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Can Technology Save Us from Housework? with Helen Hester

We bring to you a special LIVE episode from Tech Transformed! In it, Kerry talks to Helen Hester. Helen is a leading thinker of feminism, technology and the future of work, and she explores the history of domestic technologies- so technology used around the house. It's really important that we understand that technologies like the washing machine were actually not as liberatory for women as we'd like to think. In fact, they may have actually prevented women from rising up against domestic labor. Helen also talks about how medical care is increasingly being outsourced to home spaces, and why smart home technology is making our lives more [00:02:00] convenient, but not necessarily less laborious. We hope you enjoy the show.

Helen Hester joined UWL from Middlesex University, where she had served as Lecturer in Promotional Cultures and Senior Lecturer in Media. Her research interests include technofeminism, sexuality studies, and theories of social reproduction, and she is a member of the international feminist collective Laboria Cuboniks. Helen is the author of Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex (SUNY Press, 2014) and the co-editor of the collections Fat Sex: New Directions in Theory and Activism (Ashgate, 2015) and Dea ex Machina (Merve, 2015). She is also the series editor for Ashgate’s 'Sexualities in Society' book series.


2025, Post-Work, London: Bloomsbury, 2022 (with Will Stronge). Under contract. 

2021, After Work: The Fight for Free Time, London: Verso, 2022 (with Nick Srnicek). Under contract. 

2018, Xenofeminism, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2018. German translation: Merve, 2020. Italian translation: Nero, 2018. Spanish translation: Caja Negra, 2018. 

2014, Beyond Explicit: Pornography and the Displacement of Sex, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014.

“Love’s Labours Lost: Post-Work and Social Reproduction,” Electra 10, 2020 (with Nick Srnicek).  

“Why women deserve a four-day week,” International Politics and Society, 2020. 

“Sapience + Care: Reason and Responsibility in Posthuman Politics,” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 24.2, 2019. 

“Care Under Capitalism: The Crisis of “Women’s Work,” IPPR: Progressive Review 24.4, 2018. 

“Promethean Labours and Domestic Realism,” e-flux Architecture, 2017. 

“Towards a Theory of Thing-Women,” Living in the Future 4, 2017. 

“Echoing flesh: The ‘voluminous body’ in heterosexual hard core,” Sexualities 8.1, 2016. 

“(Re)producing Futures without Reproductive Futurity: Xenofeminist Ecologies,” Laboratory Planet 5, 2016. 

“Technically Female: Women, Machines, and Hyperemployment,” Salvage 3, 2016. 



Hi, I'm Dr. Kerry McInerney. Dr. Eleanor Drage and I are the hosts of the Good Robot podcast. Join us as we ask the experts, what is good technology? Is it even possible? And how can feminism help us work towards it? If you want to learn more about today's topic, head over to our website, www.thegoodrobot. co. uk, where we've got a full transcript of the episode and a sample. We love hearing from listeners, so feel free to tweet or email us. And we also so appreciate you leaving us a review on the podcast app, but until then sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.


Hello, welcome to this audio only episode of the Good Robot. This is a special live episode because Kerry is talking to Professor Helen Hester at the Tech Transformed conference in London. Helen is a leading thinker of feminism, technology and the future of work, and she explores the history of domestic technologies- so technology used around the house. It's really important that we understand that technologies like the washing machine were actually not as liberatory for women as we'd like to think. In fact, they may have actually prevented women from rising up against domestic labor. Helen also talks about how medical care is increasingly being outsourced to home spaces, and why smart home technology is making our lives more [00:02:00] convenient, but not necessarily less laborious. We hope you enjoy the show.

Kerry: Brilliant. Okay. Thank you so much for having us here. My name is Dr. Kerry McInerney. I'm a researcher at the Leverhulme Center for the Future of Intelligence. And I am delighted to be joined here by Helen Hester, who many of you probably already know a leading feminist scholar and academic thinking about the intersections between technology gender and work.

And so I think we're the final event of the day, right? Are we the wrap up event? Okay, yeah

Helen: Yeah, there is the party, so we're warm up act for that.

Kerry: The pre party! Yeah, we're the really nerdy party But so alongside my academic work I co host a podcast called the good robot on technology and feminism And so today we are doing a live recording of this podcast and with Helen as the featured guest. And so the kind of broad this podcast is to think about the idea of good technology, whether it's possible, and how feminism can help us work towards it.

And so if this is something that is your jam, you're interested in it, you can find it online, pretty much anywhere where you get your podcasts, YouTube, Apple, Spotify and it's quite an extensive library now of interviews with fantastic people like Helen on this topic. And so I definitely encourage you to check it out.

But without further ado, unless you want a sip of water, but then we're going to kick off. So we're going to start off with the hardest question. Who are you? Why are you here? What do you do? And what's brought you to thinking about gender, feminism and technology?

Helen: Hi Kerry, thank you so much for having me.

It's such a pleasure to be here. So as you say, my name is Helen Hester. I'm professor of gender technology and cultural politics at the University of West London. My research interests are around sexuality studies, techno feminism, theories of social reproduction and also of work more broadly.

And I've written a handful of books that kind of sit at this intersection of gender technology and work. Beyond explicit: pornography and the displacement of sex, Xenofeminism, after work: history of the home and the fight for free time. And I've got a book coming out soon with Will Strong, who's been milling around all day.

It's called Post work: what it is, why it matters and how we get there. So that's coming out. Either this year or next year, depending on how quickly the copy edits get done.

Kerry: Oh, amazing. I definitely want to hear more about the book later on, but I also want to add that Helen has loomed large in my life for a long time. Because when I was 21, sorry, this is not to make you feel old, but rather to say your work has been, out doing a lot of really important things for a long time.

When I was 21, my master's supervisor sent me an essay that you wrote on Siri and voice technology. Is it 'technically unemployed?' The essay that you wrote?

Helen: I think it's 'technically female'.

Kerry: 'technically female'. There you go.

Helen: 'Women, machines and hyper employment'.

Kerry: So I highly recommend checking that out. And I was actually just thinking about this essay again, because of the current battle between Scarlett Johansson and open AI over ChatGPT's voice.

And I just thought, wow, this essay has really come back again in force, given what we're seeing in the [00:05:00] news at the moment.

Helen: It's always so nice as an academic when anybody reads your work, because you live in the expectation that, maybe two or three people will come across it, and then it's always delightful when you meet a real life person who's bothered to read it, so thank you.

Kerry: So when you reread your old work, are you the person who's ' wow, I hate this and myself.'

Or are you the person who's ' I knew things once and I used to be clever and I can't believe I wrote that?' 'cause I feel like there's only two poles.

Helen: Yeah, I feel very much like it's an affective seesaw where like on the one hand you're like, yes, I nailed that. On the other hand, you're like, oh God, , that's, that, that doesn't stand up to scrutiny.

However many years later. But broadly, I feel quite proud of it, but. In a way where it doesn't feel like I wrote it, so it doesn't feel like I've got any right to be proud of it. It's like a different version of me wrote it a really long time ago, and I can't claim any credit whatsoever.

Kerry: I love the idea that this is now out in public domain. So check out that essay, it is very short, very pithy, available online. But I do wanna talk mainly about the new work that you and [00:06:00] Will are doing together so on the idea of 'post work'. And so we're a technology podcast so we'll have listeners, both virtually and also in the room, it's a live recording which is super fun, I recognise that our listeners in the room might be more familiar with the idea of post work, but the on line listeners are maybe less familiar with this idea so let's start really simple what's the problem with work?

Helen: There, there were loads of problems, right?

There's no shortage of problems with work and there were all kinds of concrete examples that we could point to of problems and injustices that people face. I think there is perhaps one overarching problem that kind of encapsulates all of these and draws them together. And that's the fact that work in the sense of wage labor is doubly unfree.

So first work is routinely subject to control during their time on the job, and increasingly outside of the job as well. So if you think about the way that your your social media is policed [00:07:00] and surveilled by your employers and so on. Wage labor really means that we sell a considerable portion of our time to people or to organizations who then have significant control over us.

Some examples of this are particularly stark and particularly upsetting. In December 2021, for instance, six Amazon workers died when the warehouse that they were working in collapsed during a tornado. And that was after they'd been forced by managers to continue working until their last moments.

But even beyond this kind of personal domination, the kind that's exhibited by managers and by bosses, within the workplace, wage labor is also unfree by virtue of the impersonal domination of capitalism's imperatives. And this is a key point for a lot of post work thinking. For the vast majority of humanity, what that effectively means is that we have to take up wage labour in order to survive.

We don't have much of a choice in the matter, and [00:08:00] we have no choice but to work, because if we don't we risk homelessness, we risk starvation, we risk destitution. So no matter how good a job is then, it still remains subject to these two unfreedoms by virtue of being a job. But really importantly, and this is where my, my work with Nick Cernichek is focused, wage labor is not the only kind of work, and it's not the only domain of unfreedom either.

Unwaged work, most of which we would characterize as social reproduction work, so that's the work that goes into maintaining people and places and communities and so on, that takes up around 40 percent of our total time spent on work. And Even though it's not done for a boss, we don't usually do that work for an employer.

That doesn't mean that we're doing this work for ourselves, or that we're doing it in conditions of our own choosing. So it doesn't necessarily mean that capitalism isn't benefiting from it either. So an example to help make this feel more [00:09:00] concrete. If we think about the drudgery of housework or the exertions of caring for our children or caring for our elderly relatives and things like that, this isn't usually remunerated work.

We don't usually get money from it. And plenty of people do it without any expectation that they're going to be paid. But it would be a stretch, I think, to call that freely chosen activity. To call everything that we do in that realm freely chosen activity. I don't think it, I don't think it makes sense.

If our elders, for example, don't have access to other forms of support, then there is inevitably a degree of compulsion or a degree of obligation underpinning the care that we offer. No matter how much we might care about the people involved, no matter how much we love them, there is something that's forcing us or compelling us to do that work other than our free choosing.

So we're pushed into delivering this necessary work. And capitalist societies benefit from this free labor as a result. [00:10:00] So as such, some unwaged activity within the household can be seen as work, I think, because it possesses that characteristic quality of unfreedom. Under capitalism, if one values freedom, one has to, I think, adopt a somewhat resistant attitude to work.

Kerry: That's so fascinating. And as you were talking, I was like ticking back to all these different aspects of my life that increasingly I feel have become commodified in some way. And I think social media is such a clear one for that where increasingly I'm like, Oh, Of course it can be really fun to film myself doing my makeup and talking about AI ethics while I'm doing that, but then that's like another aspect of my day that suddenly has become work. And then what does it mean when we see that slippage into that? But I'm also very interested in what you're saying about housework, and the kinds of work that we see and recognize in saying ' this is labor, and it should be recognized as such', and this was a huge aspect of things like wages for housework, or kind of feminist movements in the 1970s.

But also the kinds of work that again don't really get seen, And or, what are the risks about [00:11:00] incorporating these tasks into a work imaginary, or what do we lose out there?

Helen: Yeah.

Kerry: But I work in AI ethics, as and one interesting parallel I see getting drawn is between the current wave that we're seeing in AI tech development and the industrial revolution.

And this is a parallel I think that you draw out really interestingly in your work on work. I need to think of something instead of work that describes your research and your wonderful writing and research on work and something that you explore, which I didn't know very much about at all, was like the way that the industrial revolution changed the British home.

And so I would love to hear a bit more about this and maybe for our audience as well, which is, so how do we think about this history of technology in relation to the history of housework?

Helen: Yeah, so in the early 20th century, the home really underwent like a radical technological change as it became industrialized. And many of those most important changes were infrastructural in nature. So homes started to become connected via [00:12:00] various means. So through sort of sewers or through electricity cables or gas pipelines and so on.

And I think Charlotte Perkins Gilman has this quote about how houses are becoming threaded together like beads on a string. So this was at the beginning of the 20th century, she was looking at how this was happening.

And obviously you can just imagine the kind of difference that those changes would make to people's everyday lives and to the kind of housework that they were performing.

So it's been estimated, for instance, that the introduction of indoor plumbing in Europe saved households around two hours of work a day just because they no longer had to pump that water or move that water. They no longer had to carry it and manually heat it up and so on. And of course then new devices started springing up to really take advantage of those kind of like novel domestic flows.

So you started to see washers and dryers and vacuum cleaners and fridges and freezers and all the kind of things that we're more familiar with today. So this is a period [00:13:00] that's really interesting to look back on. Precisely because there is so much ambition that we can see in terms of thinking about the house and thinking about the home and what it could or should be, and thinking about the work that takes place in that setting.

Because at that point in time, just as these sort of, people were watching these urban infrastructures emerging, watching these houses being webbed together, the home became this real focal point for collective socio technical imagination.

And so it's really interesting to look back now from a very different vantage point to see how the home was this territory of contestation.

And it was very overtly a territory of politics, feminist and otherwise.

Kerry: otherwise. That's so fascinating. And I liked the word that you use, which is ambition, which is that there was this meaningful ambition around transforming the home space. So what happened to that ambition? Cause it sounds like you also think that's something that got left behind.

Helen: Oh, yeah. 100%. In the 1970s and the 1980s, there were a number of researchers most, most [00:14:00] notably Ruth Schwartz Cohen, who started to look at the amount of time that women were spending doing unpaid work in the home. And they wanted to compare where they were in the 70s and 80s to pre- industrial periods.

I think, okay how far have we come? This will be interesting. And, given the rise of washers and dryers and vacuum cleaners, given the rise of indoor plumbing and all of that. Many of these researchers understandably assumed that what they were going to see was that the amount of housework had gone down quite significantly.

More domestic labor saving technology should mean less domestic labor, right? And yet, when researchers actually looked at the data, they realized that just wasn't the case. A housewife at the time was working just as much as they, as a housewife was doing in the 1900s. And quite interestingly, it doesn't feel like and the data suggests that things haven't got much better since then either.

So even to this day, we can trace changes that have happened in terms of the organization of housework. There have been changes in the [00:15:00] sort of work we do at home. We spend a lot less time cooking, but we spend a lot more time doing active childcare and that kind of thing. But the average adult still does the same amount of housework as they did a century ago.

Labor saving technology just hasn't fulfilled its promise in terms of saving labor.

Kerry: That's so interesting. And I think there's again, really interesting parallels now to the kinds of promises were being sold in relation to AI and automation, the sense of oh, this is going to free up so much of people's work time, for example, to not write very boring emails. They can outsource that to say, chat GPT, and they can spend all their time I know creating art for corporations or whatever is sold in this.

And I think this is a really important counterpoint, which is saying that, okay, even if we ignore all the other kinds of social, political, economic, ecological costs that come with that, is this even going to save people work or is it just going to create more forms of work or different kinds of work, including really undesirable, poorly paid, poorly compensated work like [00:16:00] data annotation?

Helen: Yeah,

I think that's a really interesting point. And I think maybe if one we can come to in more detail if our conversation comes around to the smart home in, in due course, because I think, that is exactly the kind of question that we need to be asking.

And I think what it's interesting, because. This moment of ambition and opportunity that was associated with the home kind of does mirror the situation with AI simply because it was this, it, why people were so interested in it is because they were seeing it unfurl in front of them, right? They were seeing these changes happening.

It didn't feel like there was a predetermined course for what the the techno house should look like. And it's and then they were gradually seeing these opportunities start to start to fall off as a more rigid version of the home came to assert itself. I guess when we think about this question of why labor saving technology didn't save labor in the case of housework, part of that, part of the answer to that is about the individualization of work.

So new technologies enabled individual women to take up some [00:17:00] of this housework. So what was once maybe a more collective endeavor around things like laundry became increasingly concentrated on the single figure of the housewife. And another part of the answer, I think, is that domestic technologies often create new tasks even as they seem to be as they seem to be automating others.

And we can see that in all kinds of ways. But one of the reasons that we really foreground in the books, we've got a chapter on this, is on standards, so rising domestic standards. These are these some kind of increasing expectations around the work that's being done in the home. So just as these new domestic technologies were taking off, just as they were being introduced, standards were really ratcheting up.

And this was informed by new scientific discourses around things like hygiene and around things like nutrition and that kind of thing. And with something like laundry, the introduction of the domestic washing machine meant that the burden of doing a single load of Washing obviously decreased dramatically. 'cause this is a really hard physical task, and gradually, okay we're not [00:18:00] reliant on doing that heavy labor all the time anymore. But what that enabled was people to do laundry more frequently. So by the 1960s, most American families were washing clothes a few times a week. And in the book we, we quote one historian, I think it's Susan Strasser, who says that laundry went from being a weekly nightmare to an unending task.

So if the popularization of the washing machine ultimately resulted in more laundry work, I think that, can we really think of it as a domestic labor saving device? I'm not sure that we can. So I think overall really with that, there's like a pretty complex story to be told around things like standards and norms and how they differ in terms of regional culture.

The role of expert knowledge, class biases advertiser budgets and so on. All of these things that kind of shape expectations. But broadly speaking, the trajectory of rising standards has held for decades now. [00:19:00] And this has really offset a lot of potential labor saving gains within the home.

Kerry: Yeah, and I think why that's such an important point to raise is because, I don't think that many of us think any of these technologies are inherently bad or again, to me on this podcast, right? We ask what is good technology? Is it possible? We sometimes ask people to give examples. So for me, I think I was just saying to you before we started the rice cooker, I think is one of those technologies that hit its peak very early and continues to be fantastic. But there are all these different kinds of ramifications and knock on effects that manifest in different racialized classed, engendered ways, and. This is, a particular aspect that I think's really interesting is like you said, almost how technologies have allowed certain aspects of the home to professionalize in some way so becoming your own sort of private laundromat and but I was also struck by this in relation to medical technology which you flag which is on the one hand you know it's incredible that there were these life saving developments in home kind of medical technologies, so things like catheters, morphine drips, hemodialysis [00:20:00] that allow people then to manage really debilitating health conditions at home.

But on the other hand, that also creates its own kind of work or that's work that I assumed would have been done previously by medical professionals. So yeah, what does it mean when these kinds of different professionalized spaces move into the home?

Helen: Yeah, I think that's really important because healthcare is a major industry, of course. So it might come as a little surprise to see more in the way of investments and maybe innovation there. But of course the priority hasn't really been reducing work or enhancing collective freedom, predictably enough. These kinds of things, the kind of things that you mentioned then they're noteworthy, not because they are in themselves new, of course, because they've all been around for a good long time now, in the basic form. But what's interesting is the ways in which they're now being used to shift where work is performed.

Most notably for our purposes, they've brought medical care back into the home. So in previous eras, it was much more common for family members of the household [00:21:00] to deliver medical care at home, but those kinds of days have passed and now we're starting to see things changing once again.

So technologies of home care have become vastly more sophisticated because these are devices that were originally intended for hospital use. And they've been adapted for home uses. We very often see that in the case of technology in the home, they were designed for somewhere else and the assumption is well, we'll just map it into the domestic space and it'll, it will work fine.

And no problems there, but why has this happened? First of all, because hospitals as we are, I think, largely aware, Are very keen to discharge people as soon as possible. They wanna get patients out of the door to reduce costs, and patients themselves are often really keen to get home to their own bed and their own routine and their own food and all that kind of thing.

So there are clear incentives coming from from both sides of that that dynamic. Dedicated healthcare settings, like hospitals, like treatment centres, are set up for the performance of medical work. That is their whole point. That's why they exist, [00:22:00] that's what they're for.

Domestic residences very much are not. So they are messy, they are lively, they are disorderly, they sometimes have small people running around in them, sometimes they will have dogs and cats and budgies and all kinds of things that can cause mischief and generate problems. Homes themselves.

Then have to be wrangled into appropriate spaces for healthcare. They need to be turned into these sterile clinical environments in order to make sure that these technologies that are reentering the home can actually be used safely. And of course this risk of accidents, the risk of mishaps, of mistakes, of technical malfunctions, that creates a real sense of unease, of anxiety for unpaid carers, because it's a pretty, it's a pretty huge responsibility.

Family members or close friends are increasingly taking on tasks that would once have been performed by professional nurses. So things like tube feeding, things like injections, [00:23:00] things like changing catheters or monitoring blood pressure or tending to wounds, all of that kind of thing. And these are tasks for which they've often only been given very cursory training and from which they sometimes have precious little respite as well.

So far from reducing work then, these kinds of home care technologies are actually increasing overall workload because they're reducing productivity and they're making this work the responsibility of unpaid carers.

Kerry: Yes, and I think that's, again, really important, really fascinating, because, these technologies themselves, again, have an incredibly important function, but at the same time I can also imagine, not only is it increasing the workload in terms of looking after the technologies, making sure they function, but it's also, I assume, probably quite routine, quite arduous work, it might be work that is not necessarily particularly stimulating, it might be very frustrating.

And so I think it lends itself again to that question of what kinds of work as well

Helen: It's also work where you have to sometimes subject the people that you love to [00:24:00] pain.

My personal experience of this is I've had three, three C sections. So gave birth drug by C section three times. And as part of that, afterwards, they give you like a 10 day supply of anticoagulants in these really huge, like preloaded needles. My partner had to jab me with those once a day for ten days, and I loathed it with such a passion, and I was such a fucking baby about it I really made his life hell every time he had to do it, and I bruise really easily, so I'd be going round afterwards going 'Oh!' And it's actually, it's lodged in my mind more than many other Physical kinds of discomfort around birth was this, the part that was administered at home by my partner has really is really embedded as a horrible, particularly horrible moment of what is a particularly horrible process anyway, of, getting a human being out of your body.

And he had to put up with that. So that was part of his pressure, his responsibility was having to deal with me being difficult and in pain and trying to be stoic, through all that. So for people who have to do that beyond 10 days, for people who have to do it for reasons somewhat less charming than having had a [00:25:00] baby, like it's really stressful, arduous.

Unpleasant work that gets overlooked in terms of what's required of these unpaid carers who are increasingly having to be these techno- literate deliveries of healthcare in their own homes.

Kerry: Yes. I'm assuming unless your husband like is a healthcare professional, like that, maybe injecting someone, like certainly as someone who doesn't come from a healthcare background, I would be very scared to, inject my husband with something for days. I'm sure he would also be rightfully quite scared if I was coming at him with a needle, but it's a big ask for people as well.

And again, speaking to what kinds of skills do we have to develop an order to use these new technologies that are weirdly becoming domesticated. So I think about this a lot in relation to the idea of the smart home which I find really, again, fascinating. Cause I think when there was this expansion in smart home technologies that was tracing maybe five years ago or so I was struggling to understand the appeal of these technologies in a lot of ways.

And I could see in many ways how they could be incredibly important. So particularly say like I have [00:26:00] family members who are mobility impaired or disabled, and so things like not having to get up again to Turn a light on or off, like that's really valuable for them. But for the kind of average consumer that these tools seem to be marketed towards, which seem to be more people, say like my husband, like mid thirties. White guy, fully mobile, but was very much sold under this imaginary of like you can have the super techie home I was really struggling to understand like why people would want this and so, Basically, I want to know am I wrong with that extreme cynicism like what is it about the smart home?

That is so appealing. Do you think and do you think that appeal is justified or valid?

Helen: I think we're pretty much on the same page with this. Cause I think where people's minds go when you start talking about a lack of domestic innovation, when you start saying, okay we haven't really, we haven't really saved much labor in terms of housework.

We seem to be stuck, we seem to have stagnated in terms of technical development in the home. People think, okay surely the high tech future home is- it's just around the corner, right? Surely that we have the [00:27:00] smart home as a stepping stone to a fully automated home, Jetson style fantasy.

Unfortunately though I agree with you that the hype just doesn't cash out too much, the smart home is really just the name that we give to a constellation of technologies networked together within individual households. And in themselves just as we were talking about with health care tech, these things aren't necessarily new.

They're not radically different from what has been around before. They're, they are in the smart home. You've got your freezers and your coffee pots and your kettles and your electric toothbrushes and all of this stuff. And they, these things have been around in their dumb form now for years and years.

But what's novel about them is this idea of their integration. It's the smart home serves this managerial function in relation to the various smart devices that it contains. So it gives us an overview of these technologies, and it combines with digital and voice control systems to help us coordinate and control these different parts.

So I think it's important to note, there are kind of [00:28:00] two broad points I'd want to make. One, the kinds of things that the smart home can do aren't always that helpful. Or rather, the smart home kind of creates the problems that it purports to solve. So consumers have hardly been crying out for voice controlled fairy lights.or remote controlled kettles. Or the ability to change the temperature of while you're away from home with your app or whatever. These things are not an answer to most people's domestic woes. Rather what they are is that they're the kinds of tasks that that the smart home can do, so we as consumers are presented with these things as if they're the kind of things that we should want. In the book we've got this great quote from Judy Wajcman about newly affordable electric motors in the 20th century, about how sort of manufacturers started using these motors in all kinds of things simply because they could.

As she puts it, the drive to motorize all household tasks, including brushing teeth, squeezing lemons, and carving meat, [00:29:00] was less a response to need than a reflection of the economic and technical capacity for making motors. And today I think we're witnessing a similar dynamic with smart devices.

We have the economic and technical capacity for collecting data and for producing computer chips. So let's make everything smart and we'll just see what happens. So companies are really throwing these innumerable smart devices at the wall in the hopes that some of them might stick. And of course, I think you're right that things like a digital assistant with voice based interfaces are not entirely pointless.

If you're blind or partially sighted, or if you constantly losing your glasses or these things can be a really big help. And at the same time, with three small children under five, I know what it's like to have your hands full and want to be able to, just ask Alexa to do something for you, aren't be able to ask your nest to give you information.

So yeah, and also with people with muscle tremors and things like that, I think, it can be really helpful to be able to use voice rather than touch in certain [00:30:00] situations. But when it comes to really assessing their usefulness, I think it's pretty obvious, to me at least, what's missing from these visions of the smart home.

And that's really any labour saving ambition. It's not trying to save you a lot of manual housework. I think really what it's trying to do is tinker around the edge of convenience, which I think is a slightly different concept than than labour saving. Thank you. And worse than this, so this is the second thing that I want to note, is that the smart home actually generates new kinds of labor.

So there are lots of examples we could pull on here but one would be robot vacuum cleaners. So you know, these are one of the potentially more useful examples of smart home technologies because they do actually save us the effort of manually dragging the Hoover across the floor.

But they also require certain adjustments on our behalf, right? So anybody who's got a Roomba will know this, that our spaces have to be arranged in very particular ways. We have to keep our floors clear. We have to remove or [00:31:00] reposition any potential obstacles. We need to fence off corners in case your Roomba gets stuck.

And mine is constantly getting wedged underneath the toilet if we forget to close all the doors and you've got to, you've got to make sure all the staircases are blocked so it doesn't launch itself to its dramatic death. And and if you leave, if there is a small child's sock or toy that seems to have got somewhere where you haven't seen it, it will, the machine will suck it up and the machine will freak out.

So instead of putting machines in a At the service of our living arrangements, we're adjusting our living arrangements in response to the needs of machines. And, and there are lots of other kinds of devices that generate work without even those labor saving benefits.

So the smart home really demands constant attention. You need to update software, you need to get devices to sync, you workarounds when things start malfunctioning. You need to deal with endless notifications and all this kind of thing. So we're in this era of digital domesticity, [00:32:00] but it turns out that doesn't necessarily mean Jetson style full automation.

Actually, what it means is more and more high tech housework.

Kerry: I think it is so telling that we saw like the attention economy and the smart home rising up like twin stakes together, because you're right. It's so many of them are app based and to me it is about like phone dependence and look, and I look at my phone right here. I'm not trying to pretend I'm like really holier than thou and I'm not always looking at my phone.

I think, When it comes to smart home technologies, it is playing into that. And also I like this idea you brought up around what is actually a need and what is just creating more work because when they, for example, say Oh, you can have your coffee machine talk to your kettle.

I have never want to know what my coffee machine would be saying to my kettle. What is the point in that? And so I think it does become maybe that has like a meaningful function for people. But there are certain kinds of like home tech advancement that I think were really worth it.

I have to admit when I go to the U S to see my husband's family and have to boil the kettle on the stove, I'm like not about this life. I really like having [00:33:00] an electric kettle. I think it becomes really easy to say Oh what's the harm and, having your coffee machine to your, talk to your kettle, like nothing bad happens or what's the harm in having to ensure you don't have a little sock on the floor that your Roomba then eats.

But I think, a really important part of this is it's absolutely not risk free that when you bring in these technologies, like particularly smart home technologies. There are a range of other kinds of problems you introduce, and one unfortunately really well documented one is around privacy and security, both the use of these technologies in very surveillant ways, but also in being used for things like intimate partner abuse, to exercise control over domestic space but the other is that I worry when smart home tech is sold as care technology, it then starts being used in ways that undercut the already very poorly recognized, very poorly renumerated sphere of care labor.

And I remember talking to James Wright, who is a scholar of like care and robotics in Japan. And he was,

Helen: His book is amazing, phenomenal yeah.

Kerry: Yeah shout out. James is great. I was going to say, I don't know if James listens to this, but if he [00:34:00] does that's nice. Yes. But I remember he was telling me at one point a few years ago that I can't remember what local care system it was, what local council, but at one stage they were toying with the idea of bringing in Amazon Alexa into elderly homes as a replacement for in person care home visits. And that, to me, was just very concerning, partly because it wasn't clear to me that's what those folks wanted if they were asking for that, then you know, great.

Or if it was, like, an accompaniment, if they were saying we're going to give you Alexa and in person home visits, great. But it was, like, very clearly being Described as the council I think in that case saying like we're just struggling with horrific cuts and we don't have the funds or the personnel to be doing as many in person visits now as we would like to do.

So I don't know what happened to that project but I feel like to me like that feels like the really devastating underside of what on the surface can just seem like ...

Helen: yeah. I think I'd have to, I'd have to agree with you on that.

So much of this is about, who the user is [00:35:00] and particularly with things like eldercare, it's not always clear who the user is supposed to be. Is it the older person who wants these technologies, who's inviting these technologies. Or is it the family members who want to surveil that elder?

Sometimes that's benevolent surveillance. Often it's benevolent surveillance. So my mother has dementia, and my father cares for her. And she has been a credit leader, She's gotten lost a couple of times quite frequently. In the past couple of weeks, he's had three kind of things where he's gone AWOL, and she very often turns up in somebody's conservatory, but the most recent one, he fell into a ditch, and they had to get the police, and they had to get the K 9 unit out to find her.

So you know so in that case, one can completely see the benefit of things like pressure pads that indicate when somebody is getting out of bed, and things that monitor the home and things that track where people are going.

But when you have a less progressed case, and in my mother, I it's not a, it's not a steady decline, [00:36:00] it's back and forth because it's, I'm pretty sure it's dementia with Lewy bodies, although, which doesn't have this clear trajectory down. It's up and down. So the thought that she might be tracked by my dad not necessarily a comfortable idea, so who is the user? Who are we understanding as the person who has a stake in these technologies? Is it the older person themselves or is it the people around them who are, who were trying to look out for them and at what point did we draw these limits around the freedom of the individual who is being who is using or is being made subject to these technologies?

How much agency do they have over, over the implementation of these things?


This episode was made possible thanks to the generosity of Christina Gaw and the Mercator Foundation. It was produced by Eleanor Drage and Kerry McInerney and edited by Eleanor Drage.

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