“Home is where the hub is”

A recent study looks at how being connected through the Internet and other gadgets at home changes what home is:

What the web has inspired, then, is a postmodern understanding of what “home” is: a de-physicalised, conceptual and psychological phenomenon that externalises its invisible meanings. And interaction designers recognise this: the web is another castle that the Englishman can live in, and he seeks to create virtual places that have as much effect on pride, self-esteem and identity as the bricks and mortar version where he sleeps…

I am constantly connected when I’m at home. It is my companion when watching a movie, it is my entertainment system when listening to the radio, it is my connection to the family and friends I speak with on VoIP. Sociologist Kat Jungnickel and anthropologist Genevieve Bell suggest that my over-networked experience isn’t unusual in Home is Where the Hub is? Wireless Infrastructures and the Nature of Domestic Culture in Australia: “Some read their emails and Google for news in front of the TV while others breastfeed while surfing the net. In the kitchen, they look for recipes or talk with friends via IM. In bed they write emails or shop on eBay.” The rooms once allocated for specific purposes have been co-opted by other (digital) tasks.

This isn’t always welcome. In one of Jungnickel and Bell’s case studies, a participant describes the conflicts that arise from home-multiplicity: “Sal tells of the congestion zone caused by the chameleonic characteristics of the kitchen table,” they write. “During the day it is her new computing space, and at night it is the social, cooking washing-up space for both of them.” Each online activity has imposed itself on our home-practice. We are experiencing a domestic transition as the web collaborates and competes with old “new” technologies such as the TV, the researchers argue. It “complicates” characteristics of the physical space.

We are adaptable creatures and will work within the confines of our existing homes to integrate this new creature into our lives. We have already made the web part of our domestic ecologies and we continually imbue it with a sense of place. Perhaps its malleability is why it has been so successful and why we are willing to bring this interruptive technology into our most intimate worlds.

In recent decades, commentators have suggested that Americans have retreated into their large homes and lost their connection to their communities. But this may be suggesting that while Americans may have withdrawn, they are still interested in being connected. However, this connection looks different than it has in the past. The connection now happens at the times of the individual’s own choosing, it is done at a distance, and it is unclear how much this translates into offline world action.

I don’t think we should be too surprised that the concept of home is changing. Our current understanding dates back roughly to the mid 1800s when homes were built with separate rooms to separate uses: sleep in one room, eat in another, cook in another, etc. Before that, homes were more multi-use as more people used their home for work as well as family life. It would be interesting to think about how the quick expansion of Internet connectedness might lead to new designs for homes or introduce interior spaces that enhance this connectedness. Already, we have more static gadgets that have been adapted, such as televisions including Internet apps, so why not dining rooms, bathrooms, and front porches plus back patios?

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