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‘Black Mirror’ meets HGTV, and a new genre, home design horror, is born

How we get from coveting midcentury things to the Internet of Things

In Jacques Tati’s 1958 film, Mon Oncle, modernism bites back. The Arpels—mom, dad, son, dog—live in an up-to-date villa on an up-to-date suburban street. Monsieur Arpel commutes to his job at a plastics factory in an up-to-date automobile. Madame Arpel cooks with buttons and sprays (and yet still has to spend much of her time dusting).

What could go wrong?

Young Gerard and his pet desperately try to find something to do in an environment where everything has its place. Eventually they escape to the old part of the city where his uncle, Tati regular Monsieur Hulot, lives in an accidental building, made by accretion. There, they enjoy dirt, food, bicycles, life. Whenever Hulot encounters the new, whether in his sister’s kitchen or in his brother-in-law’s factory, something goes haywire. The interface has been designed for looks, not intuition, and he hasn’t been trained to follow their commands.

Illustration by Franziska Barczyk

In Mon Oncle, as in his masterpiece on the modern city, Playtime (1967), Tati plays this confusion for laughs. Hulot upsets the apple cart of efficiency, but no one gets hurt and, indeed, there’s no turning back the clock. It is only a matter of time before the forces of design and development clean up Hulot’s life too.

It’s not hard to imagine a remake of Mon Oncle, updated for 2018. Nnedi Okorafor’s new smart home fiction for Slate, “Mother of Invention,” starts in a familiar place, with woman and (unborn) child, on the lawn outside her high-tech home. The architect? The absent father of that child.

Built atop drained swamplands, Obi 3 rested on three mechanized cushioning beams that could lift the house up high when it wanted a nice view of the city or keep it close to the ground. The house could also rotate to follow the sun and transform its shape from an equilateral triangle into a square and split into four separate modules based on a mathematical formula. And because it was a smart home, it was always repairing and sometimes building on itself.

What could go wrong?

Despite design media’s love of shipping containers and geodesic domes, we aren’t quite at the intuitive-architecture stage of the game. Nonetheless, I’ve noticed people writing the set-ups for smart home fiction every day on Twitter. They report an uncanny encounter with Alexa, with Siri, with Nest—the names, like Okorafor’s story title, place us firmly in the traditionally female territory of the home—and someone writes back, “That’s so Black Mirror!”

There was a time, circa 2009, when no home design story could do without a reference to Mad Men. There is a time, circa 2018, when no personal tech story should do without a Black Mirror reference.

Once you start to collect models of the fom, you see them everywhere:

In Kashmir Hill and Surya Mattu’s smart home epic for Gizmodo, “The House That Spied on Me,” Hill goes in to the experiment already wised up, prepared to sacrifice her privacy (and her husband’s privacy, and her baby’s privacy) for knowledge. While she sets up her smart home, Mattu will be remotely tracking the trackers.

The Mon Oncle moment comes in her interactions with her connected coffee maker, which often fails to understand the command, “Brew me coffee”: “More often, one of us would just get up, walk to the kitchen, and press the button on the coffeemaker.” The Black Mirror moment comes when her security camera captures a video of her walking around the living room naked, saving copies to the cloud and to her phone.

What could go wrong?

Black Mirror Home, however, doesn’t come with new decor. Let your mind blur across Black Mirror’s seasons and episodes, and the dominant image is a concerned face reflected in a screen, numbers—likes, speed, time—ticking up or down. This anticipates where we are going to be putting our money: not sofas, but screens; not kitchen tables, but pods; not fireplaces, but sensors; each wrapped in a comforting modern carapace. The definition of “home” is being redefined, not as soft goods but as domesticated tech.

When my seven-year-old was practicing for a multiple-choice test in January, one of the questions showed a toaster, a stove, a sink, and a laptop. “Which one of these things is not like the other?” I asked, playing the role of the proctor. She dutifully bubbled in the laptop—not something you use in the kitchen—but really, they need to retire that question. For many, the laptop-as-cookbook gets as much use as the toaster. In those Kristen Bell ads for Samsung, the refrigerator already is the screen, and the appliance has been relabeled “Family Hub.” Watching Season 4’s “Arkangel” episode, in which digital helicopter parenting leads to fairly obvious consequences, I kept expecting the family blender to achieve sentience.

The real-world example of Black Mirror Home is the Nest thermostat, introduced in 2011. Connected, but supposedly simple to install. High-tech, but cute as a button. Apple, but for nesting. (Tony Fadell, the designer and entrepreneur most closely associated with the Nest, is credited as “one of the fathers of the iPod,” founded Nest, sold it to Google, and is now trying to start Silicon Vallée in Paris.)

Much of the coverage of the Nest and its roundness treated such an interface for adjusting the temperature of your home as brand-new, but, of course, it was not. Industrial designer Henry Dreyfuss had patented a round “control instrument” in 1943, then introduced it to the market in the 1950s as the Honeywell Round thermostat.

It was impossible to install crooked (DIY was big). It could be color-matched to your wallpaper (matching was big). And it was impossible to get wrong: clockwise for warmer, counter clockwise for cooler. Nest used that familiarity, that Mad Men cool, to Trojan-horse its way into your twenty-first century house where, after the initial euphoria wore off, glitches caused chilled babies and fears of frozen grandparents and icy interior waterfalls. (I’m writing the episode in my head right now.)

When the Nest team tried for a double with the Nest Protect, a round-cornered, pod-like smart smoke detector, it also tripped up. Early versions produced choruses of high-decibel false alarms—which lead to disconnected alarms, and vulnerable homes. Though the product was originally sold with a feature that let homeowners wave at their smoke detector to silence the alarm, this was disabled in 2014, because it didn’t work, to be replaced by App Silence. All to avoid climbing a ladder.

The Honeywell Round-slash-Nest turned up as a dating interface in my favorite episode of Black Mirror’s fourth season, “Hang the DJ,” which also happens to have the most Dwell-ish décor. In that episode, Amy (Georgina Campbell) and Frank (Joe Cole) star as algorithm-crossed lovers, doomed by a very bossy dating app to meet cute and then be tortured by bad relationships. All the dates in their world begin at a Saarinen-esque restaurant, where the round banquettes and the round tables mimic the round digital buttons they hold in their hands.

After they meet, protocol dictates that they both press the center of the button, where a screen displays a big number. It is not degrees Celsius, but the number of hours, days or months their relationship is going to last. It’s a countdown clock that preemptively takes the temperature of their hookup.

Nest bridged the gap between the smart home (Black Mirror) and the stylish one (Mad Men) and sparked the trend of using soft midcentury stylings to make hard goods more appealing.

Just look at the array of round devices, intended to blend with your decor and require minimal setup: the Google Home Mini, the Apple HomePod, the Amazon Echo Dot. You don’t turn them, so their round referent is probably not Dreyfuss’s thermostat but the round, cloth-covered speakers of radios of the same vintage, like a baby’s chubby face. (Last year, the FBI had to post a warning about internet-connected toys, some of them literally baby-faced.)

Despite being liberated from their boxy bodies, the form of the smart speaker still says music, just as the Nest says temperature control. In the Black Mirror universe, that’s all we’ve got, controls without an actual home around them. A hub without a hearth.

When these products go haywire—as they inevitably do—the Black Mirror tweets won’t seem so funny, just as Mad Men curdled, eventually, from ha-ha how far we’ve come to, oh-no we haven’t come far enough. No matter how charming Don Draper was, we couldn’t ignore the unhappy women all around him. Over and over, Black Mirror tells us, technology is no escape. No matter how perfectly accessorized “Hang the DJ”’s dating shacks are, they are prisons when you aren’t having sex with the one you love.

The Twilight Zone, the most obvious inspiration for Black Mirror, treats us to a masculinist version of the appliance plot in the 1960 episode “A Thing About Machines.” Bartlett Finchley, “a sophisticate” and writer for “gourmet magazines,” is so dedicated to his sense of superiority over machines that he doesn’t listen to their warnings, even when his typewriter all-caps screams “GET OUT OF HERE FINCHLEY.”

In New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo’s most recent column, “Why We May Soon Be Living in Alexa’s World” (shudder), he begins with an anecdote: One night, as he and his wife are getting ready for bed, his Amazon Echo Dot lights up … and begins to scream. “It is a measure of how thoroughly Amazon’s voice assistant has wormed herself into our lives, he writes, with the complacency of a horror movie homeowner who refuses to read the signs, “that I never considered unplugging her after the scream.”

Black Mirror Home, Episode 1.

What could go wrong?

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