Not long ago I spent the entirety of a weekend morning trying to fix my thermostat. The whole experience, which involved an extended online chat with a chipper but ultimately useless series of customer service representatives, was quietly infuriating. It was one of those moments, like dealing with a recalcitrant cable or phone company that has hopelessly bungled your bill, that always seems to occupy more space and time than it should. I explained my problem to a customer support representative, again to a customer support specialist, and then again, less patiently, to a customer support supervisor, all of whom seemed to have the same misunderstanding of the problem ("Actually, I'm quite sure it's not the automatic learning function that's the cause, since we've now checked it three times. Perhaps you'd like to check your notes from this call and the ones before?").
The problem lingered. Not in the thermostat, so it seems, but in my psyche. Walking past the obstinate black cylinder in the hallway was enough to trigger a feeling that is difficult to describe. It transcended annoyance to become physical: a slight tightening of the muscles in my chest, as though I was anticipating a punch. It is coming back now, in fact, as I am typing this column.
Upon reflection, I first faulted myself. Why should I be so angry at an unreliable piece of equipment when I had not one, but three, backup devices in a drawer in the very same hallway as the problem subject, and the skills to replace the thing in a matter of minutes? I could have my choice of alternative—and probably functional—smart or dumb thermostats. I have known myself to descend into a gloomy mood when small manual projects, the sort I normally enjoy, turn out to be not so straightforward. This is not my best quality, and one I have been working to change. But this wasn't the same cranky frustration I experience when—and I promise I am not exaggerating here—I have to head back to the hardware store for the seventh time to fix a simple repair I've bungled. This was a different feeling altogether, one closer to alienation than impatient aggravation.
And I realized that's exactly what I was feeling. Alienation, not simply in the sense of feeling isolated and cut off, but instead in a distinctly Marxist sense. Every time I walk through the hallway I am confronted by a $250 product that was sold to me under the same premise as so much of my other tech stuff: an object to make life not only better, but also easier. All the sleek devices in my life—my car, my watering system, my smart speaker, my phone, my laptops, my work computer, my tablet—regularly accomplish miracles of coordination and control that would have been difficult to imagine just 30 years ago. But the experience with the thermostat fractured the illusion of convenience, suggesting instead that I was the subject of coordination and control, rather than my home and my things. Objects in the Internet of Things may be predominantly patterned on the master-slave relationship model , but this experience left me regarding the thermostat—and its maker—as a trickster.
One way the concept of alienation has been applied in information studies is by thinking about the ways in which the use of information technology transforms users into laborers . One can understand Facebook's profits, for example, to be almost entirely dependent on the unpaid labor of its users, who, in this way of thinking, are exploited by posting status updates and photographs, joining groups, and providing mountains of location and other data via the company's iPhone and Android apps. Through governmental hearings and a series of alarming disclosures, we finally seem to be going through some sort of collective realization that no one is really in control of this low-level exploitation, which has left open the certainty that the platform itself will be exploited in the name of truly dangerous stuff, such as election interference and extremist ideology. And while I am fairly certain that the Russians are not hacking my thermostat—though plunging homes in Tucson, Arizona, into temperatures below 68° F would be an ingeniously nefarious way to foment discord—it occurred to me that the source of my alienated rage was the opacity of the interaction. The function of a thermostat with a basic single-stage heating system such as the one at my house is simple. Too cold? The thermostat tells the furnace to operate. Warm enough? Turn it off and keep it turned off until it gets cold again.
The problem was that neither the thermostat nor the furnace was obeying my wishes, and there was no indication about which piece of equipment was to blame. The two clearly were communicating, since the furnace fan would come on in response to a twiddle at the thermostat. Still, no heat! But the thermostat screen, Web app, and phone app didn't report any errors, rendering the aberrant behavior particularly mysterious. Wouldn't a sophisticated piece of technology have an error log that might provide some insight into the problem? I imagine it might read something like this:
1:25 AM No heat.
1:30 AM Thermo heat request.
1:35 AM No heat.
1:40 AM Thermo bored. Initiate human-deserves-to-spend-morning-confusing-customer-service-agent mode.
1:45 AM No heat.
8:50 AM Thermo heat request.
8:59 AM Heat! Glorious heat!
9:00 AM Thermo grants remote connection request from customer service. All OK.
But here's the thing: Not only is the owner of this $250 connected thermostat presumably prevented from accessing one of the most basic (and useful!) functions of a technological device, but also the representatives of one of the world's largest companies wouldn't cop to the existence of an error log. And, even worse, ease of use was the reason given when I asked repeatedly why I could not know more about what exactly had gone wrong (as of the time of this writing, I still do not know). You know what would make my thermostat and furnace easier to use? Knowing that the system will operate as it is intended! Indeed, knowing that there is most likely data out there that would get the problem one step closer to a diagnosis, but having that data hidden from me, was more than frustrating. It was a reminder that in the overall scheme of things, what's most important to the makers of the thermostat is not that it keeps me comfortable, but rather the wealth of data it generates based on my actions.
In my life's experience with consumer technology and other expensive things I have owned such as cars and houses, I've derived a fair amount of satisfaction from understanding how those things work. Some of this is surely due to my own personality, while much of it is cultural—getting under the hood, tinkering, and repair are stereotypically masculine values in Western culture, markers that are difficult to move, as the maker movement has discovered . Once, while doing research for a technology company, I interviewed a person who lived on a houseboat, a living arrangement that may seem carefree, but which takes a significant investment of time and thought, in large part because the provision of power, sewer, and fresh water must be continually monitored. While acknowledging frustration at the lost time, he described the feeling as the "pleasure of knowing the technical way in which things hang together." I get that. I like knowing how the world around me works.
The anthropologist Grant McCracken points out that taking care of the things one owns is also important identity work in consumer culture, because by taking care of our things, we can turn to those things to transfer qualities to ourselves . My shiny car tells the world that I am a tidy person who appreciates design. I have fretted for years over repairing the midcentury table and chairs that I use daily and inherited from a great uncle who was an architect, because a botched job would feel disrespectful to his memory. Deep engagement with things helps us make sense of our world and ourselves.
Yet I can't even look at the error logs on my own thermostat! The blackboxed black cylinder in the hall is a reminder that I've lost a bit of myself—and worse, given it over willingly. I have been alienated in my own home, by something I own. And that is most chilling of all.
1. Bean, J. Relating to the Internet of Things. Interactions 25, 1 (Jan.–Feb. 2018), 24–25; https://doi.org/10.1145/3161572
2. Fuchs, C. and Sevignani, S. What is digital labour? What is digital work? What's their difference? And why do these questions matter for understanding social media? tripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique 11, 2 (2013), 237–293.
3. Bean, J. and Rosner, D. Making: Movement or brand? Interactions 21, 1 (Jan.–Feb 2014), 26–27; https://doi.org/10.1145/2541669
Jonathan Bean is assistant professor of architecture, sustainable built environments, and marketing at the University of Arizona. He researches domestic consumption, technology, and taste. [email protected]
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