System Settings

Thuto Durkac-Somo considers the frictions inherent to networked architecture

The first time I heard an architect refer to someone as a user, I thought it was a category error. They must have meant “client” or “employee.” Computers distinguish users by distinct login accounts with different permissions to change software and system settings. I use my stove for cooking and my bed for sleeping. Am I an architectural user of my apartment? Do I use the architecture of my office the same way that I use Evernote to make a grocery list? My roles as user of space and user of technology came to coalesce in 2020, when I found myself spending more time at a desk than ever before: over the summer, after years of reading forums on how to combine Mac and Windows systems in one machine, I built a computer.

I began by checking a compatibility list of parts, then fitting them into a case made of powder-coated white galvanized steel with a tempered glass window. In order to connect to the internet, I ran an ethernet cord from my dining room to my living room, over two door frames and behind a couch. When an initial installation failed, I searched Reddit and Discord for suggestions. To my roommates and cat, the computer was a new piece of furniture. For several months of 2020, my computer and my desk became my remote office, my social link to friends. Without much floorspace to manoeuvre, the computer screen sat on a desk in front of three bay windows. In 2023, that system still sits conspicuously next to my desk, in its white case.

In order to ensure my computer not only worked but used its full potential, I ran stress tests and changed GPU settings to marginally increase frame rates. The sweet spot was tweaking the system until it was on the verge of crashing. Unlike my computer, the marketing for smart home technology emphasizes the absence of tutorials and stress tests. Consumers are promised a machine that disguises its full functions, while smoothing the routines of domestic life—in effect teaching our home how we wish to use it.

Jim Sutherland sits at the ECHO IV computer. His wife Ruth puts a raincoat on daughter Sally, while Jay and Ann look on, 1966. Copyright ©, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2023, all rights reserved. Reprinted with permission

In 1966, Jim Sutherland worked as an engineer for Westinghouse Electric in Pittsburgh. Using surplus power supplies, mounting frames, and circuit boards from a Westinghouse Prodac-IV, Sutherland designed the ECHO-IV: the first “smart home.” A diagram of the system measures the computer cabinet at 6’ high, 7’ wide, and 1.5’ deep. From the programmer console, the ECHO-IV could control the bedroom alarm clock and the furnace thermostat, and reposition the TV antenna. Jim joked that the Echo IV was a computer that his house was built around. In 1967, his wife Ruth Sutherland presented the family’s testimony of living with the ECHO-IV to the American Home Economics Association Convention in Dallas. “At first, I thought it might really replace me! From the cartoons and jokes we see and hear about computers, isn’t this the general impression that most homemakers at present would have if they suddenly found out they had a computer in their home?”1 Ruth expressed wonder and confusion before sharing her sense of optimism that a computer could be a significant tool to help her with various tasks. “[W]ouldn’t it be wonderful if they [computers] could provide more time for parents to spend with their children, therefore, making every home a happier one?”2

The Sutherlands were forming the ideal family of the future. During Ruth’s presentation, she conducted a survey, asking attendees how home computers could help them. Responses included: Feed baby at night, Make a grocery list, Wash the car, Lock all doors at night, Handle family accounting, Alert us when prescriptions need filling.3 These tasks identified an archetype that was gaining traction in computer research. Simultaneous to the Sutherlands’ research, Joseph Weizenbaum revealed the language processing computer program ELIZA, a chatbot meant to respond to conversation as a Rogerian psychotherapist, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. According to Weizenbaum, ELIZA was a type of “actress who commanded a set of techniques but who had nothing of her own to say.”4 ELIZA’s computer script was intended more as a “parody” than substitute, recognizing keywords typed by a user to form responses:

   Men are all alike.
   They’re always bugging us about something or other.
   Well, my boyfriend made me come here.

As much as giving ELIZA a female persona helped users feel comfortable divulging secrets, Weizenbaum viewed his program as a tool to be moulded.

  1. Dag Spicer, “The Echo IV Home Computer: 50 Years Later,” Computer History Museum, August 16, 2019, 

  2. Spicer, “The Echo IV Home Computer: 50 Years Later.” 

  3. Spicer, “The Echo IV Home Computer: 50 Years Later.” 

  4. Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason: Steps toward the Mechanization of Thought (San Francisco, CA: W.H. Freeman, 1976): 188. 

  5. Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason: Steps toward the Mechanization of Thought, 3. 

Stephanie Deumer, Spooky Action at a Distance, 2019, digital video still © Stephanie Deumer

Artist Stephanie Deumer has highlighted how the evolution of computer assistants is rooted in patriarchy: “Socially coded gender traits, the reason by which women were employed to work in the computing industry in the first place, are now coded into the computers themselves.”1 Deumer’s film Spooky Action at a Distance (2019) encapsulates the reinforcement of gender roles hidden as technical magic. The two-channel video juxtaposes the voices of computer assistants with the silence of female assistants in magic acts. As Deumer posits, the history of women being spliced and disappeared is perhaps contained in the black box of our smart devices that come to life when called by their feminine names. Greater technical efficiency can whisk away the acknowledgement of human labour. Attempts to transfer labour from a human to a machine was present from the very start, but these systems were yet to be packaged for consumers. Gradually, the home computer transitioned from domestic steward to controlling apparatus.

This is clearly seen in the speculative short film 1999 A.D., directed by Lee Madden in 1967 and produced to mark the 75th anniversary of electronics manufacturer Philco (renamed Philco-Ford as a subsidiary of the motor company). The voice of Alexander Scourby introduces the viewer to an average day with the Shaw family comprised of astrophysicist Michael Shaw, his wife Karen, and their son Jamie. Jamie studies astronomy using computer-guided lessons. Karen makes lunch, choosing recipes based on calories from a computer recommendation. Mike pays off bills and writes electronic correspondences, all on the computer. The domestic desires of the homemakers surveyed by Ruth Sutherland in Dallas were realized by the Shaw family. Scourby’s narration instructs, “If the computerized life occasionally extracts its pound of flesh, it holds out some interesting rewards.”2 We learn that Karen can nurture her ceramics hobby because the computer has taken up household burdens. Yet we still see the family spending their day primarily on their own. Son and mother share a piano duet, father and son exercise together—but these are brief moments of leisure.

The Shaw home, filled with display monitors and Philco appliances, is elevated by the family’s furniture. Interior decoration is credited to Paul McCobb, who decorated the home with a who’s-who of Mid-century furniture designs: Arne Jacobsen swan chairs for watching television, Virtue Brothers chrome chairs to study in, Thonet 209s at the dinner table. The Shaws’ taste in furniture substantiates the intelligent architecture. The film presumes that any family developing a smart home will have high-minded aesthetic concerns.

  1. Stephanie Deumer, “Imitation Game,” Imitation Game, 2021, 

  2. Philco-Ford Corp, 1999 A.D., directed by Lee Madden (1967), 

When security manufacturer Ring (an Amazon subsidiary) announced its flying Always Home Cam in 2021, essentially an indoor security drone, the video ad showed the device flying through a modern family’s home. The home was decorated with indoor plants, bar stools at a kitchen island, Le Creuset on the stove. It was a ubiquitous design that could be attained through the Ikea or West Elm catalogue. The drone is omnipresent when needed but camouflaged when not (though one could argue the camera does in fact stand out because it adds no design value to the home). During Philco-Ford’s era, the smart home collected data about the family, but there was no understanding of how the technology analyzed users—no privacy policy in place yet. Now, it is all that comes to mind when viewing security cam products. Where are the “interesting rewards” promised in 1967?

In the 1995 cyberspace issue of Architectural Design, artist Roy Ascott affirmed that, “the need for an architecture of interfaces and nodes will not go away.”1 For Ascott, users were already living under the consequences of telepresence, “the province of the distributed self, of remote meetings in cyberspace, of online living. Telepresence means instant global interaction with a thousand communities, being in any one of them, or all of them, virtually at the same time.”2 Adapting to the expanding cyberculture may require a reevaluation of communities in the face of computer-body symbioses. Ascott’s speculated “nodes” have transitioned to voice assistants placed as design objects. We distribute our bodily information to fitness mirrors, sharing our biometric data for personalized training. Surely, this instantaneous interaction produces side effects.

The dystopian narrative of a smart home gone rogue often overlooks the more practical incidents of user negligence or exploitable systems leading to abuse.3 Fiction tells stories of home AI antagonizing the inhabitants, but failure in real society looks like a new form of policing. According to a 2019 report by Dell Cameron and Dhruv Mehrotal for Gizmodo, it is possible to use Amazon Ring’s Neighbors app to coordinate the location of cameras on city maps.4 If the footage is available, finding a specific house based on landmarks is a viable method of locating a Ring owner. This foreshadows an ongoing clarion call from Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey, seeking Amazon to clarify the accessibility of its cameras. “As Ring products capture significant amounts of audio on private and public property adjacent to dwellings with Ring doorbells—including recordings of conversations that people reasonably expect to be private—the public’s right to assemble, move, and converse without being tracked is at risk,” wrote Markey in June 2022.5 Amazon Public Policy Vice President Brian Huseman responded the following month, restating that the camera and mic functions are crucial to the functionality that customers expect from the device.

Surveillance becomes a part of our routines. As a way to lay bare the perspective of technology and materialize the data of domestic life, A Machine for Living In (2018) by the artist Robert Twomey functioned as a performance and hybrid living space, exposing human and machine patterns. In Twomey’s words, “[T]he house is an observing instrument tasked with producing a durable portrait of intimate life.”6 Cameras, microphones, and motion sensors recorded the movement of inhabitants: the closing of a garbage can, the vibration of feet running down the hall, the flush of a toilet, all logged in real time. In Twomey’s smart home, technology was not incorporated to reduce the friction of domestic life but to validate that life through quantitative data. The metadata told a story in degrees of domestic presence rather than efficiency. A Machine for Living In held onto an optimism that sought “mutually revelatory encounters between humans and machines, where each reveals something about the other.”7

  1. Roy Ascott, “The Architecture of Cyberception,” Architectural Design (1995): 41. 

  2. Ascott, “The Architecture of Cyberception,” 41. 

  3. Rachel Cericola, “Buyer Beware: Used Nest Cams Can Let People Spy on You,” New York Times, June 20, 2019, 

  4. Dell Cameron and Dhruv Mehrotra, “Ring’s Hidden Data Let Us Map Amazon’s Sprawling Home Surveillance Network,” Gizmodo, December 9, 2019, 

  5. Edward J Markey to Andrew Jassy, United States Senate, 2022, 

  6. Robert Twomey, “Machines for Living” (PhD diss., University of Washington, 2018), 67. 

  7. Twomey, “Machines for Living,” 107. 

Robert Twomey, Sensing points, 2018, on Machine For Living In © Robert Twomey

The utility of materializing our lives within smart homes goes beyond understanding our private domestic performances. In 2013, researchers at Washington State University observed how a networked observation environment could offer health assessments, concluding that smart home technologies could use the daily activities of participants to predict cognitive health. The research included 179 participants, grouped according to age and cognitive health. Participants were given daily tasks and their completion was measured against object sensors, making it possible to predict the “quality of daily activities.”1 If routine correlates with health, perhaps variation is an inauspicious sign. Similarly, if our home lives are to be fully optimized by technology, beyond picking up the burden of chores, user consent will increasingly require biometrics.

Art and design studio Parsons & Charlesworth’s Catalog for the Post-Human (2021), prototyped at the 17th Venice Architecture Biennale, reflects this shift. The Catalog imagines a near future “where success depends upon our ability to be permanently cognitively sharp, quantifying ourselves with data, and able to work the long and irregular hours assigned by algorithm led corporations…”2 Their speculative products fall into the following needs: Cognitive Management, Expedited Recovery, Optimized Wellness, and Enhanced Productivity. Some items already feel realized into networked lives—a StressWatch™ for measuring stress levels via saliva; “Being an influencer is a full-time job but with ClickBaitWear™ you can carry on with your day without having to create your own content.”3 Others not too distant—SleepSnackers™ help “hack your circadian rhythm, coercing your body into sleeping and waking in line with your gigs.”4 Parsons & Charlesworth’s proposed future is preparing the employee when they are not at work. The designs are intended as critique of the labour demanded on “contingent” workers, a broad label for people who might be part-time or self-employed. Therefore, these products respond to a gig-economy user forced to optimize their performance. What is to be done when this contingent workforce’s main competition is increasingly artificial? Parsons & Charlesworth’s speculative augmentations respond to 1999 A.D.’s “pound of flesh” with several “modest proposals.”

  1. Prafulla N. Dawadi, Diane J. Cook, and Maureen Schmitter-Edgecombe, “Automated Cognitive Health Assessment Using Smart Home Monitoring of Complex Tasks,” IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics: Systems 43, no. 6 (2013): 1302–13. 

  2. Tim Parsons and Jessica Charlesworth, “Catalog for the Post-Human – Venice Architecture Biennale 2021,” Parsons & Charlesworth, 2021, 

  3. Parsons and Charlesworth, “Catalog for the Post-Human.” 

  4. Parsons and Charlesworth, “Catalog for the Post-Human.” 

ClickBaitWear, Catalog for the Post-Human, Venice Architecture Biennale (2021) © Parsons & Charlesworth

My ideal user experience with a computer is functionality. Of course, if everything goes smoothly, there is no opportunity for problem-solving. The less friction with the technology the less likely I am to learn how it operates. But the integration of our work, hobbies, and health into smart home technology qua apparatus, as Giorgio Agamben would have it, puts us at risk of being governed by these objects. The greatest benefit of the smart home may indeed be teaching users about themselves (health routines, sleeping habits, screen time). What role do we want out of networked architecture? The homemaker, protective parent, live streamer? Regardless, a new intimacy with our home is being forged. The smart home has not so much perfected domesticity as it has granted its users new administrative privileges.


Sign up to get news from us

Email address
First name
Last name
By signing up you agree to receive our newsletter and communications about CCA activities. You can unsubscribe at any time. For more information, consult our privacy policy or contact us.

Thank you for signing up. You'll begin to receive emails from us shortly.

We’re not able to update your preferences at the moment. Please try again later.

You’ve already subscribed with this email address. If you’d like to subscribe with another, please try again.

This email was permanently deleted from our database. If you’d like to resubscribe with this email, please contact us

Please complete the form below to buy:
[Title of the book, authors]
ISBN: [ISBN of the book]
Price [Price of book]

First name
Last name
Address (line 1)
Address (line 2) (optional)
Postal code
Email address
Phone (day) (optional)

Thank you for placing an order. We will contact you shortly.

We’re not able to process your request at the moment. Please try again later.

Folder ()

Your folder is empty.

Please complete this form to make a request for consultation. A copy of this list will also be forwarded to you.

Your contact information
First name:
Last name:
Phone number:
Notes (optional):
We will contact you to set up an appointment. Please keep in mind that your consultation date will be based on the type of material you wish to study. To prepare your visit, we'll need:
  • — At least 2 weeks for primary sources (prints and drawings, photographs, archival documents, etc.)
  • — At least 48 hours for secondary sources (books, periodicals, vertical files, etc.)