Empowering households to tend their digital devices
(Article) in Linacre News (college magazine)
Voice assistants, household helpers, toys and smart building technology, powered by electricity and data, all are making their way into ever more households. New things brought to our homes for the purpose of ‘making life simpler’ inevitably challenge the way we do things.
Different people perceive change differently, and some change might be rather obvious and mundane. Where should the vacuum cleaner be kept? How should it be used? What rules and limits should be enforced for children?
Other change might be more subtle and go unnoticed. Researchers have highlighted how we – as individuals and households – have learned to deal with either kind of change. Do we understand how new devices work? What if they don’t work as expected? Who can help us? This process is called domestication of new technologies, a spectrum of shoehorning them into our lifestyles to changing the way we live our lives.
Complex social relationships and hierarchies influence the ways we deal with such situations. Individuals navigate such situations in inherently different ways, following the established communal order of the home, and personal knowledge, preferences, and attitudes. These situations can lead to social conflicts between cohabitants or with guests, relating to usage but also to ‘security’ or ‘privacy’. What data, whose, and in which situations is being collected? Is everyone equally content with its collection? What does the collected data say about others in the household?
Because cohabitants share a plethora of resources and responsibilities, not everyone will concern themselves but also be interested in using and maintaining devices in the same way. Researchers often refer to aforementioned tensions as power imbalances. My research on “empowering communal and digital privacy practices in smart homes” aims to understand the mundane ways households deal with digital technology and the challenges it causes specifically in ways related to – what researchers refer to – issues of privacy and security. How can smart home devices be designed with complex social relationships and hierarchies in mind to balance needs of usability and privacy within the household and beyond?
Much of my work to date has been concerned with unpacking these situations. Power imbalances in households are nothing uncommon or particularly worrying; they are inevitable as responsibilities are distributed in the messiness of everyday life, and people trust their cohabitants (e.g. housemates, partners, parents) to be responsible1Of course, this is not necessarily always the case as relationships break down and trust is lost. A related research area is concerned with such issues, also under the umbrella of intimate partner abuse and the internet of things.. Many of the readers will be familiar with situations in which they helped relatives or friends with the use of some internet-connected technology. Offering and providing help means to be accountable for one’s own advice; vice-versa, advice seekers will perceive a level of expertise in those they choose to ask. Other situations are similarly guided by social considerations and obligations. On a more abstract level, we find social expectations—which sometimes manifest themselves in social norms2Social norms are here understood as collective beliefs about acceptable group conduct which go hand in hand with individual perceptions of the very same conduct with a moral/normative component. —guide the way we introduce new devices to a household, or we welcome guests to our homes.
Being a good and responsible cohabitant or homeowner, then extends to considering implications of these expectations. When interviewing members of the general public about their use of internet-connected devices at home, we found a lens of group (or collective) efficacy can help structure the problem space and inform future work. The psychologist Bandura describes self-efficacy as a concept describing how individual judgements of “how well one can execute courses of action required to deal with prospective situations”. Bandura explains how self-efficacy is influenced by one’s own experience (enactive attainment) and by observing others (vicarious experience) in success and failure3For details: Albert Bandura. 1994. Self-Efficacy. In Encyclopedia of human behaviour, V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.). Vol. 4. Academic Press, New York, 71–81. Collective efficacy, then, can be understood as the perceived ability of a group to deal with prospective situations. Members of that group will consider their own, each other’s, and the collective’s skills and competencies, when assessing prospective situations. Our research has shown examples of individuals specifically configuring device for others, use of devices on behalf of others, and accommodating for others’ preference not to use particular devices by enabling alternative control options4The full paper is available online: https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:dff8a717-5e6c-46f0-b59e-2060d0ee4fcc .
We can leverage such insights to improve the experience of using future smart home products by designing for communal use. Informing design through a perspective of social expectations can help to unearth complexities of social relationships and hierarchies which might contradict the intentions and assumptions underpinning the design of technology. This perspective can guide use of internet-connected devices in terms of access, use and responsibilities at home; and better understanding responsibility and action of the collective can help to empower individuals to serve as role models for their cohabitants. We can take structure and inspiration from self-efficacy by expanding the concept to the collective to this end.
I’m currently working to finish a 6 months ethnographic study of communal use of smart home devices. The study further explores households’ mundane ways of navigating complex and unfamiliar situations to inform the design of future smart home products. I’m based at the department of computer science where my research falls within the wider theme of Human-Centred-Computing where I’m supervised by Prof Ivan Flechais and Dr Helena Webb. My DPhil is funded by the CDT in Cyber Security (EPSRC grant), and my work is supported by NCSC Small Grants and a 2019 UK Information Commissioner’s Office research grant.
- 1Of course, this is not necessarily always the case as relationships break down and trust is lost. A related research area is concerned with such issues, also under the umbrella of intimate partner abuse and the internet of things.
- 2Social norms are here understood as collective beliefs about acceptable group conduct which go hand in hand with individual perceptions of the very same conduct with a moral/normative component.
- 3For details: Albert Bandura. 1994. Self-Efficacy. In Encyclopedia of human behaviour, V. S. Ramachaudran (Ed.). Vol. 4. Academic Press, New York, 71–81
- 4The full paper is available online: https://ora.ox.ac.uk/objects/uuid:dff8a717-5e6c-46f0-b59e-2060d0ee4fcc