December 02, 2008

I suppose that last post may have slightly distorted the picture. A few trends are driven by the workplace, though fewer than we might think -- and surprisingly few by the demands of efficiency or profit. Remember the paperless promise of the computer?

For the most part, Matthias Horx has a better sense of trends than most because he has a keen understanding of his own generation and environment, and also because he is less invested in ideology and marketing than most. For example, he has named the intelligent refrigerator exactly for what it is: an attempt by young, single men to simulate an automated housewife, an electronic counterpart to the Stepford Wife fantasy. The part he does not say is that the intelligent refrigerator is also desirable to consumption-driven food industries, because utter reliance on such a technology would create an utterly predictable level of consumption uninfluenced by cost or shelf location. Gone would be any attempt to try to stretch a dollar just a little further through sale and coupon.

(And when have we ever adopted a technology without the impulse to lean on it, at first just a little and then a little more, until we can't imagine how to do without it? So focused are we on filling time, killing time, beating the boring Sunday afternoon to death with a stick while ourselves seeking immortality. Comes the electricity blackout: and left to our own solitary devices, what on earth are we still capable of possibly doing with ourselves?)

On a curious related note, in his book The Myth of Male Power Warren Farrell, the father of the masculinist movement, notes that women who are heads of households have a net worth 141% that of men who are the heads of households (in the United States at the time of writing, 1993). To explain this discrepancy he identifies various social spending-related obligations and sounds his perpetual divorce/male poverty note: but touches not at all the studies which analyse women's spending patterns. In much the same way as all the woman driver jokes mask the statistics which reinforce again and again that kilometre for kilometre, women tend to be safer drivers than men, the perpetual woman spender jokes mask the statistics which show that women tend to be much more careful spenders than men. Although women control most consumer spending, the only major one where they do not is also one of the most expensive for consumers and lucrative for developers, with one of the steepest existing technology curves: the entertainment sector.

(Just imagine for a moment if all the energy and innovation that went into cutting edge entertainment would be shifted into fields such as disease control.)

The classic features of the automated house also hint at some disturbing social trends. Horx has placed his finger on the pulse of the refrigerator. While he also notes that people do not want to be greeted the moment they step in the door by a list of all their waiting messages, the word he omits is ... "yet". The time may be yet coming when waiting messages may be seen as no different as having "friends" on Facebook: a mark of popularity, to be answered or not solely as the popular one pleases. Be it active shunning or casual exclusion, existing without popular support on the fringes of the in-circles may take on an entirely different meaning in a world where even one's own living structure reinforces the message of acceptance or rejection.

Of course, a truly automated house would also include fully automated self-cleaning: leaving it standing pristine, ready for the next tenant.

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