do these responsive information managers present?

The advertised intelligence of the smart home is reminiscent to that of the smart city – domestic space is enhanced with Internet connected sensors, cameras, and digital devices that recreate the home as a sentient, predictive, and responsive environment. Smart home devices remember, anticipate, or respond to residents’ requests and preferences in the service of efficiency, safety, convenience, and/or sustainability. Like the smart city, most smart homes are retrofitted to be smart. The average middle or upper middle-class home is never entirely smart like the Gates’ House, Slow House, Wired Home, or luxury homes of tomorrow. More frequently, a household will have piecemeal Internet of Things technologies, or a few networked appliances or “accessories” that render the home “smarter.” The convergence of various smart accessories like lighting systems, thermostats, refrigerators, water leak detectors, security cameras, music and media systems tend to be coordinated by central concierge services controlled by residents. The Amazon Echo and Google Home are two of these convergent, intelligent agents.

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A Samsung booth at a consumer electronics show in 2013 displays smart home technologies

As Lynn Spigel and others have contended, media “homes of tomorrow” are built on negotiating or highlighting incompatible binaries which might include: public and private, mobility and sedentariness, future and nostalgia, innovation and familiarity, liberation and control. For example, Spigel notes that 1990s visions of smart homes imagine residents who “have it both ways” – “domestic comfort and stability” as well as “futuristic fantasy of liberation and escape.” [ ((Lynn Spigel, “Media Homes: Then and Now.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4 no. 4 (2001): 385-411.))] Spigel’s research on the media home emphasized these binaries within new forms of theatricality and spectatorship in middle class domestic spaces and emerging forms of ambient and active audiences of screens (televisions, video walls, control panels, visual ubiquitous computing interfaces). Smart homes present additional binaries to be negotiated: visible and invisible, presence and absence, transgression and maintenance, interaction and distance.

New media homes maintain these concepts of theatricality, mobility, and sentience in the form of sensors and monitors rather than screens — through listening rather than seeing. Virtual assistants like Alexa represent a shift from the imagination of the smart home as a space of ambient screens to ambient interfaces for continual background listening. The living room is still a stage but the theatricality of the televisual home shifts from home theater to an interactive performance, a play of call and response between human, machine, and information. Spectators watch Alexa, a calm, disembodied, feminine voice housed in a cylindrical encasement, complete requested tasks and tricks.

While some ambient interfaces are designed to be invisible or remain unnoticed, Google Home and Amazon Echo are the opposite, they’re personified and emphasize a desire to be heard and responded to. Although these devices are “always listening” in the background, the user “wakes” the device through direct address, calling it by name. Customers in unboxing videos, reviews and comments, and discussion forums commonly anthropomorphize the Echo and refer to Alexa as “she” and “her.” People comment on the Echo or Google Home’s look, weight, measurements, and design as if they were referring to a body. The gendered devices are given voice but are expected to serve their users and speak only when spoken to.

Amazon’s advertisements for Alexa depict households where stereotypical domestic roles are upheld. Women are shown using Alexa in the kitchen while cooking or caring for children, while men are heard ordering Alexa to buy roses for their partner instead of the dinner or cake they attempted to bake. Men are shown to treat Alexa as a concierge or personal assistant and utilize app and remote functionality to control environments at a distance (turn on lighting fixtures or lower speaker volume). Comments and blog posts by women discursively construct Alexa as a companion, a member of the household, or even a best friend. Even Alexa’s transgressions and unruliness are gendered. When Alexa “goes rogue,” she tends to buy merchandise (presumably from Amazon.com) or maybe “goes wild.”

In one promotional video introducing Amazon’s Echo, a suburban family lounges around Alexa with the fireplace at their backs. Directing their attention to the console, watching it work and waiting for curated information to be brought into the home. Mobile privatization or privatized mobility works differently in new media smart homes. Travel outside the home is optimized or made more efficient by setting alarms and alerts, providing up to date information about weather, traffic, or creating automatic to do lists. Unlike the portable radio, the Echo’s cord prevents mobility outside of the home, and unlike the home theater Alexa’s responses do not necessarily transport residents somewhere else. Instead, Alexa offers the mobile privatization of the world instead of the subject or audience member. Goods and services are packaged or ordered and sent to your door, the delivery of encyclopedic amounts of information is not a click, but a question away. The Echo doesn’t promise to take us where we need to go, but bring what we need, or at least what we ask for, to us. Although smart home accessories rely on high-speed connectivity, motion-activated sensors, and the anticipation of activity and alerts, the consoles that control and manage these devices belie the smart home as far more ambient than active. Unlike past “homes of tomorrow” it’s the feminine voice of an on-call background listener, rather than the lights and sounds of a simulation screen that invites us to sit back, stay in our place, and just stay home.

Image Credits:

1. The Amazon Echo
2. A media home as envisioned by Motorola.
3. A Samsung booth at a consumer electronics show in 2013 displays smart home technologies.

Please feel free to comment.