A selection of the Ginetex Textile Care Labels
BERG announced Cloudwash this week, a very smart (in both senses of the word) prototype that uses their Devshield to turn a regular washing machine into a connected washing machine. Washes can be scheduled and programmed from your phone, and – on pressing a button – you can order laundry detergent directly from Amazon. It is one of the most useful and interesting expressions of the Connected Home that I’ve come across – and, like the best design fiction, it brings with it a set of complex new futures that touch equally on the mundane and the political.
And it does this in an interesting way. It’s a washing machine for people who don’t know how to use washing machines; who don’t need to wash a wide-range of fabrics, worry about how colourfast material is, or how wet or dry clothes are when you take them out of the machine. It’s a washing machine for people who do bulk washes of jeans and t-shirts and sometimes wash other things.
It is, in other words, a washing machine for men.
And this is both intriguing and discomforting because, in case you hadn’t noticed, Laundry is a Feminist Issue. Whether inadvertently or not, changing the UI on one of the trustiest home appliances does a lot more than show what BERG Cloud can do; it messes with domestic semiotics. On the one hand, I guess I should be pleased that finally men will be able to do their own laundry, but on the other I feel a little bit bemused and keep returning to the same question:
Why can’t men learn how to use washing machines?
Now I realise this is sort of crass. I am deeply and politically averse to generalisations about “things men do” and “things women do”, but it had sincerely never occurred to me that washing machines weren’t easy to use. For the last 60 years, most of the clean clothes that people in the Industrialised West have worn have been washed by washing machines. If they were that hard to use, surely we would all be wearing dirty or shrunken and out-of-shape clothes.
Or perhaps it means that women’s reluctance to do handwashing has forced them to overcome persistently bad industrial design, because the alternative is just too boring and time-consuming to countenance.
But whichever (or whichever combination) of these two things is the case, it begs a series of interesting questions, and, intentionally or otherwise, the UI of Cloudwash posits some changes to conventional domestic structures.
Secret Language of Domesticity
Like it or not, there’s a Secret Language of Domesticity. In technology terms, it’s the equivalent of “viewing source”: it’s not intentionally secret, it’s just easy to ignore if you’re not interested or don’t understand it. It’s the thing that creates the persistent rhythms of the home, and it’s passed down – by and large – from mother to daughter.
When I was growing up, the Dairy Book of Home Management* was a fixture of our kitchen. I was a peculiarly avid reader, and filled many longueurs sitting at the table, reading first-aid and pet-care tips and finding out how long different foodstuffs would last in the freezer. Not particularly because I was interested, but because it was there.
Around the same time, I got my Brownie badge in housekeeping and I was absorbed into the domestic routines of our home. I learned how to iron, how to boil an egg, which order you should vacuum the stairs in (top to bottom, not bottom to top) and how to hang-out laundry so it dried more quickly.
This being the early 80s, it was also the time that our kitchen succumbed to new-fangledness. It was a good few years before we had a microwave, but a big freezer and a tumble dryer appeared. I’m not sure these things affected me in any particular way, but I remember a vague sense of novelty and the more frequent appearance of Wall’s Viennettas.
Over the intervening 30 years, “home management” has become much less complex. It’s still the case that vinegar is the best thing for cleaning windows, that wood rewards love and care with beeswax and that a cheese rind and a stale loaf is a good basis for soup – but all of those things become irrelevant in a world of self-cleaning windows, IKEA MDF and sliced supermarket loaves.
Growing poverty in modern Britain has seen a horrifying new kind of domestic ingenuity, including food that can be cooked in a kettle to minimise fuel bills. In the meantime, the automation and out-sourcing of boring, lengthy tasks like the weekly supermarket shop has seen the birth of the Weekend Artisan Breadmaker. In a culture of spiraling working hours, the time to tend to your sourdough starter is often bought via the assistance of Ocado and a cleaner – or a wife.
Domestic science used to be the specialist subject of legions of housewives and housekeepers. Keeping a family fed, warm and happy was a life’s work, during which an enormous reserve of specialist knowledge was amassed. The frictionless household remains a feat of creativity, resourcefulness, mental arithmetic and forward planning; “home management” depends on the constant scheduling and rescheduling of laundry and shopping and cooking and cleaning, and many more things besides.
None of this is romantic. It is often boring drudgery, made possible by a series of routine mental exercises** – the famous “multi-tasking” that allegedly so often differentiates women from men. But it is undeniable that, providing you can afford it, mass-market production, cheap replaceable goods, automation and technology have all sped up the process of running a home.
For heterosexual couples, domestic equality is still unevenly distributed, and – regardless of what my politics, home life or aspirations tell me – in the industrialised world, the domestic front is still largely female. Although the design of connected objects, especially wearables, is one in which more women are coming to the fore, it’s probable that – like many appliances before them – these home robots will be designed mostly by men for women.
The prospect of the Connected Home could have the same seismic impact as the new wave of 1950s convenience. The threat or promise of home-robot saturation creates an interesting dichotomy: it might allow women to finally “Have It All”, or it might usher in an Uncanny Valley of the Dolls, a Frankenstein future in which the learnt languages and behaviours of Everyday Domestic Scientists are outsourced to mechanised, man-made help.
I’ve been using a washing machine at least 2 or 3 times a week since I left home in 1992. Barring holidays and periods of deep slovenliness, that means I’ve probably done around 3,432 washes. For the last 8 years I’ve used the same washing machine (a Bosch, that I selected fairly carefully) pretty much all of the time, but prior to that I spent a long time shuttling from rented house to rented house. I’m waving my finger in the air a bit here, but I reckon I’ve used at least 15 different washing machines, maybe more. So I’ve done quite a lot of washing in quite a lot of different washing machines, and – once I understood how washing machines worked – I’ve never had a problem working out how to use one. This has nothing to do with my chromosomes or the unique way in which a Ladies’ Brain works. It’s for a much simpler reason:
My mother told me how to do it.
And, like all systems, laundry pictograms need to be learnt. Their primary function is not to provide an interface for washing machines, but an interface for clothes. By using pictures rather than words, they allow care labels to be as small and unobtrusive as possible. They are the common language of fabric: intelligible at-a-glance across international territories, findable on the seams of clothes, and aids to the quick and frictionless running of the household.
So washing machine UI isn’t necessarily bad and it doesn’t necessarily need changing. Indeed, it’s possible that men don’t really need their own washing machines at all: with a little bit of effort, they could just use the ones the rest of use.
*edited, trivia fans, by Smash Hits editor and future Pet Shop Boy Neil Tennant
** The rather excellent “Quantify Everything: A Dream of a Feminist Data Future” touches on this, and many other pertinent points