Joining things up

Sometimes, it seems like we’ve not yet worked out how to talk about the Internet.

One example is the idea that “social media” is a somehow separate entity, removed from normality and happening inside our phones, but for lots of us, it’s a normal part of everyday life.The Internet can be brilliant at connecting people who might, in the real world, be both close and very far away from one another. (For instance, this community Go Fund Me page to support the family of a woman and child killed in a hit and run accident.)  

The author of this article in The Guardian, which tries to give an even-handed view of how social media can help and hinder maternal mental health, makes the classic mistake of forgetting that lots of people behave roughly the same online as they do in real life. If the words “social media” were replaced throughout the article with examples of things that happen in the real world, the message would be roughly the same.

For instance,

“What role does social media play in facilitating this unhelpful undermining of confidence and capability in new parents?”

works equally well if you recast it as:

“What role do Boden catalogues play in facilitating this unhelpful undermining of confidence and capability in new parents?”

“What role do parents with close social ties in their community play in facilitating this unhelpful undermining of confidence and capability in new parents?”

“What role do baby yoga classes/all parenting books ever/unhelpful articles in The Guardian play in facilitating this unhelpful undermining of confidence and capability in new parents?”

People who look like they’ve worked it all out and are having a brilliant time can be found as often in the café at the end of your road or your local playground as on “social media”. And looking like you’re having a brilliant time isn’t the same as actually having a brilliant time. So rather than creating false partitions between our online and offline lives, we could talk about people supporting each other and joining useful communities, how people can be empowered by being connected to one another, how feeling unsure and as if everyone else has worked it all out is a natural part of a new and frightening life stage.

What’s the new community infrastructure if local churches and coffee mornings and playgroups aren’t available to the people who need them most, but Facebook groups and impromptu meet-ups are? One way to understand this is to use language that represents our lived experience – the WhatsApp post that’s read while waiting to cross the road, the advice asked at 2am when there’s no one to call, the happiness of seeing a geographically distant friend or loved one pop-up on Instagram – and think about building bridges rather than setting things apart.


Weekday Cashless

This is the story of how TfL going cashless has changed what I want from my clothes.

None of this will be a revelation if you’ve got a faded rectangle imprinted in your front-left trouser pocket, and the square of your wallet in the back left, but hey – I’ve got news! I’ve stopped carrying a purse.*

Or at least, I’ve stopped carrying a purse in my central London working week.

I’ve got an iPhone 6 that’s almost thin enough to put in my pocket without spoiling the line of my clothes, and a debit card that does everything else. I don’t want to take my debit card in and out of my purse every time I go through the barrier on the underground; I don’t want to carry an extra thing when I run out to get lunch.

In fact, my Monday to Thursday self doesn’t need cash; it needs good pockets.

At the weekend, when I go to parks and playgrounds and local cafes and pick-up my dry-cleaning and go to the library, I do carry a purse. It feels somehow rude to pay with a card in the coffee shop down the road, and you can’t buy vegetables from a market stall with plastic. And anyway, family life is somehow naturally frictionful; the reassurance of carrying a little hard cash is by no means out of keeping with the clunk and muddle of my weekends.

But my weekday self is frictionless and fully converged. I feel an itch of irritation about getting out my work pass and disinclined to feel in my bag for a loyalty card. I want everything in one thing, and I’m lucky enough to be able to pay a little extra for that convenience.

And as I write this, I’m aware that I’m describing privilege – the privilege of being relatively affluent and employed and spending my money on coffee and having fancy clothes that get dry-cleaned. But it’s also the privilege of carrying less stuff. Of being less weighed down and moving more quickly. The sort of thing that men have done every day for pretty much ever, while women have somehow got sidetracked into carrying trophy bags on the crook of their arm, that have the effect of unbalancing and making them totter.

So the only thing holding me back now is a lack of clothes with reasonable pockets – cut to accommodate a phone and a debit card.

Not what I expected when TfL went cashless.


*as in, “a small pouch of leather or plastic used for carrying money, typically by a woman”. I’d like to believe I’m close to not carrying a bag, but I’m not entirely deluded.

Teeth and Telling Stories

Everyone knows the best ideas come when you least expect them. They come when you’re brushing your teeth or walking over a hill or looking out of the window – as if the act of doing a mundane and mechanical thing distracts the brain just enough to let it get on with solving problems. A good idea rarely turns up when a flashing cursor tells it too, but instead might arrive when your brain feels so full it’s too busy to do anything else, or too bored to hardly move.

I’ve been thinking about this for a few reasons.

The first is work. I work in an agency, and this morning I engaged in the monthly scramble to log my time, noting every hour and half hour as if they were all equal: as if there were no minutes spent frowning at an empty Keynote document, no working through a problem at 2am and no frantic notes made while standing at a zebra crossing.

The second is my child. I’d like him to learn to be bored. Some of the best parts of my childhood came from the most boring moments – from imagining my way out of a rainy day or forcing myself to read the only book left on the shelf. But he already knows there’s always, somewhere, on some device, an episode of Octonauts to be watched, and then again I’m also A Parent Who Points Things Out, which probably doesn’t help.

And the third is because TfL are replacing an escalator at Brixton Station.

Replacing the escalator means only half the usual number of people can come in or out of the station at any given time. At rush hour, this can lead to extremely long queues that move at a trudging travelator pace. Commuting in London usually involves everyone rushing past and silently ignoring each other, but this “reduced access” turns the people who arrive together into a cohort that travels to the platform together. And, of course, almost everyone fills the frankly bottomless ennui of the queue by looking at their phone.

Picture by @_preeya_, via The Brixton Blog. Phone presumably obscured by umbrellas.

When the reduced access began last year, the painfully slow pace was made even slower by everyone taking pictures – either the marvellous phenomenon of a queue was too exciting not to Instagram, or all the just-in-time travellers were sending evidence of the delays to their bosses.

But as time has passed and people have factored the delay into their routine, I’ve been surprised by how many people use this 1 or 2 minutes of downtime as an opportunity to start watching TV. When I say it’s a queue, it’s a fairly perilous queue – it involves stairs and a ticket gate and an escalator – but for some people that isn’t an impediment to wearing headphones and holding a screen in front of their face to watch Holby City.

Now I’m aware this makes me sound like I’m a 105. For me, the most enduring thing about Lena Dunham’s book was a description of, I think, someone’s mum as “not from the generation that has TV on in the background”. And while I’m sympathetic to that kind of distraction – I do most of my best work, and all of my best sleeping, while listening to Dorothy L. Sayers audiobooks – I guess what surprises me is that this isn’t even the background, it’s generally right in front of someone’s face. And the reason I’ve noticed this is because it turns the TV watchers into people who expect to be carried by the crowd. They aren’t really contributing any effort to the task of walking into the station; they’re being moved along by the will and direction of the other bodies.

The fact that lots of people look at their phone all the time isn’t news, but it does feel as if the amounts of time that we’re able to spend alone with our thoughts is getting smaller and smaller. I’ve recently – for the first time in years – starting wearing a watch, and have been gratified by the fact that looking at the time assuages my attention deficit almost as thoroughly as checking my phone. I can now spend something between minutes and hours no longer knowing if I’ve received an email, which is progress of a sort.

And from time to time, I get mildly exercised by the bluster and campaigning that proposes everyone should learn to code. The act of creating or, more fashionably, “making” isn’t limited to coding or 3D printing; for me, digital literacy includes reading comprehension and clear written skills, and the ability to engage an audience and tell a story. Making up stories will become more and more important as we have more ways to tell them.

While writers and authors only rank as the “123rd least likely job to be computerised”, their “creative intelligence” still manages to be cited as a “bottleneck to computerisation” in Frey and Osborne’s 2013 paper, ‘The Future of Employment: How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?“.* And while that’s a still a low risk, it’s a worrying one. If the robots can’t do it either, what will happen if no one is idling in the queue, wondering if the man in the pork pie hat is a spy or whether the two strangers are going to kiss or ticking over another problem from another time and place? If everyone’s watching TV, who will write the stories? There’s a risk that in 30 or 40 or 50 years time we could still be watching the same episodes of Holby City, because everyone forgot to have any new ideas.

And once all that had occurred to me, I felt a bit saddened by this Wired story, about Oral B’s gamification of toothbrushing – using “correct brushing” as a way to progress a story and project it on to the bathroom mirror. Because, if nothing else, we should carry on letting our minds wander while we brush our teeth for as long as we can. And if I’m honest, this is really a note to self to stop re-watching 30 Rock on my iPod and bothering my FitBit and start carrying a notebook around with me. But I’ve written it now.

*Discovered via John Lanchester, “The Robots Are Coming“, London Review of Books, 5 March 2015

Boys and Girls and Wheels

I’ve been thinking about wheels a lot lately. Specifically the kinds that are given to little boys and to little girls, and the way those wheels can lead to other things.

I’ve got a son, who’s nearly 2. He’s passionately interested in things that go “round and round” and he particularly likes pushing round big things (his buggy, a trolley, a toy pushchair), small things (mostly, but not exclusively, trains and tractors) and zooming around on his scooter.

When he was about 15 months old we got a book from the library called “Dig, Dig, Dig”. It’s full of pictures of “things that go” and incredibly repetitive rhyming phrases, and it arrived in his life at a point when his language development was racing on and he was absorbing new words all the time. And it turned out that, he liked the book so much, the first things he really started to say other than cat, milk, daddy or ball were all pretty much related to construction vehicles. Mixer truck! Road roller! Dig dig! And because he could say those words, I guess we started to reinforce the fact that he liked those things. He could point at them and identify them, so we showed him more of them.

My son, asleep holding a tractor in one hand and a concrete-mixer truck in the other.
My son, asleep, holding a tractor in one hand and a concrete-mixer truck in the other.

It’s now a few months later and our house is full of trains and tractors and buses. We sometimes sit by the side of building sites and get up early to watch the rubbish be carried away in the rubbish truck. On the one hand, it’s not strange that he’s interested in big colourful things that make a noise. On the other, it’s kind of weird because all of those things are coded somehow as being Boys’ Things. And that’s strange mostly because I’m pretty much the acme of being a tedious feminist and it’s all liberal values and applied appreciation of the arts round here – and don’t get me wrong, he’s also fascinated by the kitchen broom and the washing machine and his dad’s guitar and lights that flash on and off and every electronic device that’s capable of showing Octonauts and a hundred other things – but the preoccupation with Wheels for Boys started to worry me.

And having thought about it for quite a while now, a couple of things stand out:

The first is that trucks and trains aren’t Boys’ Things at all. They’re just things. Somewhere someone made up their mind that boys like them more than girls so they’ve become boys’ things. But that’s ridiculous: things don’t have genders.

The second is that, even though my son loves pushing his buggy and frequently pushes the random children’s pushchair that lives at our local playground, it would never occur to me to get him a pushchair. Now, I don’t think that’s because he’s a boy: I think it’s because it would be another annoying thing to carry around, that wouldn’t even help him move more quickly. And besides, if he really wants to push something, he can just about reach the handles on his buggy, so he might as well push that.

But I guess this made me think about what happens when girls get pushchairs. When a small girl likes wheels and pushing stuff around, it’s more likely that someone might get her a pushchair to push. The thing about a pushchair is that, once you’ve got over the novelty of just pushing it around, it becomes a receptacle for a doll or a teddy. It become a toy that somehow presupposes a desire to nurture and look after things. And you have to go carefully – no running or dashing – in case the doll or the teddy falls out. And I get the opportunity to think about that because I don’t have a child with a pushchair, so it stands out as a difference – something to contemplate.

Whereas if a boy likes wheels he might get some trains and cars and thing that go fast, that zoom away, that give him a love of train stations and buses and weird enormous bits of machinery.

And sure, lots of people give boys pushchairs and girls cars. But when I see a toddler in the park, carefully pushing his or her doll in a pushchair, I often have a moment’s pause and wonder what signals I’m giving my son: perhaps I should be teaching him to nurture and be careful, rather than just run and zoom and jump. Or perhaps that will come with time.

Anyway, wheels. They’re funny things.

Cats and Curiosity

This is a slightly edited version of the words that I meant to say at Playful last Friday. It’s about what we may or may not learn from activity tracking and the “quantified self”, told through the medium of cats and jazz flute. 

Cats and Curiosity

I’m going to talk about two small diary projects of mine. One is a bunch of photographs I’ve taken of my cats, and the other is a notebook in which I noted music I listened to while I travelled to work. The reason for both of these projects is that I wanted to understand whether I could start to spot patterns and trends in the more ambient parts of my life. Rather than just tracking what happened when I put one foot in front of the other with a FitBit, I wanted to know if I could learn anything from the seemingly more random layers of data.

In particular, the two questions I had in mind were:

  • Is the place my cats sit every day anything to do with the weather?
  • And how can I listen to more music?

I’m going to start by telling you a bit more about my cats.

Shirley and Dolly are sisters.

Two black and white cats looking a bit silly.

They’re named after two folk singer sisters…

Folk singers Shirley and Dolly Collins

… are about nine years old and, as cats go, they’re pretty unexceptional.

cats plotting murders

The other important headline is that – like lots of cats – they are creatures of habit.

When I was on maternity leave last year, I was at home during the day a lot more than usual, and I noticed they had a tendency to sit in almost the same place for most of the time. Ordinarily, this kind of observation might be the sort of thing you dwell on for a moment, before moving on to other, more challenging matters – but in the immediate period after having a baby, things can be a bit deranging. I wasn’t getting out a lot or having a great deal of sleep. And it’s fair to say that, other than looking after my child, my main areas of productivity were:

  • watching every single episode of House, in order, to the extent that I almost wondered for a little while if that would qualify me to be a doctor
  • and, wondering if the arrangements of where my cats sat would be a useful way of forecasting the weather.

Now cats’ fondness for routine is fairly well established, and is a reassuringly consistent presence in our news media. One of my favourite cat routine tales is the story of Sgt Podge, who pops out for his morning constitutional every day and – through who knows what cunning – has somehow trained his owner to drive 1.4 miles to a golf course every morning to collect him. You can see Podge below, supervising some human driving, before – as this piece of BBC journalism importantly points out – he goes home for breakfast and a sleep. But most importantly, Podge has made it clear to everyone that it’s not his fault. It’s the fault of the woman who used to give him sardines, who is now forcing him to walk to the golf course every morning. Just in case.

Podge gets a lift

My cats’ routine is obviously a little bit less dramatic than that. For a start, no transport is involved. But don’t let that put you off.

At this particular time, I noticed my cats’ spot of choice happened to be on the back of the sofa, which has the advantage of being both next to a window (for sun) and a radiator (for heat) – but what I started to notice was that the exact arrangement of how they sat was liable to change.

Cats sitting down

Sometimes Shirley sat on the left, sometimes Dolly. Sometimes they were symmetrical, other times not.

More cats sitting down

Having watched 7611 minutes of House, I felt I was practically a scientist now, so I started to wonder whether it was possible that the place my cats sat might have something to do with the weather. And I did what all good scientists do. I started a Tumblr. And this is more or less what I observed:


Shirley has a mild preference for the left side of the sofa

There appears to be no correlation between where my cats sit and the weather

They just like a bit of variety

In spite of this being a largely fruitless exercise, it did make me think a bit more about why we track so many different things, and I started to wonder what exactly it is we’re trying to understand when we quantify ourselves.

Human beings have long been preoccupied by the idea of self-knowledge. Understanding and rationalizing our conscious existence has not only given rise to religions but to centuries of philosophical debate. And it feels as though – currently – the deeply empiricist nature of tracking everything might lead us to the same fairly bleak sense of self that the 18th Century philosopher David Hume outlines here:

I can never catch myself at any time without a perception, and can never observe anything but the perception. When my perceptions are remov’d for any time, as by sound sleep; so long am I insensible of myself, and may be truly said not to exist

David Hume, “Treatise”, Part 6, Of Personal Identity

The key part being –

When my perceptions are remov’d for any time Imay truly be said not to exist.

Which could be interpreted to mean, roughly, I track therefore I am. But it seems likely – or at least, desirable, that there is more to life than this. And a part of me definitely remembers a time – before I had a smartphone – when I used to gaze out of the window more, aimlessly wondering about stuff.

Currently, our health, wealth and energy consumption are becoming so easy to comprehend that they have a tangible, and addictive, sense of both progress and failure. I work in an agency, so I add my working hours to a timesheet everyday. My phone tracks my every move, I have a FitBit and a savings goal on my bank account, and all sorts of reminders that my online supermarket sends me knows how much I drink and reminds me when I need to buy more gin. I can see at a glance the books I’ve downloaded and read and find a record of the music I’ve played. One outcome of this, is that it’s suddenly quite easy to set all sorts of goals that we don’t really need. For example, a man recently cycled 301 km to draw a picture of a bike on Google Maps.

This goal and activity gives rise to another question about our personhood, which to borrow the words of philosopher Eric Olson is broadly:

What have people got that non-people haven’t?

And how can we start to convey the sorts of things that people have through the data we collect and share about ourselves? What about the secret signals that we forget to send when everything is automated?

Which brings me, albeit very briefly, to OkCupid. OkCupid is full of words that people think make them look attractive to other people.

I’m currently reading the book by Christian Rudder, one of the founders of OkCupid. One of the strangest things in it – and there are a few – is a bunch of tables that itemise the words people from different genders and races are least likely to use in their profiles. Of all the data points at which Rudder could have subdivided people – age, location, employment status – he’s chosen one of the most sensitive and offensive, in order – I guess – to make a point about stereotypes. And I’ve pulled out the ones here that are, apparently, most relevant to me.


But actually this list does something more complicated than that: it’s a list of the things that people think the people they want to attract don’t find attractive, aggregated into race and gender groups. Which, when you think about it, is a pretty complicated social artefact. It’s like an infinity mirror of preference.

Now OkCupid is probably closer to identifying the intangible qualities of human attraction than many other dating services just because it asks so many questions. But in reality, human attraction is about more than actualising a bunch of specific preferences and prejudices that we might have – or crafting our own image so that it meets the supposed criteria for people we think we want to attract.

Western love and marriage has had a relatively brief period of informality, less than 100 years in which we’ve been untrammeled by social norms and expectations. But there’s an extent to which services like OkCupid are bringing a new kind of formality: by matching people so exactly based on type and stated preference, these services will end up creating new norms and expectations about who people like you are supposed to find attractive – perhaps ultimately changing who you do find attractive, and the signals that you chose to send to them and to the word at large.

If we go back to “What have people got that non-people haven’t got?” it seems possible that non-people could have quite a lot of the same attributes as the people described in OkCupid profiles.


And what is our ability to get what we want all of the time doing to our sensibilities as humans? What resources do we need when everything that we want is available to us all of the time?

It seems to me that the ability to take short cuts and clear paths to the things that we think we want is most likely to change and challenge is our curiosity.

I can see this in how iPlayer has changed the way I listen to Radio 4. One of the most delightful things about speech radio is the way it’s possible to zone out for a little while and then, suddenly, start listening again. But now I can choose exactly what to listen to, I very rarely just turn the radio on – instead I might spend several minutes looking for something that meets my exact requirements, rather than allowing myself the opportunity to idly listen and discover. And because I’m so used to getting what I want, when I can’t do that there, I go somewhere else. I’m so used to following my own desire paths now that I don’t have the patience to discover something more unexpected that might be hiding down a different route.

Which brings me to my other small project, about listening to music on headphones.

Andreas Pavel invented the first version of the personal stereo just over 40 years ago. He called it the Stereobelt, and it was made up two fairly large cartridges that you strapped around your body on a belt. So it was, quite literally, a stereo on a belt. Pavel realised almost straight away that there was an unexpected side effect of listening to music through headphones, which is that you feel like you’re in a film.

And he had this particular epiphany while standing in St Moritz listening Herbie Mann, play jazz flute – an experience you can try to recreate here by listening to the audio on this YouTube video:

while looking at this picture of St Moritz:

St Moritz

Now I haven’t seen any films that combine jazz flute solos with alpine forests, but I’m assuming Mr Pavel had, because he said,

It was like a dream. It is the pleasure of the music combined with the vision of your environment. You are putting a soundtrack to life so that it becomes like a film.

And while I might not share Pavel’s taste in music, I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment.

But in reality, most of of the time when I listen to music on headphones, the real reason is to block other things out – either the chatter of other commuters, or the many ambient distractions at work. I realised earlier this year that the only time I really properly listen to music with any concentration is when I’m alone, walking down the street – and then I’m probably going somewhere. It’s a fleeting distraction, not a considered appreciation. I can carry 10,000 songs in my pocket but I never have time to really listen to any of them.

One of the things I wanted to do was make my journey to work better. It’s an average of about 43 minutes each way, is one of the few reliable stretches of time that I can definitely call “my own” and is reliably repeatable enough to mostly not have to think about. I get the Victoria Line to King’s Cross, where I change and go one stop to Farringdon, and then I have a short walk. And I do it all again backwards on the way home. It’s the same journey, at almost the same time, 470 times a year.

For a little while, I’d been quite into counting my steps and encouraging myself to run upstairs. And while that was great and everything and will probably mean I won’t die quite so soon, it didn’t necessarily make it a happier journey. But I noticed that paying attention to what I listened to – writing it down with a paper and pen – meant that I generally chose the next morning’s music with greater care, and the more care that went into the choice, the better the journey to work.

The things I wrote down with a paper and pen were:

  • Day
  • Date and time of journey
  • Route
  • What I Listened ToMusic To Travel To notebook

(I made a Google Spreadsheet of everything I listened to in July, hoping I’d find the time to do some fancy visualisation. But I didn’t, so never mind.)

In actual fact, the first three variables made the least difference to the quality of the journey. The thing that made the biggest difference was what I was listening to at these three, fairly unpropitious spots along the way:

These two at King’s Cross – one is the interchange for the Victoria Line, and the other the interchange for the Metropolitan line:

KX Victoria Line interchange


Metropolitan Line interchange KX

And this one walking down towards my office:

Great Sutton Street

And if I happen to be listening to the right kind of song at the right moment when I look up and see one of these views, for some reason I feel a surge of optimism and adrenalin and as if it’s possible that day might turn out be a good one. I don’t know especially what that might mean, other than that mildly open space and a stirring song are all that it takes to make me feel cheerful. But knowing that feels more useful to me than the metrics I get in iTunes or from

From what I can gather, the simple act of listening to music isn’t sufficient to stimulate endorphins or dopamine. Perhaps it’s the combination of the music with the speed I’m walking and the things I can see. Or perhaps it’s a little glimmer of discovery and curiosity about the new day. But I’m pretty sure it’s improved by making a careful choice, and writing it down.

I’ll finish now with another clip of music ­– this one is a song that makes me feel happy when I walk down the street, or make one of those exciting interchanges at King’s Cross. I hope it does the same for you.

Domestic Folklore, or Washing Machines for Men

Ginetex Laundry Care Pictograms

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.

Domestic Futures

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


The Bauhaus Archive and (Not) Being Like Karl Lagerfeld

I went to Berlin at the weekend, to speak at an event. While I was there I bought some Mozart balls and visited the Bauhaus Archive. I also accidentally ate boiled veal, improvised a child’s nappy from a restaurant napkin and formed some unnecessary opinions about what makes “good lox”, so it’s fair to say I ate quite well. (Or at least, frequently. I’m not sure I recommend the boiled veal.)

Bauhaus Archive

I loved the Bauhaus Archive. There were nice tea pots, dire warnings about Herbert Bayer’s womanising and very aesthetically pleasing audio guides. I neglected to take a photo in the ladies’ loos for my (not very complete) Toilets of the World series, but maybe next time I’ll remember, because they were very nice toilets. Matt also got talking to an elderly academic who carries around a rubber stamp of his name and address, so that he can stamp people and things with his contact details.

I’m a sucker for a system, and every time I hear a bit more about the rigour of the Bauhaus education I think about how much fun it sounds, like being in a Rodchenko exercise photo with added metal work and furniture. In fact, almost everything that seems excellent about it is summed up in this photograph:

Photo: Lux Feininger, “Weavers on the Stairs of the Bauhaus building, 1927”

I have also (and unrelatedly)  been reading Alicia Drake’s book about Yves Saint Lauren and Karl Lagerfeld, called The Beautiful Fall, which was written in 2006. The following extract about the vicissitudes of fashion, FOMO and the unrelenting pursuit of up-to-the-minute newness struck a chord with how we can end up thinking of technology. Anything, anything, as long as it’s new:

It is a grim moment for the designer when he or she finds himself or herself totally out of fashion, left behind, out of synch as time moves on. A new generation is born and the designer’s vision or creative expression no longer describes or evokes the time around them … one of the defining qualities of fashion is that it should describe its epoch and the desires of that moment.

And in an industry based on making money from trying to harness the moment, everyone … is consumed by the dread that the moment is slipping through their fingers, that it will be gone and they will be unwanted … Eric Wright, former long-term associate of Karl Lagerfeld, says about Karl: “His greatest fear was not being part of the moment.”