The Box on the Dresser

There’s a time when all technologies are new. Understanding old technologies can help us see how new ones repeat, or at least rhyme, with ones that have gone before. The early days of radio makes a good counterpoint to today’s new devices – Amazon Echo and Google Home.

There was a time when radios were a new technology. On their arrival into British homes in the 1920s people saw radios as unruly guests. These guests caused considerable disturbance to domestic routines.

Radios were novelties. They looked more like something out of contemporary science fiction than an everyday household object.

They were large contraptions with acid batteries and prone to leak. They were largely the preserve of men – a toy for father, brothers, uncles and nephews to play with.

Early radios were not devices designed around a shared listening experience. Most lacked speakers to amplify the signal. The masculine and rather exclusive pleasures of the radio were a function of their design.

In the 1930s things changed: electricity was more widely available. The battery acid that could damage the dresser became a thing of the past. Radio became social. With the arrival of speakers listeners were no long reliant on headphones. A household could sit in comfort and share a radio experience together. Broadcasters began to shift towards ‘the family’ as the audience. They began to schedule content that revolved around the routines of a household and its members.

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A male ‘toy’ designed around the lone listener became a family device designed for shared experiences.

The internet-connected-smart-speaker on the kitchen counter

A new class of devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home have emerged. Many say they are the next big thing. It’s probably fair to say that it is mostly men that are bringing theses latest new-fangled devices into the home again.

They don’t run on leaky acid batteries and they don’t have headphone sockets. They don’t need the programming and scheduling of broadcasters to make them family technologies

The knowledge and appetite needed to integrate them with other smart home devices and services is not the sole preserve of men. Yet in a recent study we conducted in the UK and US we found men driving the implementation of these gizmos into household life. We also discovered a richer seam of male (and often pretty patronising) talk about these devices.

So perhaps it’s a case of ‘no change’ then? Is the Amazon Echo the 21st century box on the dresser – the preserve of men, awaiting more shared household use? Early signs suggest something else is going on.

The Family Helper

The ‘Skills’ this new class of devices possess make them immediately available to all. Kids doing homework get help with spelling or a tricky long division. Mum can find out about traffic congestion on her daily commute. Dad can see what’s next in his diary.

The ‘openness’ of a speech interface – and the absence of screens – lends itself to a more shared use. Families tend to put this speaker-interface in that most social space of contemporary homes – the kitchen. Echos and Google Homes have quickly become – as one participant put it – “another member of the family”.

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The rebirth of social computing

There was a time when the household computer – I’m thinking of the Microsoft Windows heyday – was a shared device. It sat in a communal space – in a nook under the stairs or in the kitchen. Parents wanted to supervise their kids on this new and feared device. They wanted to ration dial-up connections. Everyone had to share their technical knowledge with the new-fangled device. No risk of acid leaks perhaps but plenty could still go wrong.

Then came along Smartphones and tablets. We all disappeared off to the sofa to throw angry birds, check Facebook or do our email. We began to worry about the isolating effects of computing. In the immortal words of Sherry Turkle we started to dwell ‘Alone Together’.

Voice interfaces might herald the arrival of newly social forms of computing. These new devices are possible because AI, Machine Learning and Speech Recognition are maturing. But there’s a less obvious, more socio-cultural reason for the apparent success of these devices.

We can’t help but think that the social environment is ready for a new way to do computing too. The Echo on the counter is laying down a social challenge to the solitude of screens. If voice interface devices become big it will be because they are social. We may well find with we’re spending less time Alone, Together and more time Together.

/ Simon

Update – If you enjoyed this piece – and happily many seem to – you might also like Learning to Live with Alexa – initial reflections on Amazon Echo written in late 2015 and Menus, Mental Maps and Voice on the difficulties of the shift to spoken interfaces.