City of the Future: Smart Cities, Gender and Privacy


It's not a Smart Home – Sarah Kember in front of her house; credit: Sarah Kember

My home is not only my castle, but my glass(le) – as part of our sub-­‐conference "Future City", Sarah Kember will expose the anachronistic gender stereotypes in advertisements for so-­‐called Smart Homes, in her talk about "Smart Cities, Gender and Privacy".

Smart phones, smart boards, smart homes... all these technologies are so very clever apparently – but what about us? We call these technologies smart because they are seemingly aware of our personal needs and demands. But our needs are identified using the data that we generate.

That makes us all test subjects in a wind tunnel headed for the future, where new realities are constantly being simulated and renegotiated. This applies to the future of the city as well: Smart Cities and Smart Homes and with them, the Internet of Things, are actually only meant to simplify our everyday lives and make them more efficient, by using all sorts of sensors to measure us and our environments, by constantly calibrating the exterior and the interior, the supplies and demands. 

They might just as well turn into a threatening control mechanism, though. This is how the writer and "urbanist" Adam Greenfield described the case in his readable diatribe "Against the Smart City", for example. In the tech corporations’ draft papers on the issue, there is but little to be seen of the city’s inhabitants and their actual needs. They are present as footnotes more or less, as consumers whose habits are monitored and commandeered by technical entities. These closed systems not only expose and sanction misconduct, such as lack of exercise or excessive consumption. But the tools and devices are also designed according to assumed, and sometimes observed, parameters and data from the users, imposing, and often insinuating, behavioural patterns from a template. This is also Sarah Kember’s perspective, whose research concerns representations of gender in objects and environments. As a professor at Goldsmith University London, she focuses on digital media, educational issues, and feminist approaches to science and technology studies. Kember is invested in the debate about artificial environments, and many other issues surrounding the convergence of biology and technology. Another aspect of her research is the "fusion" of science and literary fiction.

Sarah Kember has now analysed some of the household scenarios shown in promotional videos and advertising brochures for "Smart Homes", and found them surprisingly conservative – despite their ample use of futuristic materials like networked glass displays, for example. In the original Microsoft video for their future home prototype, "Janet" is in the kitchen, baking bread on her smart cooking platter, while her husband listens to music on his sophisticated hi-­‐fi system, with his feet on the living room table. So perhaps insisting on traditional roles and structures is a way of dispelling the fear of these sparkly new technologies. We will find out more on these matters, and on the relations between comfort and privacy in the information society in particular, from Sarah Kember in her re:publica report, and we’re looking forward to hear what she has to say.