A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of the Perfect Day

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Conceived in the 1960s, Walt Disney’s original plans for his Experimental Prototype Community of Tomorrow (EPCOT) outlined a utopian laboratory for domestic technology, where families would live, work, and play in an integrated environment. Like many of his contemporaries, Disney imagined homes that would attend to their inhabitants’ every need, and he regarded the home as a site of unending technological progress. This fixation on “space-age” technology, with its promise of domestic bliss, marked an important mid-twentieth-century shift in understandings of the American home. In A Small World, Davin Heckman considers how domestic technologies that free people to enjoy leisure time in the home have come to be understood as necessary parts of everyday life.

Heckman’s narrative stretches from the early-twentieth-century introduction into the home of electric appliances and industrial time-management techniques, through the postwar advent of television and the space-age “house of tomorrow,” to the contemporary automated, networked “smart home.” He considers all these developments in relation to lifestyle and consumer narratives. Building on the tension between agency and control within the walls of homes designed to anticipate and fulfill desires, Heckman engages debates about lifestyle, posthumanism, and rights under the destabilizing influences of consumer technologies, and he considers the utopian and dystopian potential of new media forms. Heckman argues that the achievement of an environment completely attuned to its inhabitants’ specific wants and needs—what he calls the “Perfect Day”—institutionalizes everyday life as the ultimate consumer practice.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[An] engaging and well-meaning book. . . .” - Will Straw, Reviews in Cultural Theory

“Davin Heckman’s intriguing title A Small World: Smart Houses and the Dream of the Perfect Day immediately drew me in. His book gathers intensely detailed research into aspects of mid to late 20th-century American culture and overlaps that with references to futuristic visions of the home and lifestyles. Heckman illustrates the details of Smart Houses of last century, including the introduction of computers in the home, and then explores contemporary American society on many levels. This is a very satisfying read that gets better as it unfolds.” - Ann McLean, M/C Reviews

A Small World is an amazing accomplishment. Heckman has, aside from completing what will surely be hailed as a landmark study in the history of smart houses, manages to integrate a wide range of theories into a coherent and substantial narrative of the struggle of technology to integrate itself into the lives of consumers. This book has direct relevance beyond those studying automation and home technology, and is a vital read for anyone concerned with the incorporation of new media into contemporary culture.” - Mike DuBose, Reconstruction

“By focusing on both the history of technology and the representation of technology in literature, film, and television, Heckman’s book effectively analyzes the cultural discourse surrounding the very concept of ‘smartness,’ and it offers a vehement critique of the incorporation of technology into everyday life. . . . Heckman’s book is extremely thoughtful and well-researched. . . .” - Anthony Enns, Leonardo

A Small World is an invigorating, elegant, and sardonic look at futurist fantasies of the spectacularization of everyday life. It makes a real contribution to the history of the American technological imagination.”—Scott Bukatman, author of Matters of Gravity: Special Effects and Supermen in the 20th Century

“This engaging, fast-paced book synthesizes a broad range of critical viewpoints—phenomenology, poststructuralism, media studies, and American studies—in order to illuminate the long trajectory of the ‘smart house,’ from the factory-based models of the industrial era to the wired dream-boxes of today. Providing a clear, concise path through a vast body of literature, Davin Heckman’s book will be useful for designers, architects, historians, and new media critics seeking to understand where technology is taking us.”—Ellen Lupton, Curator of Contemporary Design, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822341581
  • Publisher: Duke University Press
  • Publication date: 3/28/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 224
  • Product dimensions: 6.15 (w) x 8.39 (h) x 0.62 (d)

Meet the Author

Davin Heckman is Assistant Professor of English at Siena Heights University in Adrian, Michigan.

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Read an Excerpt

A Small World


Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4158-1

Chapter One

"Home Is Where the Heart Is"

Scientific Management, Electricity, and the Early-Twentieth-Century American Home

I cannot begin this chapter without a trite and clichéd declaration of the special place that "home" plays in the culture at large. No words can convey all the complex meanings of "home." The mere attempt to encapsulate this meaning immediately falls short, making discussions of home sound naïve and hokey, as though those who attempt to speak of home don't really know anything about it, or at least not about my home. The truth is that home is everywhere, and its invocation is supposed to bespeak goodness because it represents that with which we are familiar and that of which we are made. It is at once a destination and an origin. It is, to fall back on the cliché, precisely where the heart is, when heart is used to refer to those things which are most dear to us. In short, "There is no place like home."


Used to describe an idea about that which has comfort and meaning for subjects to inhabit, and which can in turn inhabit those same subjects, the definition of home is essentially vague, mobile, and multiple. For example, those in exile, who have no home, have none precisely because they carry a sense of home which resides within their person. An exile must "live" somewhere, but this somewhere is somehow far from the home where the exile can find "peace," "completeness," "wholeness," or whatever immaterial force is needed to bridge the rift between the idea of home and the physical state. Given its slippery and uncertain nature, it is unclear whether home is a memory or a promise, or both. Most likely, home is something which swings back and forth between yesterday and tomorrow, experienced as a way of being with no fixed meaning.

It is this idea of home as dialectic that informs more pedestrian notions of the home as physical place. Home, in the material sense, for the American middle class is typically imagined as the single-family, suburban house, but has increasingly come to include apartments, condominiums, townhouses, trailers, and any housing option that affords a somewhat autonomous living space organized around the head of the household or the family unit. In reality, there is a great diversity of living arrangements in the United States which include multiple families and extended families living within a single unit, and families or individuals who live in structures that are not typically considered "housing units" (under bridges, inside cars, on top of park benches, in public shelters, etc.). But the fact remains that these arrangements do not exist within the American ideal, often falling outside of the law and treated by the public as "social problems." The ideal contemporary household is linked to economic concerns, arranged around consumer practices, and offers its inhabitants special, class-based protections and privileges that are not awarded to those who fall outside this norm. One only has to apply for a job or seek public assistance without the benefit of a mailing address to see an example of just how these privileges operate.

As a stylized form of dwelling, the contemporary notion of home taps into the baggage of its culturally loaded origins, being sold as a promise, steeped in memories, and clad in all of the trappings that will speak to both concerns. The home is difficult to think of in the category of a consumer good: homes are not cheap or disposable. Homes are often handcrafted and of course have been built well before the advance of consumer culture as we now know it. Homes are associated with a certain amount of permanence, personality, and meaning. The meanings that are associated with the home are highly subjective and personal. A home is something that is thought of as "made" by a "homemaker," a product of its inhabitants, even if it is envisioned as a home during the process of buying or renting its space. Although it may contain consumer goods and serve as the optimum arena for consumer practice, the interactive nature of the home and the resultant personal investment it requires of its inhabitants affords the home a sort of metaconsumerist status. The home is the place where goods are consumed, but rarely, if at all, do we consider the idea of home as a consumer good, and the goods contained therein as the meta-structure for the consumption of home. As a result, the contemporary home is indeed much closer to us than many would like to think, and its criticism a decidedly incomplete project.

Since the evolution of the home is one that has emerged through dialectical progress, I frame this discussion as a dialog with the work of the architect, critic, and designer Witold Rybczynski, whose book Home presents a richly detailed history of the home in the Western context. Sensitive to an elaborate complex of social, economic, and technological practices that have generated the home that we know today, Rybczynski's plain-spoken, but deeply insightful history offers fertile theoretical ground to explore. When considered in the context of the three technical parameters offered in the introduction (space, time, and information), Rybczynski's framework takes an interesting shape.

The place that comes to mind when we speak of the middle-class home today is, as the diversity of architectural styles reveals, one that has emerged from a long and multiple process of historical change and adaptation. The origins of the contemporary home can be traced back to the emerging middle class of renaissance Europe. In Home Rybczynski traces the evolution of the medieval house, which consisted of a large open room with a hearth that doubled as place of business and sleeping quarters, to the home of the Dutch bourgeoisie in the 1600s, which was characterized by privacy, multiple rooms, and a specifically domestic function. In fact, as Rybczynski notes, "The Dutch loved their homes. They shared this old Anglo-Saxon word-ham, hejm in Dutch-with other peoples of Northern Europe. 'Home' brought together the meanings of house and household, of dwelling and of refuge, of ownership and of affection. 'Home' meant the house, but also everything that was in it and around it, as well as the people, and the sense of satisfaction and contentment that all these conveyed". To this, Rybczynski adds in a footnote, "This wonderful word, 'home,' which connotes a physical 'place' but also has the more abstract sense of a 'state of being,' has no equivalent in the Latin or Slavic European languages". It is this general area of origin, in the Dutch middle class with its rapidly growing trade-based economy and new independence from the authority of the Spanish Crown, that saw the wide-scale cultivation of the household, the development of domesticity, and the birth of the home. The diffusion of economic power to the growing middle class made home ownership possible and allowed for the home to serve as a sanctuary and showplace for success and refinement, similar to the palaces and castles of the past, but moderated and made humble by its extension to those who had been denied access to economic power under previous regimes. With the rise of the middle class, various forms of power and governance were then diffused, democratized, and liberalized, giving greater numbers a personal stake in the cultivation of living space.

Beyond privacy and domesticity, Rybczynski marks the passage of another element into the stream of concepts that characterize the home: the element of comfort. Looking at the evolution of furnishings, there is a remarkable difference between the austere surfaces of the medieval chair and the plush elegance of the La-Z-Boy. Rybczynski notes that the origins of the chair were ceremonial, serving as markers of rank, privilege, and esteem for formal events, and were thus unconcerned with secondary features such as comfort. However, once the chair gained its place in the household as a marker of status and "sitting-up" became the custom and standard of behavior through the extension of the changing household to the growing bourgeoisie, there was a shift in chair design that coincided with sitting norms and resulted in an increase in "comfort." As Rybczynski explains, "Historians of furniture inevitably draw our attention to the changes in chair design and construction and allow us to forget a more important ingredient: the changes that took place in the sitter. For the main constraint on furniture design was not only technical-but also cultural, how it was used. The easy chair had to be preceded by the desire for an easy posture". Rybczynski notes the death of France's Louis XIV in 1715 and his replacement by Louis XV as a key moment in the evolution of comfort. For Louis XV's court, Rybczynski argues, bourgeois notions of privacy and intimacy, embodied in the small and individualized spaces of the middle-class home, became fashionable, offering greater satisfaction and pleasure than the rigid formality found in the ceremonial trappings of courtly life. Traditional seating arrangements were maintained for their official function, but for those people who had grown accustomed to the habit of sitting in chairs and were also rapidly assimilating the idea of a "private life," a new type of seating was added. This "new category of additional seating ... was not constrained by rigid aesthetic needs and ... could respond to their desire for a more relaxed sitting posture". Through the reverberations of cultural notions of domestic space, comfort entered the household as a dialectical interplay of bourgeois and courtly practices of living (and loving) in space.

Notions of comfort in domestic space quickly spread to include leisure and efficiency. Once comfort in seating situated the ideal of home in its accommodation of the body through surfaces that were not uncomfortable, these ideas quickly transferred into the positive generation of comfort through the sensual practices of leisure and the further avoidance of discomfort by the organization of space itself. The first concern, comfort as a phenomenon of direct sensation, locates the function of the ideal home on the body or place. Spatially speaking, comfort is an embodied experience, characterized by the harmonious relationship between one surface and another.

Due to a steady decline in the number of domestic servants and an increase in wages in the United States during the latter two-thirds of the nineteenth century, the issue of efficiency in household labor became increasingly urgent, as more and more middle-class women found themselves taking on the burdens of household labor. In 1841 this labor shortage inspired Catharine E. Beecher, the sister of Harriet Beecher Stowe, to write A Treatise on Domestic Economy for the Use of Young Ladies at Home and at School, an early discussion of home economics which (even) included a chapter on efficient kitchen design. Housekeeping was now considered a part of the overall comfort of the middle-class home.

As comfort came to coincide with the efficient organization of household labor, there appeared a shift in the phenomenon that forced it to consider the element of time. The efficient home became one in which comfort was generated by technologies which optimized the relationship between domestic space and domestic time, in an effort to create a comfortable schedule. In a practical sense, this comfort was embodied in that it sought to reduce the physical fatigue and strain associated with household labor. But it was also a disembodied comfort in that it shifted comfort from a solely sensuous practice to a cognitive one, making comfort temporal and linking it to memory and anticipation as well. Part of the satisfaction of living in an efficient household became the pleasure that comes from the comparative knowledge that one could have been, or had been, doing more work.

New plateaus in efficiency were achieved through two means. The first was a rearrangement of space. As Rybczynski notes, Beecher's conception of the home was especially unique because it altered the "European image of the home as a male preserve": "The masculine idea of the home was primarily sedentary-the home as a retreat from the cares of the world, a place to be at ease. The feminine idea of the home was dynamic; it had to do with ease, but also with work. It could be said to have shifted the focus from the drawing room to the kitchen, which was why, when electricity entered the home, it was by the kitchen door". This crucial conception of the home from a mere place to a set of dynamic relationships coincides with the rise of industry in the United States and marks the beginning of the home as a technical environment.

The most drastic reorganization of the home was accomplished under the direct influence of Frederick Winslow Taylor's scientific management. Scientific management made its way into the kitchen courtesy of Christine Frederick, the wife of the market researcher George Frederick who, on seeing its effectiveness in the industrial workplace, immediately imagined its usefulness in the home. As Rybczynski explains, "Much of what she saw struck her as applicable to the home. The proper height of work surfaces to eliminate stooping, the location of tools and machines to reduce fatigue, the organization of work according to a definite plan were recognizably domestic problems. She began to study her own work habits and those of her friends. She timed herself, she made notes, she photographed women at work. As a result, she remodeled her kitchen and found that she could do her housework more quickly and with less effort". Christine Frederick's ambitious and insightful project of reorganizing domestic workspace was truly a revolutionary accomplishment, for which she achieved notoriety through a number of articles and books written on the subject.

Not only did Frederick's text testify to the value of so-called women's work and place the effort, power, and skill required by this work on more equal footing with so-called men's work, but in some sense it took these claims a step further. In the foreword to Frederick's Household Engineering: Scientific Management in the Home, which was originally published in 1915, Harrington Emerson explains the complexity of the household environment: "There are six distinct classes of activities: production, transportation, manufacture, storage, exchange, and personal service. The boy is prepared for 15 years or more to co-operate with others in mastering one particular part of one of these activities. A man will give his life to the specialization and standardization of the methods and tools for a single oft repeated operation. Housekeeping, if a kitchen garden or milking is included, covers all six activities. Often without preparation a young woman working alone, without the discipline of the group, expects to be an adept in all six fields and in all parts of each field at once!" (1, emphasis in original). Although Emerson doesn't mention that many women were also expected by society at large to perform these roles perfectly, he does draw important attention to the complexity of domestic labor, commenting on the multiple roles that the space of the home was expected to play. Unsurprisingly, one of the first items that Frederick wished to tackle was a definition of the space of the kitchen. Frederick comments, "What is a kitchen? It is a place for the preparation of food". In seeking to control the work that takes place inside its walls, Frederick is forced to define the space in purely technical terms. Unlike hearth-centered homes of the past, the new home was to be rationally organized and functionality was to reign supreme. Frederick even goes so far as to question previous ideas of neatness and aesthetics, recommending that the "workshop ideal" be the paradigm for neatness. This early and clear-cut example of the widely felt influence of scientific management on all levels of social and cultural organization was only a precursor to the modern style.


Excerpted from A Small World by DAVIN HECKMAN Copyright © 2008 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments     ix
Introduction: A Tale of Two Cities     1
"Home is Where the Heart is": Scientific Management, Electricity, and the Early-Twentieth-Century American Home     18
"Here's Johnny!": The Introduction of Information to the Space of the Home     38
The Emergence of the Smart House     95
The Dawn of the Perfect Day     140
Notes     171
Bibliography     193
Index     207
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