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Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

The Evolution of Domesticity-From Labour-Saving to Life-Enhancing

Over the last three generations housework has changed from a full time job to an occasional chore. The 63 hours we used to spend each week on cleaning and washing is now just two hours per week for the average Brit.

These figures come from research conducted on behalf of LG Electronics for a campaign on the ‘Evolution of Domesticity’. As well as looking backwards the research looked to the future, asking people what technology they want to see in the home. I participated in the campaign, explaining to the media which of people’s desires were practical and which might remain science fiction.

For me those remaining hours of housework look pretty intractable. Barring the introduction of robot vacuum cleaners — number four on people’s wish list and something I think will be increasingly commonplace in the next few years — it is going to be hard to automate the remaining tasks. We will still need to load and unload the dishwasher and washing machine for example, however good those devices get.

Instead the next few years of evolution will be about reducing waste and improving quality of life in other ways.

Take for example the number item on the public’s wishlist: a fridge that can keep food fresh for longer. This sounds a little mundane but given that we waste around 20% of the food we buy, pretty sensible. Modern fridges have already advanced a long way, becoming quieter and lower maintenance; when did you last have to defrost a freezer compartment? But now companies like LG are adding features like vacuum compartments, minimising oxidisation and contaminants to enable foods to last even longer. Combine this with high efficiency pumps, more eco-friendly materials and improved insulation and you can see how new appliances can be shaped to save us money — and reduce environmental impact — in a number of ways.

In addition to this focus on efficiency, there will be one major addition to appliances in the next few years. Or more precisely three:

  • Awareness: Devices will be equipped with more and more sensors so that can collect information about their environment.
  • Intelligence: Devices will be increasingly smart so that they can make better decisions based on the data they collect.
  • Connectivity: Devices will be able to communicate with us and each other in a number of ways.

The classic example of these features is the ‘internet fridge’ — a bit of a running cliché in technology circles when discussing the home of the future, but one that has become a reality in other parts of the world.

Sensors tell the fridge about the food it contains. Intelligence allows it to track when things are due to run out or go off. And an internet connection allows it to order replacements, alert you or add things to your shopping list.

This type of aware, connected intelligence could help you to use up food before it goes off, or make sure you never again have that moment where you make a brew only to find the milk has turned lumpy.

Vint Cerf, one of the contributors to the creation of the internet, has estimated that it now costs less than one pound to put a connected computer into an appliance. Expect to see more smart, aware and connected devices in your home over the next 20 years.

Posted by Tom Cheesewright on

Is Social Media Good Or Bad?

Ah those wonderful binary choices born of radio phone-ins. I spent this morning defending social media following its shocking abuse in the Criado-Perez affair.

Is social media bad? Of course it isn’t. Normally I’d say something along the lines of “It’s technology. It has no agency. It can’t be inherently good or bad. It’s how it is used.” But I’m not sure that’s entirely true in this case.

For a start the platforms themselves may be all bits and bytes. But they are operated by companies that do most definitely have an agenda, encapsulated in everything from their user interface design to their usage policies. These policies for a long time led Facebook to justify removing images of breastfeeding while leaving untouched images of domestic abuse. Clearly while there is no agency in the technology, there is in the people behind it.

There are many examples of the powers of social media being abused, beyond the Criado-Perez threats. There is the daily trolling, the torrent of threats and abuse that regularly seem to arrive at the accounts of prominent women, and also the bullying that takes place on more closed social networks like Facebook. As a teenager being victimised there are few places to hide these days.

But you have to balance all of this against the good that social media does. And not all of this can be put down to people doing good using social media. Some of it is intrinsic in the technology’s very concept.

This comes down to democratised, disintermediated, decentralised, distributed publishing and communications. The ability to communicate with one person or many without limitations of cost, state or editorial control. These things are a fundamental part of the architecture of social media. There are weaknesses in this model — the lack of verification for example, or the power put into the hands of those wanting to abuse — but these for me are far outweighed by the good.

The power for communities, political and protest groups to self-organise faster, across greater geographies and without restrictions. The ability for people with shared niche interests to connect across the globe. The chance for families and friends distributed by the nature of our globalised world to stay in close contact. These things are almost immeasurably valuable and in 99% of cases are not abused.

Positive use of social media dramatically outweighs the negative. That’s why stories like the threats to Caroline Criado-Perez make the news. Change needs to happen to protect people in her position and prosecute the criminals abusing those threats. But we have to make sure that the great things about social media are protected when we make those changes.

Tom Cheesewright