The revolution will be televised and then switched off

At Intel, my charter is pretty simple and straightforward: provide insights and inspire innovation. My team and I use ethnographic methods and theory, in addition to human factors engineering, cognitive psychology, interaction design and other social science epistemologies to broaden and deepen Intel’s understanding of our current and potential customers – all those people beyond the company walls!

We care about how people live, how people want to live, about what matters to them; we strive to understand how technologies are used, understood, and imagined in homes around the world; and finally we seek to foster and develop technologies that provide a seamless fit with — and enhance — cultural, social, spiritual values and practices. (And yes, this is real work, and yes, it is an accepted way of thinking about technology, technology development and innovation. And yes, it is surprising to see this at Intel).

As my team and I are part of Intel’s Digital Home Group, we focus our energies on the ‘home’ in all its many forms and permutations. It is against this backdrop that I have been thinking about and studying ‘domestic satellites’ – homes away from home, or perhaps more precisely places of homefulness away from one’s primary residence. Think of these as dorm rooms, hotel rooms, hospital rooms, elder care facilities, vacation homes, even recreational vehicles, caravans, tents and perhaps your car or cubicle. All the places where we attempt to recreate some version of ‘home’, however incomplete or perhaps deliberately skewed.

I would argue (riffing on classic critical standpoint theory, and Harding’s notion of strong objectivity) that these sites, these domestic satellites, can tell us a whole lot about the nature of the home, precisely because they are a version, not the original rendering, of it. We might learn more about what people value, what they care about, and what frustrates them by seeing how they create home-like experiences away from home. Such domestic extensions also seemed likely to yield interesting technology opportunities in and of themselves – devices that would need to withstand long period of dormancy followed by sudden bursts of activities, or those that were energy conscious or aware, or those that have small format factors, high levels of portability and failsafe reliability and security.

We have been particularly interested in the cultural and social practices, material artifacts and technologies in and around these homes away from home. In 2005, home sales achieved new records and were often described as a major engine for the American economy. In the same year, Americans put in record hours on the job, and their leisure time sank to a new all time low. In 2006, the number of second homes purchased in the United States represented nearly 40% of total home purchases; approximately 13% of those purchases were for dedicated vaction homes. In much of Western Europe, second home stock is also a growing percentage of overall housing stock, and the culture of long summer vacations is waning, if only slightly. We wanted to know what might be going on here; literally and culturally.

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Over the last three years, we have conducted a series of small exploratory ethnographic and design research projects amongst American RV’ers, and second home owners in France, Australia and the United States — Françoise Bourdonnec, Alexandra Zafiroglu, Michele Chang, and Katrina Jungnickel all participated in this research. (And yes, this is real work too!) We have spent time in RV parks, caravan parks, vacation and second homes, bed and breakfasts, and some of the principal residences of second home owners; we have interviewed holiday makers, home owners, and those who provide services to vacations and vacationers. Much of our work is still waiting to be thoroughly analyzed and I anticipate we will publish findings (stayed tuned for that) later this year, but in the meantime, there are lots of interesting insights to share and discuss.

Perhaps most interesting amongst the early findings relate to the nature of daily life. In listening to people talk about their second homes, the things they do there, and the things they do not, it is hard not to hear this almost lament, a kind of nostalgia, or longing for a time when technology didn’t feel quite so overwhelming. Elsewhere I have described this sense of a life driven by technology as a kind of ‘techno-determinism’ – in which technology seems to be ascribed a kind of agency; it becomes its own social force, a social actor even. And for many people that we talked to and interviewed and spent time with, in the course of this project to date, it is this sense of techno-determinism that they are trying to escape.

I wonder, if the more affluent classes, these second homes represent a place where people are taking back their vacations – from email, their cell phones, and the constant demands of a life filled with devices and gadgets and infrastructures. This is not a wholesale rejection of technology, after all these holiday and vacation spots routinely fill with the sounds of radio and television and the stereo. This is not the Luddites smashing the new machines (though there are some great books and articles written on that theme – including this one by Thomas Pynchon); though people did have a remarkable affection for old fashion newspapers and books. What this appears to be instead is a reappraisal and redefinition of the technology’s place, at least in one domain of people’s lives. Even when a similar set of technologies is present in both principle and secondary residences, they appear to be approached and imagined differently. Second homes seem to allow people a respite; places where one feels free to let a phone ring unanswered, and to leave email for another day.

And perhaps that is as it has always already been; at least since the Industrial Revolution. Indeed there is a long and honorable tradition of different kinds of holiday dwellings around the world – dachas in Russia, bachs and cribs in New Zealand, cottages in the UK and Canada and vacation homes in America – places to get away from the factory, from the city, from work. What for me is interesting, however, is the ways in which these sites now seem to represent a place to get away not only from work, but the technologies of work and the work of technologies. What is also interesting then is what this starts to say about how we might think about our homes – have they become so overly embedded with information, communication and entertainment technologies, that we feel we need to go somewhere else just for a little down time? And if that is one of the findings, what should a multinational company that produces technology and technology visions do with such an insight?

7 Responses to The revolution will be televised and then switched off

  1. Hello Genevieve,
    Yes, we all now have three media channels in our lives – TV/radio, computer and cell phone. Like three dimensions and time – online space and our work or free time. We identify ourselves with the world using these tools. And communicate with this world to prove it. But comfortness is our priority in the first place – we are looking for it switching these channels to find the ones that match our likes. Anyway we’re online. I guess that is synonym of to be a professional in our social environment and circle.
    Best wishes,

  2. Eleanor Wynn says:

    quoting you: “how we might think about our homes – have they become so overly embedded with information, communication and entertainment technologies, that we feel we need to go somewhere else just for a little down time?” Genevieve, absolutely yes! The home as primary dwelling has become a place where responsibility calls out–whether it is keeping up with politics on TV, answering e-mails at all hours, finding information on trivia, or keeping up with fashion. A vacation away, especially to a place off the grid, removes these stimuli which all together are stressful. I never take a computer on vacation, nor do I turn on a TV in a hotel room. I did not see you mention hotel rooms as remote homes, but in a hotel room I have my personal necessities with me, just enough clothes, and a contained little world that I am sometimes reluctant to leave. I do have my laptop, but since I am “away” it feels less compelling…..Out of Office for a business reason–what better shelter!

  3. Igor says:

    I see one very dangerous trend in the technology department. We always strive to simplify the use of gadgets instead of raising level of personal education.
    Moreover, instead of allowing people to control the machine, we program the machine to control the user: “Click Next to continue”, “Press when done”, “This wizard will guide you…”, “Would you like me to do this?”, “Would you like me to do that?”, “You are running low on disk space on drive H:, click here to…” now isn’t that awfull?
    What has been done to improve this? Nothing, it is getting worse.

  4. Richard Vireday says:

    Reminds me of an old sci-fi story, the rich people were the ones able to turn OFF the TVs. I’ve come to admire the Amish and their ilk for their concious decisions on which technology to use or not. Sounds like more of that is spreading, and I see it in my own life choices too. To be less connected. Friends look funny at me that I have a very old personal domain name, but no MySpace page.

  5. Timothy Reuter says:

    I am working for the United States government doing development work in a rural province of Afghanistan and your research has inspired me to look more closely at how people use technology here. The United States is providing a lot of information technology to local governments and NGOs but I don’t think there is much analysis of how the equipment we give is actually being utilized by people here.
    I am going to be asking people how they use communications technology in their professional and personal lives and would be happy to share that information with you. Also, if there are any particular questions regarding how people interact with digital technology that you would be interested in having me collect responses to I would be happy to do that as well. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on how people use technology and as a fellow student of Anthropology it is great to see an Anthropologist applying the tools of the trade in a field that most people don’t expect to find us in.

  6. Maarten Thissen says:

    Hello Genevieve,
    I saw a small movie of you giving a lecture on a conference last month and there was talk about a book you’re writing. As a lecturer in human technology in The Netherlands, I am very interested in everything you write about culture and design. Is it possible to get an overview of your articles/books?
    Kind Regards,
    Maarten Thissen

  7. Daniel Fremion says:

    The book “This Alien Shore” by C. S. Friedman has an interesting look a the future of the internet – it gets imbedded in our brains – lack of connectivity then has severe psychological effects as well. There is no getting away from it ;-)