XXX.2 March - April 2023
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Digital Citation

Resource Man and the Smart Wife: Implications for Sustainability in the Home

Yolande Strengers

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In 2014 I wrote a cover story for Interactions asking, "Are you designing for Resource Man?" [1]. The provocation was based on my research exploring the role of smart energy technologies in everyday life and their ability to support resource management and decarbonization. I argued that the energy industry was imagining householders as rational and efficient micro resource managers, or "resource men," who optimize energy and water demand with data and automation. I showed how Resource Man's imagined life, cast in the image of the male-dominated fields of energy engineering and economics, is mostly devoid of life. Envisioned as an independent systems operator, the negotiations and frustrations of household chores and relationships (including with partners, children, and pets) are disconnected from Resource Man's reality. In pointing out these oversights, I looked toward the routines of everyday life—like doing the laundry—for design inspiration to support sustainability and energy management outcomes.


While some things have changed since I first articulated the industry characterization for Resource Man, he remains disturbingly persistent in energy industry visions. There is, however, a new persona also in the picture: the Smart Wife [2]. As outlined by my colleague Jenny Kennedy and me in our book on this emerging character, the Smart Wife refers to the growing class of feminized AI, voice assistants (like Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri), and robots that hark back to the nostalgic ideals of a 1950s housewife, which are being designed and marketed to perform a variety of domestic, care, and intimate functions. Originating from another male-dominated industry—big tech—these devices commonly deploy service-oriented and demure femininity to maximize user comfort, familiarity, and likability.

back to top  Insights

Energy industry visions for a rational and energy-savvy "Resource Man" are being complicated by technology industry visions for a "Smart Wife."
The Smart Wife represents an aesthetic vision for AI and the smart home that promises greater comfort, convenience, and entertainment with sustainability implications.
Achieving sustainability through design involves engaging with questions of what constitutes a "good life."

Resource Man and the Smart Wife are both ironic characters, each highlighting and exaggerating bias in energy and technology visions, and drawing attention to pervasive stereotypes and lived realities about people and technology that may otherwise escape notice. However, they are also importantly different from each other. For instance, Resource Man is human and the Smart Wife is an AI. As Jenny and I suggested in The Smart Wife, "Resource Man has now found his perfect mate. He is the user or operator 'in control' of his Smart Wife or wives. She, in turn, delivers a range of benefits with both feminine compliance and masculine ease and prowess, not least of which are the realization of energy and other resource savings in the home" [2].

Resource Man and the Smart Wife are both ironic characters, each highlighting bias in energy and technology visions.

Exploring this relationship between Resource Man and the Smart Wife provides a unique window into the potential ambitions and consequences of industry visions for emerging technologies in everyday life. What, then, are the sustainability outcomes of this union? In terms of functionality, smart wives such as digital voice assistants give Resource Man voice control over the home to achieve energy management objectives. For instance, asking a digital voice assistant to turn off all appliances and lights through a "Goodnight" or "Away" function makes sense in terms of simplicity and convenience. However, as we wrote in our book, "while Resource Man and the Smart Wife make a cute couple, it is often not the blissful partnership those in the energy sector might hope for" [2]. This is because smart wives also bring new aesthetic and lifestyle experiences to the home that potentially increase energy consumption. It is these lifestyle aspirations for smart devices and the broader smart home aesthetic that urgently warrant a sustainability perspective. In this article, I explore some of the advances in technology and scholarship since I first drew attention to Resource Man, with a focus on the emergence of the Smart Wife. I provide an update to the challenge and opportunity I posed to HCI scholars and practitioners at the time to "interrogate, reimagine, and design for low-carbon and less peaky human (and nonhuman) interactions" [1].

back to top  Coming Home

The home occupies one of the most evocative places in the human imagination: a site where our hopes and aspirations can be pursued in both humble and grand gestures. This ambition toward a "better life" has been central to the design and marketing of housing and home improvement products for centuries, with more recent iterations evident in consumer appliances and electronics. The smart home sector, for instance, is pervaded by a promise of "pleasance," a term originally coined by home automation company Lutron to describe an ambient design aesthetic and lifestyle vision that brings "comfort, romance and peace of mind" to the home [3]. Through promises of greater comfort, control, and convenience, the industry appeals to new and existing consumers, leading to its rapid growth in recent years, and further forecasted annual growth rates of 14 percent or more until at least 2026 (https://www.statista.com/outlook/dmo/smart-home/worldwide).

Alongside these suggestive lifestyle visions, smart home devices are anticipated to reduce energy consumption in homes, and contribute to broader sustainability ambitions, by providing automated solutions and giving people better information about their consumption. For instance, voice and remote control of home appliances via a smartphone can provide convenient ways to turn devices on and off when solar photovoltaic panels are generating electricity, or when there is lower or higher demand in the electricity grid. Within this context, HCI research has focused on how to get the most out of smart systems and the opportunities they present for sustainability, by designing engaging and interactive eco-feedback systems that make people more aware of their consumption, or by testing different approaches to automation and scheduling of appliances to align with the availability of renewable generation. Less attention, however, has been paid to how to intervene in or reconfigure the lifestyle visions that smart technologies promote and the resource consumption these assume and demand; or to the more controversial possibility of not using smart devices to support sustainability outcomes.

The relationship between Resource Man and the Smart Wife epitomizes these concerns. On the one hand, consumers are invited to pursue calculated and optimized approaches to energy management and sustainability, enabled by automation, smart control, and feedback or data provision about their consumption. On the other, they are offered new technologies (such as smart wives) that promise to make their lives more comfortable and convenient. While Resource Man attempts to make consumption visible and manageable, smart wives cloak the potential energy and environmental consequences of their production, use, and e-waste with friendly femininity. Both Resource Man and the Smart Wife therefore represent distorted views of reality: one a vision of the home as a controllable substation where energy use can be optimized; and the other a desirable vision for everyday life, where users are invited to pursue personalized lifestyle ambitions with humanlike AI, which have far-reaching consumption and sustainability consequences.

back to top  Can Resource Man Save Energy?

In 2007, Eli Blevis wrote a landmark article claiming that sustainability should be at the forefront of interaction design. He defined the field of sustainable interaction design as "an act of choosing among or informing choices of future ways of being" [4]. Sustainability, according to Blevis, encompasses the environment, public health, equality and justice, as well as other issues concerning humanity and the biosphere. Since then, sustainability has become a mainstream concern for HCI, and while the field has made significant advances, it remains focused on the human and the computer, with less consideration of how HCI design shapes "future ways of being," which I interpret here as desirable and sustainable ways of life.

Smart home technologies such as automation and energy feedback are widely found or reported to achieve small, and sometimes significant, reductions in energy. However, the Resource Man vision for optimal usage can quickly run into trouble when it encounters the realities of everyday life. Disagreements over the temperature, the timing and frequency of doing laundry, the length and purpose of showers (e.g., to warm up, relax, or soothe tired muscles), or the presumed comfort needs of infants and pets are all significant concerns in households that can override efficient energy management. In addition, research shows that there are many other ways in which sustainability and energy management is pursued in homes that don't involve the use of digital technology. These can include labor-intensive routines premised on traditionally feminized understandings and practices of care, such as mundane acts of cleaning, recycling, composting, or reclaiming water.

One way of overcoming these limitations is to propose alternative personae or characterizations based on real-life experiences of how different people in homes actually do the work required to achieve positive energy outcomes. For instance, Charlotte Johnson coined the term Flexibility Woman based on her empirical research on demand-side energy management in U.K. households [5]. In contrast with the consumer archetype of Resource Man, Flexibility Woman was visible in Johnson's fieldwork as someone who was able to manage and shift energy demand and loads because of her intimate knowledge about her family's consumption habits, including when laundry needed to be done and when meals were to be eaten. As Johnson writes about Flexibility Woman:

She differentiated between necessary and indulgent consumption, she arbitraged between gas and electricity, and she developed strategies to recruit other household members into her response, delegating the responsibility to act in her absence, or putting in place simple technical fixes like using a thermos flask to store energy and shift its consumption. She managed her household's energy consumption in line with her management of the household's money and its morality using it to reproduce family values of thrift and discipline or demonstrate family care [5].

Johnson's identification of Flexibility Woman is a potential source of design inspiration for HCI researchers and practitioners seeking to realize demand-reduction objectives and looking for alternatives to the dominant Resource Man framing. Rather than seeking to transform people into resource men, concepts like Flexibility Woman help guide alternative narratives and possibilities to support sustainability outcomes that are grounded in the current realities of everyday life.

In my research with colleagues at the Emerging Technologies Research Lab, we frequently encounter both Resource Man and Flexibility Woman in the field. Quite often they live together, and complicate each other's agendas, but more often they highlight the limitations of these framings as people encounter and seek to pursue other lifestyle visions associated with emerging and smart technologies in the home. These include retrofitting sheds, garages, and other peripheries of the home to provide new living spaces and sites of consumption, proving grounds for new technologies, or spaces for increasingly electrified (battery-powered) home maintenance appliances and hobbies. If anything significant has changed since I first identified Resource Man, it is these lifestyle ambitions for smart technology, which are clearly embodied in the pursuit of smart wives, and their focus on pleasurable aesthetic experiences.

back to top  Smart Aesthetics

A key ambition of the Smart Wife is to make the house a home through aesthetic modifications that curate new sensory experiences. One newspaper article describes this as follows:

Imagine walking into a room and with a "good morning, Alexa" watch a pre-programmed ballet of functions take place: the perfectly dimmed lights flick on, the blinds glide open (using Crestron's silent motors), your playlist sings, the TV turns on, muted, to show the headlines and a voice whispers the weather forecast [6].

The stylistic trope of inviting readers to imagine themselves in this idealized and seductive lifestyle has long been a feature of smart home marketing. With the broader pursuit of "pleasance" in mind, smart wives are positioned as being intimately orchestrating the smart home, by automating "scenes" and offering settings that combine sounds, lighting, comfort, and other audiovisual features [3]. More broadly, this embeds smart wives in the smart home's pursuit of the "perfect day," which Davin Heckman describes as a "technologically enhanced mode of daily living" that "cultivat[es] the terrain between impulse and gratification" [7]. The sensory and affective dimensions of everyday life have long been central to homemaking; however, the pursuit of pleasance, and the smart wife's role in achieving this, makes smart technology central to realizing the "perfect day." This has important implications for sustainability because while "low tech" sensory and aesthetic options, such as flowers, houseplants, candles, woodfires, essential oils, or incense, are not devoid of sustainability impacts, they do not generally require an expanding network of smart and interconnected devices.

There are many ways in which sustainability is pursued in homes that don't involve the use of digital technology.

Sitting behind smart wives, their connections to nature, and their new sensory delights is a web of environmental and inequitable labor impacts. These include direct and embodied consumption of energy and other resources, the growing energy demand to power data centers and other supporting infrastructures, and mining and e-waste impacts. Kate Crawford and Vladan Joler's "Anatomy of an AI System" provides an anatomical map and accompanying essay tracking the matrix of impacts associated with a single Amazon Echo, including the extraction of minerals, manufacture, transportation, use, and end of life [8]. Crawford and Joler show how the Echo "requires a vast planetary network, fueled by the extraction of non-renewable materials, labor, and data." In this regard, Jenny and I argue that feminized AI personalities like Alexa serve another purpose, "to mask and disassociate her users from the murky underworld of mine extraction, toxic waste dumps, dangerous hardware manufacturing and assembly processes, and outsourced workers in precarious and unstable employment conditions who largely reside in the Global South" [2].

Sitting behind smart wives is a web of environmental and inequitable labor impacts.

Aside from the mining and labor concerns, there are numerous reports indicating that the global growth of digital and connected devices, including a threefold increase in Internet data traffic, cannot keep pace with renewable energy generation [2]. While smart wives are only one cog in this wheel, the role of voice technology as a gateway enabler for many smart devices, and their positionality as the curators of new lifestyle and aesthetic experiences, makes them particularly worthy of scrutiny in the pursuit of greater sustainability.

back to top  A Path Forward

Questions about what constitutes a "good life" and how this can be both desirable and sustainable warrant urgent attention, particularly from HCI designers who are uniquely positioned to propose and test alternative imaginaries, and have pioneered these in past work. For instance, my colleagues and I have started to pursue alternative aesthetic visions for everyday life that could be supported with (and without) smart devices. These include visions for hygge—a romanticized Scandinavian lifestyle featuring coziness and companionship—implemented through explorative probes and a modified smart light app, to provide inspiration and experimentation for desirable and sustainable lifestyles [9]. These and other HCI studies pursuing lifestyle alternatives provide innovative opportunities to identify "future ways of being" that improve sustainability.

There is a clear need to shift the dominant focus away from data provision, automated control, and efficiency as the primary means of engaging people with more-sustainable futures. While these conventional tools can be useful, as Sarah Darby aptly puts it, they "so often turn out to be steps taken down an upward moving escalator" [10]. Dominant Resource Man approaches sideline these bigger lifestyle concerns, centering attention on a discrete set of tools designated for sustainability purposes and losing sight of the bigger opportunity and need to rethink how homes are envisaged and designed to pursue the "perfect day." Meanwhile, the Smart Wife remains a pleasant distraction from the far-reaching impacts of new aesthetic and convenience functions on people and the planet. In taking up Darby's advice, we need to focus on where the escalator is heading, or get off the escalator entirely, rather than focusing on how to walk backward. This requires a mobilization of efforts toward experimenting with and realizing desirable and sustainable futures, while remaining attuned to the broader equity and dispersed social and environmental impacts associated with the development of any technology. The HCI community is uniquely placed to lead this endeavor, which presents an exciting research agenda for scholars interested in reimagining our future lives in more sustainable ways.

back to top  References

1. Strengers, Y. Smart energy in everyday life: Are you designing for Resource Man? Interactions 21, 4 (2014), 24–31; http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/2621931

2. Strengers Y. and Kennedy, J. The Smart Wife: Why Siri, Alexa and Other Smart Home Devices Need a Feminist Reboot. The MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, 2020.

3. Strengers, Y., Hazas, M., Nicholls, L., Kjeldskov, J., and Skov, M.B. Pursuing pleasance: Interrogating energy-intensive visions for the smart home. International Journal of Human-Computer Studies 136 (Apr. 2020).

4. Blevis, E. Sustainable interaction design: Invention & disposal, renewal & reuse. Proc. of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. ACM, New York, 2007, 503–512; http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/1240624.1240705

5. Johnson, C. Is demand side response a woman's work? Domestic labour and electricity shifting in low income homes in the United Kingdom. Energy Research & Social Science 68 (2020), 20101558; http://dx.doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.erss.2020.101558

6. Corby, S. The next level of Alexa: Meet the new voice assistant who will change how people live at home. Domain. Jul. 24, 2018; https://www.domain.com.au/living/the-next-level-of-alexa-meet-the-new-voice-assistant-who-will-change-how-people-live-at-home-20180725-h12j0o-754135/

7. Heckman, D. A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of the Perfect Day. Duke Univ. Press, 2008.

8. Crawford, K. and Joler, V. Anatomy of an AI System: The Amazon Echo as an anatomical map of human labor. 2018.

9. Jensen, R.H., Strengers, Y., Raptis, D., Nicholls, L., Kjeldskov, J., and Skov, M.B. Exploring Hygge as a desirable design vision for the sustainable smart home. Proc. of the 2018 Designing Interactive Systems Conference. ACM, New York, 2018, 355–360; http://dx.doi.org/10.1145/3196709.3196804

10. Darby, S. Energy feedback in buildings: Improving the infrastructure for demand reduction. Building Research & Information 36, 5 (2008), 499–508; http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/09613210802028428

back to top  Author

Yolande Strengers is a professor of digital technology and society at the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University, where she leads the Energy Futures program. Her research explores the sustainability and inclusion impacts of smart and automated technologies in everyday life. She is author or coauthor of The Smart Wife (MIT Press, 2020), Design Ethnography (Routledge, 2022), and Smart Energy Technologies in Everyday Life (Palgrave MacMillan, 2013). [email protected]

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