Virginia Woolf used to recommend that every woman who writes should have “a room of her own.” I write a lot, and I’ve lived in palaces and in squats. But, to tell the truth, I’ve never lived in any place that felt entirely like my own home. We all struggle to feel happy and comfortably sheltered, but when are we ever entirely safe and protected in this changing world?
Sometimes we can lose an entire homeland, like my ex-Yugoslavia, or we might suddenly gain a home. I inherited my parents’apartment, and there I was with a place well-suited to elderly people from another generation. Baffling, nerve wrecking, heartbreaking! I had to clean the place of dead appliances, get rid of outdated personal rubble, empty the closets and attics of supposedly precious “stuff” that nobody needed or remembered.
Even in historic Italy, which is covered with UNESCO World Heritage centers, there is no storage big enough to keep history alive. Qualities like “personal” or “public” make no difference to the passage of time. Entropy requires no maintenance.
It’s painful when you choose to modernize, and having modernity forced on you is worse. As their heiress I did my best with my parents’ heritage, but the sorrow made me reckless. Burdened with emotion, I threw away things that should have been kept, by impulse or mistake.
Once it was done, I felt free. But who needs to be absolutely free? Free of what, free of life itself? An absolute and useless freedom is a philosophical starting point, but I can’t actually live inside a point, even as a seasoned world travel-writer who does well with a suitcase. A hotel room has often been my “room of my own,” and when it comes to gazing into the clouded future, this can be advantageous. Every era invents some basic new ways of meeting the evergreen human need for a home.
What would my own home look like if I started from scratch? What if I put aside the material culture of the past, and tried to use my own frank ideas to meet my own genuine needs? The banks would help me buy property, but only if they themselves can profit by transacting in real estate. The cities, provinces and nations all have rules and regulations about housing.
Who can help me to think and act about housing in a fresh way? My allies have to be other people who share my modern situation. I’m a woman who wants a home, yet I’m also a global nomad who lives and works on the Internet. I still need plumbing, electricity and heat, but it’s the flows of wireless information that seem to get always faster and more complicated.
I’m also the native of a city — Belgrade — where the economy and state collapsed in warfare in my lifetime. The citizens had to hack and re-make their material world: cars without petrol, faucets without water, flats without heating and shops without food. I even learned how to fix a glass light bulb, since, when the filaments broke, there were no new ones to buy! The knack for survival is a source of enlightenment sometimes.
It’s my own interest in re-making and hacking that made me a fan of Arduino. When I first saw an Arduino, it was in the electronic art scene. As a big Internet user involved in video, films and music, I had strong interests in new media art. With Arduino, though, Internet art was suddenly re-appearing as installations, devices, working objects I could pick up and touch.
Arduino appealed to my Belgrade can-do instincts, just as Arduino appeals to Indian and Chinese design and device hackers. There’s so much to learn and do — interactive arts, digital crafts, three-d printing, you can even make music with Arduino (I did). Open source luxury!
As a traveller with tech-art interests, I have seen a lot of “fab labs.” The Torino Fab Lab — a cradle of Arduino — appeals to me because it looks like Italian civilization, and not like some cold, grimy garage. Most Fab Labs are cold grimy garages (because that’s what open-source hackers can afford), and at first the same went for the Turinese one, which is situated inside a derelict car-factory warehouse.
That was before the people appeared in the Fablab, the intelligent brave geeks and geekettes, the best of the future Italy. Of course they had problems, but these were the problems that I myself actually shared. It’s the approach they have that is new: open source, transparent: shareable.
I learned all these categories. Even programming doesn’t bother me — I don’t think I’ll write a lot of code myself, but I’ve seen Arduino programs done by small kids.
Yes, it’s about the future, home life, and women. All women: travelers, housewives or artists… mothers or grandmothers. Home electronics may be in the mansions of the rich but they’ll also be in every suburb and every favela — wherever a woman carries a phone in her purse, the electronic home will also be there.
For the first time I realized that I need to participate. I need to be an activist about my own house and home. I can’t wait around for it to be sold to me for a bank loan, or distributed by some government apparatus. I will think about every detail/item in my daily life, even if I need to make it with my own hands and a three d printer. The household items sold to us women through mall stores or an Amazon are not there for our female benefit. Why should a well-equipped new kitchen cost 30,000 euros? Do we live there or are we just commercially exploited there?
I remember when my grandma first saw an electric vacuum cleaner. She didn’t need feminist training to exclaim from her heart: Wow! I can grow old without fear of dirt!
That’s why my Roomba robot is the first inhabitant of CasaJasmina. I know this device is not perfect — it’s not even “smart” or “intelligent.” It’s a set of algorithms connected to motors with actuators. I know that because that’s what Arduino is — it’s an actuator that connects algorithms to motors.
So the branding doesn’t impress me, and neither does the plastic shell. I’m impressed because it helps the health of me and my family. A device that moves on its own, collecting all the dirt of a polluted city. It even protects us from the natural pollen of spring allergies. I told the other feminists from my surrounding: now we women can grow old with household robots! We’ll keep out dignity and independence, we’ll give our adult children a break, we’ll defend ourselves from our careless governments!
The Roomba is not high-tech — it works because it’s ten years old! It works in the way that all domestic appliance companies used to work, before the Crisis. The Roomba is not open source, it’s certainly not cheap, it is only partially hackable, and it was designed and made for the rich early-adopter, never for the old and poor… It’s American technology because that’s what American technology looks like when it comes out of the labs of MIT and goes through the warehouses of Amazon. Is that the way the Turinese really want to live? No. And neither do I!
In Italy we need to intervene creatively, and not wait around passively for some kind of future fantascienza dystopia. CasaJasmina is not a science fiction utopia or dystopia, it is a home for a woman with a family and pets and houseplants, who is not afraid of technologies but who also wants her grandma’s cutlery in the drawers, a woman who wants real books, real art, some real, slow, genuine food and something comfortable to sleep on. Something also pretty!
Open source luxury! Lusso open-source. A life of civilized refinement, that’s what Torino has that Google, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon offer to nobody. No Google Googles, no Facebook spies, no NSA, no spies and lies about clouds that store our data in order to sell us as their products. Is that a kind of future home life that’s worth having? Well, why not try? What else are we doing, the brave geeks and geekettes? If we don’t know what we really want, we’ll just be sold whatever we are told to buy.
We will try and fail, and fail and try again. Small steps, big discoveries and a lot of fun and pleasure, I hope.