I came into the kitchen recently to find my husband cradling our electricity smart meter with the kind of tender attention more usually directed to a new-born, his phone clutched in his free hand. “You didn’t turn your office heater off last night,” he said. I didn’t like his tone.
“I did! I went in this morning to turn it on again!”
“You can’t have. Look.” He waved his phone. “Last night we used 10…” (here he added a unit, presumably of electricity, but all that stuff is Martian to me. Ten zaps? Ten whizzes?). “It shouldn’t be that high.”
“But I turned it off!”
But our smart home had spoken and it is far more reliable than me, his life partner of 26 years. Our house now has app-enabled devices to control the heating and the boiler remotely, to check temperature, CO2 and noise levels and to see who is at the door. There are motion-detector cameras in the garden that send us videos of foxes threatening my hens, or his tortoises escaping. Since we installed a few solar panels, my husband’s smart-home management has become more urgent and more granular. An app tells him how much we are consuming, but also how much we are producing, in real time. Now he bursts in when it’s sunny, shouting “We’re giving electricity to the grid! Use more!” In the evenings, I watch Succession; he studies our energy statistics. Technology has transformed him into a one-man home hub. “I used to think home smart technology was pointless,” he tells me. “But it really makes sense.”
I hate it. I don’t want my home to see me when I’m sleeping and know when I’m awake. It makes me feel bamboozled and disenfranchised: how do I make it warmer when I can’t just press a button on the wall? Why do I need an app to answer the door? I also get defensive: the climate emergency means my husband is absolutely right to try to limit our energy consumption, but we end up arguing about how long the heated clothes airer can run (“It’s 6p an hour!” I protest. “That’s not nothing if you leave it on all night,” he counters.) “Aren’t you worried,” I ask him, “You’ll end up like Facebook? The robots will malfunction and you’ll need an angle grinder to boil the kettle?” But he’s an engineer: no angle-grinder scenario could faze him.
‘Alexa is a soldier of the patriarchy. She refuses to listen to women.’ Illustration: Phil Hackett/The Observer
I am the one who is out of step: our homes are smarter than ever. Tools with cosy, nature-inspired names (Nest, Hive) allow us to monitor and control homes even when we aren’t in them; other one-word devices (Blink, Ring) keep them safe. A 2019 survey found 57% of British homes have at least one kind of smart device; back in 2018 YouGov found 8% of homes have two or more. It’s too early for definitive research, but it seems Covid #stayathome living, perhaps combined with feeling life was out of control in other ways, …….