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Object Lessons for the Media Home: From Storagewall to Invisible Design

Lynn Spigel

In 1991 Mark Weiser, famous for his vision of ubiquitous computing, published an article in Scientific American titled “The Computer for the 21st Century.” In what is by now his oft-cited opening lines, Weiser claimed: “The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it.”1 As director of the computer science laboratory at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (Xerox PARC), Weiser predicted that “ubicomp” environments (with their wireless networks, infrared transmitters, and mobile devices he called “tabs” and “pads”) would one day restore the human world and social relations in it by eliminating the objects that get in our way.2 PCs and mainframes are clumsy old dinosaurs that “demand focus of attention” and create obstacles to human interaction. Conversely, Weiser argued that ubicomp would take people out of their private bubbles and away from their individual screens and place them in a world where technologies operated “invisibly,” much “like wires in the wall.”3 The world he had in mind was a humanist dream of people-friendly spaces promoted by technological advances that would enhance social relations among humans by reimagining the relations between humans and things. He envisioned this future most fully in his scenario starring Sal, a working mother, whose life was made better by ubicomp technologies that allowed her to move between home, family, friends, and office with ease.

Although in compromised forms, Weiser’s ideas for ubicomp made their way into designs for smart environments including the one Sal lived in and the one I am currently most interested in — the media home. The dream of ubiquitous computing and invisible design formed a basis for many of the digital home projects of today that rely on Internet networks, intelligent agents, digital interfaces, robotics, and mobile technologies to create adaptive environments that respond to and even predict resident needs. These range from university experimental projects like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) House_n or the Georgia Institute of Technology’s Aware Home to corporate designs at places like Panasonic, Microsoft, or Intel.4 Often created with pro-social goals in mind, smart homes include, for example, green architecture or embedded memory sensors for aging populations.

But smart home futures are expensive, and, not surprisingly in this sense, many designs rely on corporate schemes where wondrous gadgets prevail. Smart fridges talk to your stove and even tell you when the tuna runs low; smart toilets analyze your urine and e-mail the results to your doctor; closets don’t just store clothes, they work as a personal wardrobe consultant and tell you what to wear. In more practical versions, ubicomp and the related concept of invisible design have infiltrated the consumer market for smart home technologies where the twin middle-class ideals of leisure and luxury, on the one hand, and privacy and safety, on the other, reign supreme. Gourmet kitchens with Wi-Fi-enabled appliances and home theaters with ambient entertainment allow objects to communicate without the need of human interlopers. Digital services (from digital video recorders [DVRS] to wireless security systems) encourage people to connect back to the home while away for work or travel. Although some of these things still seem “heavy” (carrying a laptop and an iPhone and an iPad is certainly less than an object-free load), the futuristic fantasy of “lightness” (as posed by terms like cloud or air book) is part and parcel of a design vision where objects disappear.

It’s tempting to tell a story where Weiser’s vision of disappearing objects predicts a future for the smart homes of today. But rather than see Weiser’s plan for ubiquitous computing as an origin myth for a new conception of the home, I want to trace the history of the idea of the disappearing technological object back to architecture itself and, specifically, to midcentury modern design. My goal is to show how midcentury logics of the domestic interior formed a compatible ideological infrastructure for the media lifestyles now promoted by smart home enthusiasts. Here I focus on one key player in this history of the interior — American designer George Nelson. A leading figure in midcentury design for both home and office, Nelson is an uncanny double for Weiser. He too had a theory of disappearing objects, and, like Weiser, Nelson advocated for the disappearance of objects as a means of improving social life. Whereas Weiser imagined ubicomp as a way to eliminate the tyranny of things, Nelson was famous for his more material solution to the same problem, a solution that he called the “Storagewall.”5 Nelson’s Storagewall was intended for the postwar consumer family overcome by the objects they possessed, but it especially served as means of hiding and organizing media machines (from radio to the phonograph to TV). Easy to produce in do-it-yourself makeshift forms, the Storagewall became a highly popular design for the average home. In other words, like ubicomp, in its own time the Storagewall was a profoundly influential means of shaping the environment through the practice of making things (especially media machines) disappear.

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Notes

  1. Mark Weiser, “The Computer for the 21st Century,” Scientific American 265, no. 3 (1991): 78–79. See also Mark Weiser and John Seely Brown, “Designing Calm Technology,” December 21, 1995, www.ubiq.com/hypertext/weiser/calmtech/calmtech.htm.
  2. “Ubicomp” is the commonly used abbreviation for ubiquitous computing. Ubiquitous computing is often also referred to by terms such as invisible computing and pervasive computing.
  3. Weiser, “The Computer for the 21st Century,” 80.
  4. For histories and cultural analyses of smart homes and technologies, see Fiona Allon, “An Ontology of Everyday Control: Space, Media Flows, and ‘Smart’ Living in the Absolute Present,” in MediaSpace: Place, Scale, and Culture in a Media Age, ed. Nick Couldry and Anna McCarthy (London: Routledge, 2004), 253–74; Davin Heckman, A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of the Perfect Day (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2007); Terence Riley, The Un-private House, exhibition catalog (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1999); Lynn Spigel, Welcome to the Dreamhouse: Popular Media and Postwar Suburbs (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001), 379–408; Spigel, “Designing the Smart House: Posthuman Domesticity and Conspicuous Production,” European Journal of Cultural Studies 8, no. 4 (2005): 403–26; David Morley, Media, Modernity, and Technology: The Geography of the New (London: Routledge, 2007), chap. 7; and Mark Andrejevic, I Spy: Surveillance and Power in the Interactive Age (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2007).
  5. Storagewall is often spelled as one word, although Nelson and others also spelled it as two words. Here I use two words only when it appears as such in an original citation or when I am referring to a generic design concept.

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Public Culture is a reviewed interdisciplinary journal of cultural studies, published three times a year in Fall, Winter, and Spring for the Institute for Public Knowledge by Duke University Press. The journal's full archives are available online at Dukejournals.org.

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