Will the Smart Home of Tomorrow be a Paradise or a Purgatory?

M Luke McDonell

[otw_shortcode_dropcap label=”O” color_class=”otw-black-text” background_color_class=”otw-silver-background” size=”large” border_color_class=”otw-no-border-color” square=”square”][/otw_shortcode_dropcap]ur tour guide pressed a button on his phone and the deadbolt of the puck-like lock slid home with an audible thud.

I stood shoulder to should with 25 other people in a windowless living room inside a full-scale model smart home at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a huge tradeshow and conference featuring bleeding-edge devices and technology.

I expected lights that would turn on when we entered a room, a skylight that would open if the attic got too hot, a television responsive to voice commands, sensors that would beep when plants needed watering. Straightforward energy- and labor-saving devices.

I didn’t expect to feel so unnerved. I examined the lock and saw no way of opening it manually. As the guide nattered on the room grew uncomfortably warm. The air conditioner next to me sat silent as the temperature rose. I pressed the “On” button. Nothing happened. Not until, too many minutes later, with another flourish of the phone, the guide brought it to life. I wasn’t an authorized user.

Most of the technology I saw in the model smart house wasn’t about controlling appliances, but monitoring and controlling people–a fact our tour guide gleefully pointed out. The wine fridge flashed the kitchen lights on and off if any bottles were removed. Motion detectors in the family room activated hidden cameras. The children’s bedroom featured automatic “lights out” to force kids into bed on time, a chiding teddy bear, plus network and wifi monitoring that sent a tattle-tale alert to the parents (showing up on the television screen) if their kid was up past his bed time, including exactly what he was reading beneath the covers on his networked device.

In the near future, it will be hard to find a physical appliance that isn’t smart and able to be controlled remotely by authorized users.

How to monitor non-appliance interactions in a home? That is, humans doing human stuff like walking around? The new Nest Cam is only $199 and can be set up in under a minute. I’d like to imagine what is really going on in the images of domestic bliss on the marketing website.

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image1The Nest Cam website asks questions that won’t be answered by the camera observing this young teen. In fact, this teen doesn’t live here and doesn’t know she’s being watched. She’s your daughter, over at a friend’s house, and she is texting her aunt, who has just gotten engaged but hasn’t announced it yet. Mr. Smith, homeowner, can read every word and is in fact recording this. Are you okay with that? 

Jared the bass playerJared, the base player, has been begging to sing backup vocals for six months. Zach finally lets him try. Jared’s voice cracks embarrassingly and he ruins the song. A few months later, Zach finds this footage on the home server and posts it on Facebook. 

Dog on Sofa

What is the dog watching so intently? You. You are having a glass of wine with your friend on the couch opposite, and you confide that you made some bad investments and the bank may foreclose on your home. Her husband, whom you don’t like, is listening. 

Don't use butter in the cake icing

If you’ve told your housekeeper once, you’ve told her a thousand times, don’t use butter in the cake frosting. Here she is, doing it again. At the kitchen table, Brendan asks his uncle if he had sex before he was married. His uncle glances at the camera and suggests they take a walk.


Jennifer Granick, the keynote speaker at Black Hat 2015, worries about the future on a macro level, where the powers that be are governments and corporations. “This is the Golden Age of Surveillance. Today, technology is generating more information about us than ever before, and will increasingly do so, making a map of everything we do, changing the balance of power between us,” and that “the physical architecture and the corporate ownership of the communications networks we use have changed in ways that facilitate rather than defeat censorship and control.”

I worry about the future on a micro level, specifically, a split-level ranch house. Access to wifi, to the internet, to food and drink, to heat and cooling, to privacy, could be controlled by one person in a household. The one with the password. The administrator –aka your spouse, roommate, mother, father, foster parent, neighbor–has the “technological infrastructure and legal support” to censor and control and “map everything we do” while under their roof. Granick worries about the physical architecture of the communications network; I worry that the physical architecture of an air conditioner has changed such that pressing a button no longer turns it on.

What happens when all appliances are smart and not everyone has the power to control them? When they are talking to each other and only a select few can hear what they are saying? When every room has a camera and data is collected and stored?

Where, in 2016, does freedom and privacy live if it not in our living rooms? We know it doesn’t live in the mall, or at the airport, or 100 miles from any border, or on public streets. Does walking into a smart home mean that I surrender rights that I’m barely clinging to now?

Homes may be smart, but humans aren’t. Not always. Trying to be smarter means trying things out, making mistakes, proposing awful ideas, confessing desires to a close friend, sneaking an expensive bottle of wine out of the fridge for some late-night musings. It means using technology to make sure our kids don’t burn the house down while giving them space to develop a sense of self without worrying their blunders will haunt them.

For better or worse, we decide how this plays out. We may be the administrator of our own democratic paradise, where children and guests and housekeepers have no fear of being spied upon, but we surrender control when we step out the front door. Are we entering an era when we have no expectation of privacy–in private? How do we deal with issues that law can’t possibly keep up with? I have no answers but we need to start a discussion–because the smart home of the future exists now.

M Luke McDonell

is a writer based in San Francisco. Her story, See You Later was published in Shoreline of Infinity Issue 1.

She also worked as a graphic designer at NASA Ames Research Center

website: mlukemcdonell.wordpress.com

Twitter: @MLukeMc