From the telephone to CES: The long history of the smart home

"There is no point at which you can say 'I have now the perfect home'. It's a never-ending task."
In her new book, Smarter Homes: How Technology Will Change Your Home Life, Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino explores the history of the smart home from Victorian times to today. (Pixabay)

This year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas featured loads of smart appliances and gadgets. Reports from the annual expo of hyped, new technologies highlighted everything from smart ovens that sync with your calendar, to a smart toilet that responds to voice commands, and promises a "fully- immersive experience". (A fully immersive toilet may be a tough sell).

Many of the new generation of smart devices are driven by integration with voice-operated smart speakers, such as Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant.

Consumers do seem to have an appetite for smart speakers. According to the Consumer Technology Association, somewhere around 37 million smart speakers are expected to be sold in the U.S. this year.

Whether consumers will jump in with both feet and buy multiple smart appliances, kitting out their own smart homes, is more of an open question.


For Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino, our current era of internet-connected home appliances is just the latest stage in a long period of marketing new technologies for the home that promise to make running a household 'smarter' and more efficient, with less drudgery.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino (Tom Coates)

Deschamps-Sonsino is the author of Smarter Homes: How Technology Will Change Your Home Life. She's also a Canadian Internet of Things consultant based in London, U.K.

She spoke to Spark host, Nora Young.

YOUNG: What role did the arrival of communications and entertainment technology—things like phones and radios and TVs—have on the shape of the home, and the ideology of the home?

DESCHAMPS-SONSINO: I think they are responsible for a degree of shutting ourselves away from the rest of the world. When you live in a home that doesn't really have any communication technologies, it means that to understand what's happening in your neighbourhood, you have to leave the house. You have to go buy a newspaper, you have to go to the local tavern or local church to just see what's going on. 

You also don't know who's going to come and visit you, so your door is sort of semi-open all the time. With the telephone, you can tell when someone will be coming by. You can also tell them not to come by. So you can close yourself off, and close the living room to the outside world. And so it really helps you isolate yourself from what's happening immediately around you. And I think that that's still true today. It's really had a huge impact on how we build communities and how we build politics even.

You make the point just in the physical layout of the home, that the coming of TV means that the positioning of the furniture changes too. So it stops being about facing the person that's opposite you and starts being about both people facing the television set.

And not only that but you also get central heating, which means that you can face the television set because you don't have to face the fireplace.

Everybody comes out of the Second World War kind of wanting great news and great images about the future- Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

I think for a lot of us, when we think about that idea of the futuristic dream home with all the modern conveniences, we equate that with the '50s and the '60s—the Atomic Age. How do we see the role of the home, and home technology, evolve in that period?

Everybody comes out of the Second World War kind of wanting great news and great images about the future, because there is rationing in Europe for quite a long time after the technical end of the war. So selling people a future where things are great is really paramount. But it is off the back of 10 to 20 years of development prior to that.

When you think about the way those appliances and technologies were marketed to people in the '50s and '60s, they often seemed to be about this idea of liberating people—and by people I mean women—from drudgery, and giving them exposure to all the modern conveniences.

We speak to women still today in the same language we spoke to them in the '50s. Homemaking has this really great convenience of never really being over. There is no point at which you can say 'I have now the perfect home'. It's a never-ending task, which means that in a post-war era, where companies that would have sold weapons and other military innovations need to keep selling things to people, you can just keep selling to a woman a modern day convenience. No matter how small the innovation is, no matter how pointless the innovation is, you can just keep going forever.

We're really very, very traditional when we think of home life.- Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

At one point you write that there is "a lack of imagination around the home space. That it's a reflection of the bias and preconceived ideas of what happens at home." Can you expand on that?

We're really very, very traditional when we think of home life. I think a woman's life in 2018 is absolutely not her grandmother's life. She doesn't have the same approach to family. Young women -- young Millennials -- now do a lot less cooking, know how to cook a lot less, are not necessarily interested by homemaking in the same way. But they're still marketed products that have a particular flavor to them. They have a particular set of assumptions about how that person might live. They also assume that that person will not be caring for an elderly parent, or might have a child with mental health issues, or might be a divorced household. None of these things exist in the way in which we design products still today.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.