John Gomes is already living in the future. An early adopter of the kind of advanced smart home technology that is a fantasy for most of us, Gomes had his new Tribeca apartment intelligently connected about six months ago. He still gets a thrill when he realizes how much he can accomplish by doing almost nothing at all.
When he wakes, he says to his Amazon digital assistant, “Alexa, master bedroom shades up,” and it is done. When he puts his head on his pillow at night, he says, “Alexa, home off,” and the shades come down, while lights all over the house turn off. When he wants music, he requests it from one of the six Echo Dots spread throughout his 2,700-square-foot home, and Alexa puts on “Chill,” the Apple Music radio station that he always wants to hear. And most importantly, the lights are precisely calibrated to the right warmth.
Like many smart home early adopters, Gomes has a thing he’s really into—a kind of technological cause—and his thing is lights. Finding the right light for one’s home is “super serious,” he says. “I truly believe in the future that more people will understand this.” So he worked with his interior designer to find a company that makes custom light bulbs, searched for just the right lamps and sconces, and then, with the help of his smart home integration service, tweaked and tweaked the lighting till it was the “perfect amber.” These days, Gomes is one of the leading brokers in Manhattan’s luxury real estate market, but the amber glow of his apartment reminds him of the days when he was a waiter at the French brasserie Balthazar, and the lighting was just right, and everyone looked that much more beautiful.
The lighting in Gomes’s home has different settings—daytime, evening, and entertaining—to suit different moods and light levels. In the winter, he goes into his Lutron lighting control and adjusts the settings to account for the weaker light coming through the windows. When Gomes, his husband, and their twin babies are away at their second home in Connecticut (where the light is set to a more orange cast, appropriate for a country setting) and guests are staying in their city apartment, Gomes wants to make sure they have the right experience. From afar, he sets the house to “evening” mode before they walk in from their dinner and a show.
“When they come back at 11, I want them to walk in and say, ‘Wow, it’s still perfect,’” he says. Sometimes, Gomes says, his domestic life seems positively Jetsonlike: “I feel like I’m getting more out of life because I’m living more efficiently.” (The perfection of Gomes’s well-lit home is only occasionally pierced when his husband walks into the kitchen and absentmindedly hits a wall switch, turning on the overhead bulbs, which are not calibrated to the warm glow of the under-the-counter lighting.)
Smart home cynics might claim “efficiency” is shorthand for “enabling laziness,” as if, in a not-too-far-off future, people will waste the time they previously devoted to manually adjusting the thermostat and raising the shades by eating ice cream while watching episodes of Real Housewives. But to leap to this conclusion is to miss a whole lot of context in the lives of people like John Gomes—people who already have more than enough to do; people who are never off; people for whom technology demands as much it gives. People who are now realizing, more than ever before, just how infinitely customizable their lives can be.
Gomes’s search for the ideal amber glow is part of a larger quest for a more optimal existence. He made sure no wires are visible (“They make me very nervous”), and a company called Sun Basket delivers meal kits twice a week, and Amazon delivers certain necessities automatically, like Cocofloss, this special dental floss he likes. He vividly recalls the bad old days when he used to have to deal with “all these annoying things like wires and grocery bags and having to touch all the lights.”
And not having to do all those things makes Gomes less anxious, which makes him happier, which in turn makes him more productive, which is important, because he works pretty much all the time, and he needs to maximize every moment. Because you do not sell multimillion-dollar houses in one of the most high-profile markets in the world by taking it easy or failing to sweat the details. Everything matters—everything—and technology makes the precise details easier to sweat with every passing day.
Anyone who thinks smart homes will allow us to become lazy isn’t paying attention.
In one sense, smart home technology is not new. As far back as the ’80s and ’90s, points out Matt Emmi of Brooklyn-based smart home integration service OneButton, DIY-ers were experimenting with home automation, and the wealthy were installing high-end home theater systems, remote-control dimmers, motorized shades, and so on. Brian Jones, the director of Georgia Tech’s Aware Home Research Initiative, says when his university’s experimental tech home was completed in 2000, it already boasted motion sensors to gather data for a futuristic experiment called “Digital Family Portrait,” meant to communicate information about an elderly parent’s well-being and daily activities to geographically distant family.
But Jones says it’s only in the last 10 years that we’ve seen the rapid maturation of the smart home market. And for many of us, it’s only in the last few years that it has seemed accessible, with the emergence of easy and fairly low-cost technologies—devices like the Nest thermostat, the Echo Dot, and Google Home.
I wanted to know what my house will look like in 10 or 20 years, so I talked to people who are already living with early versions of future technology. These people are all in: They have everything, and much of it is interconnected, from video cameras on their doorbells and motion sensors on their windows to water sensors in their bathrooms, intelligent lighting and thermostats, front door locks and sprinklers and speakers and televisions. These technologies are controlled by phone, a wall panel, or, increasingly, a person’s voice—typically through Amazon’s Alexa, which is being embedded in more and more objects.
I spent months talking to people across the country, in California, New York, New Jersey, Georgia, Texas, and Washington state. And what I found was that almost every early adopter has that one thing that drives him or her. Perhaps a slightly obsessive quality is what it takes to make people outfit their homes with technology that isn’t quite there yet. Unless you’re rich and have someone to do it for you—OneButton’s jobs typically range between $50,000 and $750,000—you can do a lot for several hundred bucks, but you’ll need a blessed amount of time, patience, and technological facility to do it yourself.
You’ll need stamina to spend weeks or months setting everything up. You might need to pause halfway through and get a Wi-Fi mesh to account for the dead spots around your home. You may wind up yelling at Alexa, who doesn’t understand what you’re saying because you’re from Philly and you roll your R’s. You might have to hire an electrician to install a smart wall switch to control certain lightbulbs. You might have to toggle between your iPhone, your Harmony remote, your Philips Hue switch, and your Echo to control things. You might have to spend time on the phone with customer service when your Alexa-enabled Sonos speaker inexplicably won’t play the ambient sound “Babbling Brook.” You might have to use the scripting system IFTTT to make your smoke detectors communicate with your irrigation system so that in case of a fire, the sprinklers can drench the lawn so it doesn’t spread—assuming fire prevention is your thing.
Because, as I said, early adopters tend to have a thing.
For some people, that thing is security. They have their front door and perimeter monitored for trespassers and anyone who might try to steal their packages. Some are into conserving resources, so they connect their hot water recycling pump to a sensor on the bathroom door; the pump starts up when the door is opened so by the time you get in the shower, the water is warm without having wasted any energy by running it. Some, after experiencing a terrible house flood, live in fear of another; Leslie Fisher, a West Coast educational tech consultant who travels often, told me she set up her water sensors to send her a text plus turn her downstairs lights red if they sense moisture. (The neighbors know that if they see red, they’re supposed to cut off her outdoor water line. There’s still a role for humans in this brave new future.)
Some adopters are into the notion of saving time—cutting down on all extraneous domestic labor so their hours outside work are maximized. “It’s all about optimizing time with my daughter—and sleep,” Sharbani Roy, a senior manager on Amazon’s smart home team, told me. “It’s about scaling yourself.” So Roy can check to see who’s at the door through the door’s video camera, and inform the delivery guy, through two-way voice, to just leave the package right there. She has Alexa connected to the Roomba, so they can play peek-a-boo instead of vacuuming. She gives friends custom smart-lock codes so they can let themselves in when she’s expecting them.
I should pause and say here that I’m the least likely candidate for a smart home. I scheduled all these interviews with smart home users on my paper calendar, because I’m having difficulty transitioning to Google Calendar. I find it glitchy compared to the ease of pen on paper, though it has clear advantages paper doesn’t—I can share it and access it remotely. For now, though, I’m stuck in a kind of high-tech/low-tech netherworld, using a paper desk calendar, a paper family calendar, and the virtual one, and spending more time writing things down than I ever did before Google Calendar came into my life.
Sometimes I think there’s value in my technological inadequacies (like my preference for paper books over the Kindle), but then I think, maybe that’s just what people who are resistant to change tell themselves. Then I feel embarrassed. There’s nothing particularly virtuous about using paper, just as there’s arguably nothing virtuous about getting up to dim the kitchen lights instead of having Insteon and Alexa team up to do it at the sound of your voice.
And then sometimes I get angry at Google Calendar for not better understanding my needs. Technology is funny. Just as much as we train it, it trains us, especially when we’re still getting used to each other. The vast new Internet of Things can be “fairly brittle,” says John Zimmerman, a professor at Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute. We are not robots, after all; technology has to respond to improvisation. We may have routines, but they’re not like clockwork, as anyone who’s automated their shades and then walked naked through the living room on a day off can tell you. Nor can we be counted on to remember the precise commands Alexa requires. (One intense DIY-er had his digital personal assistant in charge of so much in his home that he had to write her commands down on a piece of paper for his hapless roommates.)
We forget that our homes already have a kind of intelligence, honed over centuries by the human beings who’ve lived in them. We’ve crafted them to suit our needs, so that we can use them without too much thought. Jason Jaynes, head of technology for Kasita, an Austin, Texas, company that’s creating tiny, prefab smart homes, told me we are gradually transitioning from “mindless” to “managed” smart homes, with the eventual goal of homes that are “intuitive.” We will get better at understanding the technology, but more importantly, it will better understand us.
On a recent evening, I paid a visit to the Carlin family in Brooklyn’s Dumbo neighborhood, right on the East River. Stephen Carlin, an investment banker, has his thing, of course: “Sound is huge for me.” Like Gomes, he’s a client of the integration service OneButton, which means he didn’t have to wrestle with customer service or personally figure out how to make his technology talk to his other technology. He and his family were living the dream, and I was there to see them living it.
The beauty and order of the Carlin family’s technology was part and parcel of a greater existence curated around principles of beauty and order. When I arrived in the middle of the dinner hour—the most frantic time in many households—all was calm at the Carlin home. The kids, 6 and 7, were quietly doing homework, and Alessandra Carlin, a personal stylist, was making dinner for them, using some sort of fairy magic to do so without evidence of dirty pots or cutting boards. There were no shoes by the door, no piles of mail or heaps of toys. Instead, there were lit candles, orchids, and coffee table books on Basquiat and Gisele Bündchen. Alessandra apologized for the chaos and disorder.
Stephen got home a little after five, and took me through their airy 2,500-square-foot apartment, leading me to the various zones served by smart Sonos speakers, lights, TVs, and custom window shades, all of which can be controlled by the family’s phones, iPads, and panels on the walls. A Spotify playlist of house, dance, and pop played continuously as Stephen showed me the closet where all the receivers were tucked away out of sight, and a custom cover that had been cleverly designed for a speaker he didn’t like the aesthetics of. Along the way, he apologized for the “mess” of his home office (it wasn’t messy), and remarked that he had yet to truly perfect the apartment’s pre-programmed light settings. There was even a button named for Enzo, their French bulldog—a kind of low-light “away” setting that ensured the dog wouldn’t be sitting in the dark when he was home alone.
The Carlins had four Echo dots which were not connected to everything else; they’d been bought more recently, and their purpose was to answer questions about the weather, set cooking timers, tell their daughter how many days it was till her birthday (138 on that day), and give their son baseball stats. For playing music, though, Stephen didn’t consider the Echo’s speakers up to par. He preferred the Sonos speakers he’d put throughout the house, or, better yet, the Bowers & Wilkins.
“These are the speakers I really dork out over,” Stephen said, taking me over to see the elegant Wi-Fi-enabled white tower speakers. “You wanna hear ’em?”
He asked what kind of music I was into, and I said, naturally, old-school stuff. He put on Steely Dan’s “Hey Nineteen” and told me this was the very song that was playing at the stereo store when he decided to take the Bowers & Wilkins speakers home. He turned the volume way up, until I could barely hear anything else. It seemed he was appreciating the qualities of the music in a way I couldn’t—hearing the clarity of the sound, and the individual instruments, the way professional wine tasters experience all the notes in a shiraz.
“A lot of days, I sit here and drink wine and stare out and listen to the music really loud,” he said.
Alessandra, meanwhile, was roasting small potatoes, drizzling olive oil over butterhead lettuce, and cooking sweet Italian sausages. Far better fare than most kids get on a weeknight. Later, I found myself thinking about this meal when I spoke with Zimmerman, who told me that it’s terribly difficult to imagine the precise ways in which technology can alter our lives until we’ve lived it. In the past, when labor-saving technologies like vacuums and washing machines arrived in American homes, he said, “what happened was people spent just as much time” cleaning, “but the expectations of what it meant to clean a home” increased. In other words, technology merely moved the goal posts. Smart homes, he said, will not so much do away with labor as reorder it, giving us more time to devote to the labor that’s imbued with social and emotional meaning. We may wish to automate the laundry, and perhaps one day we will. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we’ll do less with our time. It may just mean we spend more time in a different kind of labor—cooking for family, for example.
Technology had woven itself into the Carlin family’s lives in many subtle and pervasive ways, some of which might have been difficult to imagine just five years ago. Stephen and Alessandra woke at 6:30 every morning to CNBC coming on the TV in the bedroom, accompanied by the lights in their bathroom suite. The kids woke to Pandora Beethoven playing through their Sonos speakers. Stephen remembered how his parents used to make him fetch the dictionary, but now, he didn’t even own one; instead, his kids asked Alexa how to spell words.
Alessandra told me she’d grown so used to being able to control the lights from her phone that, on those occasions she stayed in a hotel, it was sometimes a surprise to realize she needed to get out of bed.
A home is not just a place to cook, or to sleep, or to find comfort from the cold and chaos of the world outside. A home is not just a place but an extension of us, and we are all of us—with or without technology—constantly trying to make these environments more responsive, more personalized, more idealized reflections of who we are. When we think of home as we want it to be, we are not thinking only of a physical space within four walls, but, instead, of a series of perfect domestic moments. Reading in front of the fireplace. Hosting dinner parties. Making Rice Krispies treats with the kids.
For better or worse, and I’m still not sure which, the Internet of Things raises the stakes on how perfect things can be. Toby Divine, a 42-year-old video editor in LA, has been into smart home technology since 2001, when things were positively primordial by today’s standards. He told me how he simulates a sunrise with his Philips Hue bedroom lights over the course of 30 minutes to wake himself up, and then, after 6:30 p.m., the lights in his home go “to a nice incandescent warm light, like a sun setting, that tells your brain it’s evening time.” He has beautiful light panels by Nanoleaf that can change color in response to music. He has a projector, and a screen that comes out of the ceiling in the living room, which his Echo can unfurl when he wants to watch a movie.
When I spoke with Divine’s friend Justin Eastzer, a DIY-er with almost the same intense interest in smart home tech, he complained that when he ate at Divine’s house, it took his host forever to sit down because he was methodically calibrating the setting for their meal. Divine confirmed it was true. He wanted the lights just right for the meal, and he wanted Chopin on in the background, and it was a bear getting it all done quickly. “I would spend like five minutes trying to set the mood, and he’d be sitting down with dinner and I would be like, ‘Wait a minute.’ Everything had to be perfect,” Divine said.
But that was all over now, Divine told me. And not because he’d given up on the dream of perfection.
He’d simply found a better app.
There is always a better app, isn’t there? And if there isn’t just yet, there will be. And this is the promise and the tyranny of technology—the quest is never over for the next thing that will make certain tasks infinitesimally faster or more pleasing.
There is great appeal to a house that knows you, a house that caters to your needs. One woman I talked to told me she hadn’t needed her house keys in two years because of smart technology. Another said that so long as her phone was on her, with the help of her Wink integration system and the Skylark app, her house knew to shut down when she left, and to turn on her lights and turn up her thermostat when she turned the corner toward home. Smart home technology may help with energy consumption, and help those with disabilities have an easier time turning on lights, setting alarms, virtually visiting with family, and completing countless other tasks.
It’s true that the smart home movement sometimes overshoots itself. At the Consumer Electronics Show this year, there was much chortling over the fact that Kohler had made a toilet with Alexa inside, so users could ask her to flush for them. But this is how innovators figure out what’s useful and what’s not; the successful products will integrate seamlessly into our lives, until we forget that we ever needed to know how to do certain things. Until it requires so little mental energy and know-how that even Luddites like me come around to buying it.
What we don’t know is how the technology will change how we divvy up domestic labor. What we don’t know is how it may affect relationships between the early adopter who sets it up, and the spouse who has no idea how to use the house anymore. What we don’t know is what “invisible dependencies” we’re creating—places where one technology relies on another, which relies on another, all of which breaks down if one thing goes wrong. What we don’t know is how we’ll stand what Brian Jones of the Aware Home calls “alert fatigue,” the sense of being overwhelmed when our home security systems ping us yet again to tell us about what could be an intruder at the door but is, in fact, a squirrel. Plus, the messages that say a system in the home has gone offline. Plus, all the monitoring we find ourselves doing of all the apps monitoring the home. Plus, worrying about the security of it all, and whether those security cameras could be hackable.
What we don’t know is if there’s a price to pay for having your home do so many things for you—and if maybe that’s okay, because the payoff is worth the price.
Zimmerman points out how paradoxical technology can be—freeing and enslaving at the same time. “The answering machine freed you from waiting at home for a phone call,” he says. “But the downside is that all of those missed calls you’re now obligated to return.”
On the other hand, who could blame us? Since the Industrial Revolution, the promise of technology has been that it makes our lives better, leaving us with more time for the things we love. (Whether that promise is always fulfilled is another matter.) Who could begrudge anyone the desire to create a more perfect domestic environment—especially these days, as the world outside seems to become more disorderly, more ugly?
We were in the master bathroom, Stephen Carlin and I, checking out the Sonos speakers near the toilet, when he heard the sound of music coming through inferior speakers.
“Is that Alexa?” he said, stepping out of the bathroom. It was indeed Alexa playing the music, and a Kidz Bop version of a Taylor Swift song, no less. The kids had not covered their tracks well. “I was just explaining that we don’t listen to music on Alexa,” he said to his family, clearly amused.
I left soon after that, knowing it would probably be a long time before I heard music on speakers as good as the Bowers & Wilkins, and that I probably wouldn’t appreciate it if I did. As I walked out, I looked over my shoulder and saw Carlin adjusting the chairs around the dining room, which had not been used. They’d looked fine to me, but he was adjusting them by centimeters so they were all precisely lined up, just right.
Libby Copeland is a journalist in New York who writes on culture, science and human behavior. You can find her at www.libbycopeland.com and on Twitter @libbycopeland.
Editor: Sara Polsky