It was my idea to have an open-source connected home of the future. My scheme was accepted by brave new geeks, brilliant people, but mostly male. They gave the house, “Casa Jasmina,” my name: I am grateful for that, but the house is not altogether comfortable.
People are diverse and live in bubbles of limited human understanding. Men and women, poets, philosophers, musicians, architects, designers, engineers — we might try to classify them as idealists or realists — the people in cloud bubbles, or the people in ground bubbles.
Now, a project like Casa Jasmina — is it a hands-on, practical, maker’s project struggling up toward ideals, or is it a set of ideals searching for grounded realities that might prove that high concepts are possible?
Is it a house for the cloud-bubble people, those who invent their own cloud-world before crashing into the ground (or at least landing on it, now and then, to pick up supplies)? Or is a grounded launch-pad for aspiration, where the ground-bubble people assemble tools to reach for the sky?
How can a dream bubble become a real house? How can a “cloud” be a “platform”? Does your grandmother’s beloved chandelier have a role in a space station? What objects belong — not in the world as it is, but in the world as it should be?
When designers think “out of the box,” what box do they unconsciously imagine: an antique carved wooden dowry chest, or some translucent tinted minimal plastic box? We all have our bubbles and boxes, but how is a woman’s box that of a woman?
The “Internet of Things” is a platform cloud that is also a conceptual box. That is its nature as “the IoT”: it is a digital platform for software, it is wireless, computational and data-centered, and it is also a paradigm.
This is why, as I explored a kind of third road between feminism and design, an “Internet of Women Things” occurred to me. Could this “IoWT” become a generous place for conceptual projects, ideas and advice, for a sense of emotional beauty and purposeful living? Concepts like these are not often the first impulses for a technology project, but they generally last the longest.
The IoWT is something I saw in the fog, as a “cloud” that is also on the ground. The IoWT might even be an “underground” cloud in some way, of not just airy ideals but of suppressed female energies.
An Internet of Things cannot be merely by and for web technologists, for it embraces-and-extends not just “Things” but also us women, as well as children, or animals or plants, or robots… Right now, my strong belief is that “the IoT” is dangerously outside of women’s world-views. The IoT is so alienating, and so narrowly obsessed with today’s technical and economic needs, that it might well fail altogether. It would be a shame if its profound potential was lost for a generation, in a heap of failed, too-ambitious toys, as happened to similar tech visions such as Virtual Reality and Artificial Intelligence.
Women as much as men are responsible for technology, and we were major participants in the internet revolution, for good and ill. Women can’t be excluded from modernity by mentioning our chromosomes.
Even when the Internet of Things is under critical attack — for some just and excellent reasons — we should not allow abuses, crimes and accidents to create the rules. “Things” have always been troublesome, while the frontier “Internet” of the twentieth century is also showing its ugly side in seamy business practices, cyberwar and acts of repression.
Well, women know how to survive, and — at least I think so — even how to prevail. I have seen women dealing with wars, humanitarian crises, political and economic disasters. I personally outlived the Atomic Age and the Space Age, so digital fads and fashions don’t alarm me. The Internet of Things, that box, that cloud, that platform, is not beyond my comprehension. On the contrary, I have my hands on it, and I even have something like principles to offer.
And here are some…
1. Critical thinking
Since women are living actively in a men’ s world, a critical rethinking of the things already existing is necessary for upgrading the IoT, into the IoWT. Whenever people collide with tools engineered for the high-tech commercial ambitions of young white male 4 entrepreneurs of Silicon Valley, the results are often clumsy, ugly, tragic or farcical.
Women should not mistake design flaws for gender problems. Women will always be scolded as “bad drivers” if they have to drive oversized and overpowered tanks and tractors, and a similar unfairness and unfitness is baked into legions of historical objects and services, which are just not women-friendly. The devil is in the details, but critical awareness of the devil’s work is a feat that only the best of the devils can achieve.
2. Positive inclusion
The Internet of Things is the project of a technical elite that aspires to universality, so it needs to bring in a much wider variety of people, as participants not just clients. Women must be present and visible, but recent history already shows the very mixed political and social effects of the Internet on language groups, nationalities, ethnicities, regions and peoples.
The world of this decade throngs with frightened refugees, who have Internet but scarcely any “things” left to them. Refugees need bread and shelter first, but these primal needs, which any of us might have after a flood or earthquake, never seems to be any priority for those designing profitable IoT futures of closed-source tech ecosystems and marketing surveillance.
On the contrary, much IoT work is intently focussed on security, hostile exclusion, and physically and mentally-gated communities and buildings — structures and systems designed keep the unwanted, the alien, the dispossessed and the disconnected well outside the IoT barriers.
Human beings need more than roof and bread, points and clicks, to keep us alive and kicking. Where are the positive, inclusive forms of IoT that would keep a screaming two-year-old girl and her mother out of trouble on a broken road? The women who are really “outside the box” are the ones whose boxes have been bombed. How will their voices be heard, how can their visions be recognized?
3. Positive seclusion
IoWT needs a free space for women to meet and teach each other. Women cannot learn all they need to know about their own interests inside technical classrooms where the rules of a male world are long dominant.
When women gather in a space without male oversight, they have a coming-out. The rules change, their behavior changes; women find themselves in a different aesthetic, a moral code that subsumes centuries of female survival traditions, of providing food, cooking, clothing children, fighting sickness, keeping homes from decay and destruction. Much of this is conveyed in quips, jokes and homilies rather than rulebooks and algorithms; very often it is double-talk, since the sociality of the women-to women-world is not politically correct, or even necessarily good.
There are no parliaments reserved for encounters of women. They are gatherings that are un-historical, in a word. Whenever we read historical archives of state affairs and policy, we generally know that it describes and defines whatever was not done by women. But we don’t have records of what women did!
Even creative women professionals, when known as professionals, are generally known for their association with men of the same profession. Our historical predecessors are generally daughters, wives or mothers of some famous guy, touched by celebrity in passing because they are known for joint work. But those stories are not a female history of feminine creativity, it is a kind of spacey conceptual void where women are forever the pioneers, always unexpected interlopers in the world’s official doings, a dissident, often a witch.
These categories vanish when women are alone in the room, though. I’ve witnessed the strength and allure of this, within myself and with other women in small groups where I have been active, sometimes even active against my own will. Groups like the “Mothers of Srebrenica,” the survivors of a genocide who created an alternative women’ s court. Women raped in war in ex-Yugoslavia with their brave testimonies made rape in war into an international war crime, instead of what rapes had always been in the war histories, a footnote at best, a “natural consequence”, certainly known and feared by all women in war, ignored by law and men.
The Internet of Things has many issues affecting women that are never made explicit — some may be grim, but others may be marvelous. Ethics are aesthetics, the content is the form, so “positive seclusion” is not just an experiment, it has good results.
4. Politics and Policy
Women, who are the majority gender, are the world’s biggest oppressed group. They have experienced many and various systems of oppression, and they know that the Internet of Things could simply be another one.
Women on the Internet have long experience in stalking, prying, spying, doxxing, organized harassment and other invasions of privacy by technical means. They’re keenly aware of the insecurity of those who speak out or act up in public digital spaces, so privacy and safety are basic IoWT issues, not just as hardware functionalities, but as rights in themselves: women human rights.
The Internet of Things is advancing in a political era that includes Edward Snowden, Chinese persistent threat hackers, offshore bank leaks, terrorist militias, intelligence services and the titanic surveillance-marketing empires of Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Microsoft. So when we talk about “connected things” in the IoT, it necessarily means connecting things to these existing entities, and not just some ideal and abstract IoT “cloud.”
Women are subjected to some forms of surveillance because they are women, for instance, at the door of the abortion clinic, or for daring to go un-veiled. They have to fight for the control of their own bodies: our bodies ourselves. For a female celebrity, even a new hairstyle or choice of lipstick can provoke a viral uproar, a situation now increasingly prevalent as any tiny detail in some selfie can become part of a permanent database.
Orwell has already warned us about debasing public language and spiralling into a degraded dystopia. Totalitarianism is living memory, and we’re all paranoiacally aware of how bad things can possibly get. The wringing of hands is not enough. How can the Internet of Things actually improve the private lives of women, and make them more secure in their lived experience as women, rather than less so?
5. Just do it
Some times call for audacity and daring. Women haven’t always lived by the precautionary principle; otherwise there would be no birth-control pill.
In times of tumult, the last may be first. My mother was a teenaged anti-fascist partisan in Axis-invaded Yugoslavia. She used to boast that women in wartime were not delicate sissies, but revolutionary warriors first. Why, she used to argue, should a woman shoot herself in the leg with diffidence and self-doubt, when Nazis are actively trying to kill her? Sure, you as a woman combatant might be crippled in the line of fire, but the enemy might well miss. And the liberation won’t come by itself.
Women don’t emerge from the womb demanding liberation. They become feminists after experiencing frustration and discrimination. A woman doesn’t have to borrow trouble to find plenty of it, but the same goes for opportunity.
We do in fact live in a technical age, where most women are no longer confined to farmsteads, kitchens, churches and endless pregnancies. Technology and women’s emancipation are not identical things, but they are not in binary opposition, either. Because technology and contraception made 20th century revolutionary for women’ s emancipation. Physical strength no longer determined the division of roles and women’s “natural state” was no longer to be a pregnant all her now expanded lifetime.
The Internet of Things has the general flavor of the current Internet major companies and power-players, but the older spirit of the older Internet is not forgotten. The roots of the IoT are as old as electrical networks and telephone networks, where women were always users and participants. Female telephone operators are obsolete now, but there used to be armies of them.
The Internet of Things will also pass some day. New cultural spaces can never exactly reproduce the old discriminations; when you step outside the box you may build another one, but it’s never the same old box.
Why not meet in small groups and boldly build a thousand small boxes, and see what happens? An attractive approach!
6. Design Fiction
We can imagine things we can’t yet do. There is certainly no world peace, for instance, but women create and lead pacifist movements, and are first to clear the rubble whenever the war ends. They don’t do that with male rule-book style of abstract efficiency, but men often save their own bacon by listening and following women.
Gender equality and universal justice are also fantasies, but so is an efficient Internet and a perfectly designed and functional Thing. Every engineer knows the “AM/FM” distinction of “Actual Machines” as opposed to “Fantastic Magic,” so this should give women some poetic license for technological dreams.
So, why not invent speculative, conceptual objects from a woman’ s point of view? Envision and describe things and connections that have never existed before. They may be awkward or pretty, useful or useless, a luxury that becomes a necessity — or vice versa.
Design fiction, ‘fantasia al potere,’ suspends disbelief and makes the implausible more possible. Even traditional artists and artisans can refresh their work by imagining new roles for their work in conjectural worlds.
My favorite form of “design fiction” is not imagining entirely new things — very few real things lack precursors — but in redesigning objects from the heritage we already have. I love old things from our past, because I am sensitive to their emotional and aesthetic value outside today’s store shelves and webpages.
“Things” are just things, especially when they are too many, too old, broken, a useless burden, obsolete, dangerous, dysfunctional, and expensive. But those who know and love their things should have a power to redeem them.
A “lamp” is a thing for an electric power network, but it is also your grandma’s lamp which she used when breastfeeding your mom. Your grandfather’s wall clock is an accurate gravity-powered machine, but is also the presence in the household that played a melody for every fifteen minutes of your father’s childhood.
Find it in your attic, and repurpose it with a little help from your friendly geeks. Women do think differently, and whenever the technology box breaks and cracks a little, it leaks fairy tales of magic wands, self-driving pumpkin coaches and crystalline wearable shoes. Why sweep the cinders, why wait for some remote prince of technology to put that device on your dainty foot?
Workshops of design fiction can make a woman’s point of view explicit: why be patient at the dirty hearth instead of finding love and conquering a kingdom . It is an act of joy and hope to improve one’s dreams.
The atomic bomb was a fairy-tale creation — a monster, “Death, the Destroyer of Worlds” — but although we suffer from realities of our own invention, we also dream. “Technology is neutral,” so they say, as though technology were separate from our imaginings of it, and our mental models for it, our clouds and our boxes. But technology never is neutral, because, unlike nature, technology arises from dream-stuff, and there are no neutral dreams.
A house is a habitat, a home, a small world, an element of the social cosmos, a nursery and an asylum. A house is primarily the refuge of women with small children, and of the elderly. They who make the most use of a house, and who are most in need of housing, should have roles in creating and maintaining it.
Home technology, home domotica, should expand the agency of people dwelling in the home, rather than removing their creative power in the name of convenience or profit. The elderly are a steadily growing proportion of world civilization, a trend that shows no sign of declining, while the poor, as usual, are everywhere — or, at least, the poor are everywhere they are allowed to go. Children, the world’s new great minority, are fewer in number, alienated from adult sources of power, and even abused by unloving and abstract command-and-control systems.
Those are the needy people for IoWT: we must seek to protect their dignity and capability, empower them, and give them stakes in their growth to adulthood and their prolonged life. The economic crisis has endangered old models of real estate and housing, and the weakest members of society, who once had some obscure niches for survival, now see those places comprehensively commoditized and globalized.
We should not passively allow extremist economic models to instantly crush the character of neighborhoods and cities. This is an alienating process and a transition to nowhere, while the evolution of cities should be toward their deeper humanization and quality of life. Cultural strength and differences will determine the future survival of cities, not abstract electronic vectors of money and power, which spasmodically come and go.
Cities differ radically all over the globe, and standard electronic data protocols will not make the world flat. The way an Italian makes his own coffee is a sacred rite that should be enhanced rather than engineered away, and one should respect and cherish its differences from the way a Briton makes his tea. The way a Serb makes his bread with her own hands conveys a pride that a desktop bread-baking machine cannot grant to her.
Home automation is decades old and has failed many times, enough to fill a science-fiction museum with archaic streamlined pushbuttons. But lack of effort is not comfort, idleness is not wealth, and too many mouse-clicks, like too many butlers, can rob life of its intimacy and dignity. Networks and systems that connect in opaque ways, that camouflage digital decisions, can crash and burn in spectacular fashion; a thousand invisible computers can fail in tangled, thorny ways that a single one never will. When each thing chaotically hooks to a hundred others, what becomes of accountability? If we build human-free systems without an off-switch or an undo button, how will we stop when we err, how will we express regrets and make amends? If we hide from our own needs and desires in tangles of software, how will we even know that we have prevailed?
And now I have a last question, an open question, an eternal question, a no single answer question, to my CasaJasmina brainstorming.
Do you feel this gender divide as I do? I don’t lack for help from the capable male “Jasmini” but I need women to come to live with me, to talk with me. Thank you!
Jasmina Tesanovic in CasaJasmina
Torino April 2016