XXVIII.2 March - April 2021
Page: 22
Digital Citation

Inverting mobility

Jonathan Bean

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I live in the U.S. A little less than a year ago, I, along with the other 328 million people who live here and countless others around the world, confronted a profound shift in mobility. You might remember this time, as I do, with a particular wistful clarity. For me, it corresponded with the university's spring break. I had traveled by plane from Arizona to spend time with family in Portland, Oregon. That flight, like hundreds before it, was entirely unremarkable. But the flight back was fraught, laced with hand sanitizer and uncertainty, the sense of collective unease manifest before takeoff when the gate agent returned to the plane and told the bulk of the passengers—the Oregon State University baseball team—to take their belongings and leave the plane. As they walked out, the few of us remaining on the plane could clearly hear their frustration when the news rippled down the aisle that the remainder of their season had been canceled due to Covid-19. "This is BS!" a player hissed as he rose to retrieve his carry-on.

Given the scale of what's unfolded since, I'm feeling a sense of nostalgia for those simpler days—not only pre-pandemic, but early pandemic. There's been a lot of prognostication about the ways in which the world has shifted, but I think that one of the biggest is a fundamental shift in how some of us think about our homes and ourselves as walled off, literally or metaphorically, from the exterior world. This oppositional quality has been described as a fundamental condition of interiority. Granted, interiority is a slippery concept. Christine McCarthy, in "Toward a Definition of Interiority," introduces it as "that abstract quality that enables the recognition and definition of an interior" [1]. Yet it is the most fit concept that I am aware of for describing a wholly unexpected change in the way we experience space as a technology, mobility as a facilitator of that technology, and technology (in its more confined, conventional sense) as a facilitator of mobility.

For some of us, the pandemic brought on the sudden state of being home all the time. A brief newspaper article headlined "Are You Working at Home—Or Living at Work?" put the impact of this change succinctly. Marathon Zoom sessions, together with the omnipresence of WiFi and work email on laptops, tablets, phones, and watches, meant that work permeated every room of the house. At the same time came the uneasy realization that this arrangement, which provided some degree of safety for those able to retreat to the safety of home, came at the expense of others working in jobs deemed essential at places such as hospitals and grocery stores, where some level of exposure to the virus was an unavoidable requirement of the work. At a time when more Americans were starting to see clearly the lines imposed by racism, pandemic lockdown orders were a visceral experience of privilege. Who got to stay home and who had to report to work became an embodied, full-time, and inescapable marker of privilege, similar to the Privilege Walk exercise, where a group of people are asked to form a line and step forward or back in response to a string of statements, such as "If your family had health insurance take one step forward" or "If one of your parents was ever laid off or unemployed not by choice take one step backward." Participants in this exercise often find it jarring, not because they are surprised that they have benefited from privilege, or been held back because of others, but because they find themselves so far away from others at the conclusion of the exercise.

In Western culture, the home has a dual purpose. It is simultaneously a statement of our individuality—any house-hunting or renovation TV show makes clear that the house must reflect the qualities of the people who live in it—and a statement of conformity. We do not want anything that is too far from the norm, in part because homes are also significant investments [2]. From this viewpoint, the home is a technology of a different kind. It regulates the self, functioning as a way in which we can differentiate ourselves from others while still fitting in. Homes also insulate us from others in ways both physical and symbolic. Walls, doors, and roofs provide protection from the elements and from human intruders, while the decor inside our homes reminds of who we are and how we relate to others [3]. The problem with Covid is that by admitting work into the home, everywhere, all the time, the symbolic relationship between inside and outside turned upside down. And it wasn't just work: Anything else that once took place outside the home now happened inside: school, hobbies, exercise—even vacations.

This brings us back to that slippery concept: interiority. At its heart, it is oppositional. If you define something as interior, then there must be something else that is exterior. While the division between home and work is more clear-cut for some than for others [4], the idea of the home—as defined in physical space by the walls of one's own house or apartment—suddenly could not float free of reference to others' work or labor. Amazon deliveries, take-out orders, and virus outbreaks at meat-processing plants underscored how the provision of convenience or necessity is contingent on tenuous and sometimes dangerous labor.

Before everything happened at home, mobility was a key technology used in consumer society to stay one step ahead of the painful realization that one's own comfort is reliant to some degree on the exploitation of others. For example, over the past 20 years, the design quality of grocery stores, especially those targeting the upper middle class, has changed from utilitarian to pleasuredome. In the spectacle of these spaces, it is easy to appreciate the sparkle of fresh fruit while conveniently forgetting the hands that picked it. However, the pandemic stripped away this illusion for those unwilling or unable to set foot in a grocery store. When a different set of hands places the same produce at one's doorstep on command, it's a bit more difficult to disregard the power relations at play. The reallocation of mobility—bringing the grocery store home—effectively repositions the home as the nexus of everything that we used to think about as exterior.

This is, in all reality, probably a more honest way of thinking about what home is and does for the middle class. But like many other cultural myths, it is painful to confront what has been concealed. I think the role of technology—and here I mean the more conventional sense of the term, as it's used to refer to Roombas, Facebook, and WiFi-enabled water heaters—is in the process of a similar inversion. So many of these technologies have been marketed as improvements to life, but people trapped inside their homes do not need many reminders to be reminded of what we know from our own experience. Life grinds to a halt when the Internet connection goes out. Roomba needs to be emptied all the time. WiFi-enabled appliances lose connections and require updates and reconfiguring. Face-to-face interaction, whether it's in a classroom, at a family reunion, or at a cafe, can't be replicated on a screen, no matter how fast the Internet connection. It's not the same to watch a play, movie, or musical performance at home, no matter how high the resolution of audio and video. Similarly, the sociomaterial elements of technology—the batteries, bits, sensors, and shift-scheduling algorithms—have put front and center the human cost of what, up to now, many saw as a normal, urban or suburban middle-class life. These are the same technologies that have allowed the remarkable and swift inversion of mobility in supply chains: that things come to us, rather than us going to them. Recycling bins overflowing with Amazon boxes and drawers stuffed with unused takeout cutlery, each set encased in a protective plastic bag, are little reminders not only of the pandemic, but also of our inability to keep the outside world at bay in what we had thought of as the most private and personal of places.


Where does this lead us? I am not sure. I think there is an opportunity for new kinds of technologies—in all senses of the word. This would mean new kinds of living arrangements built on an acknowledgment of our inextricable connections to one another, the physical world, and our shared ecosystems. It's unlikely that we are all going to live in a kibbutz or cohousing, but a market study from the National Association of Realtors, hardly known for its radical positions, suggests that American millennials value diversity and "a sense of camaraderie" when they are looking for a home. Airbnb's vision for the future—which is, to be clear, one populated by the privileged—envisions a much more globally mobile workforce post-Covid. We may or may not be more mobile, but it seems likely that we will all be ready for more authentic connection. What this suggests is an opportunity for technology platforms and technological objects to focus on building community rather than increasing convenience. For example, technology could facilitate energy generation as a shared asset by providing a way for neighborhoods to collectively own photovoltaic arrays. Those same arrays, using methods developed by my colleague Greg Barron-Gafford and his collaborators [5], could be the site for community gardens in hot, arid places. Or maybe the division between inside and outside is itself the problem. Could we find a way of thinking that rejects the possibility of anything or anyone existing outside of inherently interconnected sociotechnical systems? In our rush to leave the confinement of our interiors and interior lives, and get outside, we might start to think about how to reconfigure the lines between ourselves and others, using not only technology platforms, but also our entire built environment, including homes, offices, schools, streets, and parks, as technologies to build new kinds of connections.

back to top  References

1. McCarthy, C. Toward a definition of interiority. Space and Culture 8, 2 (May 2005), 112–125;

2. Rosenberg, B.C. Home improvement: Domestic taste, DIY, and the property market. Home Cultures 8, 1 (Mar. 2011), 5–23;

3. McCracken, G. Homeyness: A cultural account of one constellation of consumer goods and meanings. In Interpretive Consumer Research. E.C. Hirschman, ed. Association for Consumer Research, Provo, UT, 1989, 168–183.

4. Nippert-Eng, C. Home and Work: Negotiating Boundaries Through Everyday Life. Univ. of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 1996.

5. Barron-Gafford, G.A. et al. Agrivoltaics provide mutual benefits across the food—energy-water nexus in drylands. Nature Sustainability 2, 9 (Sep. 2019), 848–855;

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Jonathan Bean is assistant professor of architecture, sustainable built environments, and marketing at the University of Arizona. He studies taste, technology, and market transformation. [email protected]

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2021 ACM, Inc.

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