Welcome to episode 162 of The Digital Life. A show about our insights on the future of design and technology. I’m your host, Jon Follett. With me is founder and co-host, Dirk Knemeyer.
Hello, Dirk. For our podcast this week, we’re gonna chat a little bit about the future of the home. Ikea recently released their third annual Life at Home report. Which has some interesting insights into how technology is both purposely and inadvertently changing our home lives. We’ll have a link to that report on The Digital Life site. It’s a long report, and it’s really quite fascinating because Ikea visited quite a number of international cities, and interviewed thousands of people to come to the insights that are presented in this report. You know, they do it from both an ethnographic and a design perspective. I thought the way they put this study together was really quite compelling.
We’re going to use this as a jumping off point. I bet you we could, you know, run with this for many podcast episodes, but there were a few revelations or insights from the report that I wanted to talk about in particular today. You know, one of those was the idea of the home as being this place of sanctuary, that was in fact being invaded a little bit by technology. There were two areas that they highlighted in the report.
One was light, right. We think of light as sort of the seed of modern life, right. It enables us to continue working or playing well after the sun goes down in fairly significant ways. That you know, fire or candles alone just wouldn’t enable us to do. At the same time, as cities grow bigger, as you have lights for safety, lights for advertising, what have you. It also creates light pollution, which is a huge problem. I mean, there are parts of the country that really are never dark, and you really can’t even see the stars very clearly at night when you’re around some major cities. That’s a factor, both for people living in cities, and outside of them.
I mean, I live in the suburbs around Boston, and frankly, you know, it’s not dark very often in the suburbs. Between the lights on the houses, and the lights on the telephone poles. It never occurred to me really that the reason why I’ve designed aspects of my home the way we did … You know, we used the light darkening shades, you know, so no light can come in. We very specifically try to hide from that environment while we’re trying to sleep, or take a nap. When we go somewhere else where those darkening shades aren’t present, it really throws me off. If there’s light sort of bleeding into my sleeping space, like if I’m on the road, or you know, at a hotel. In unfamiliar territory, I really have to go to the extra effort to take those hotel blinds and push them as hard as I can, so that no slivers of light come in, and I can attempt to get a good night’s sleep.
It’s this sort of always on nature of technology. Not to mention, if you’re trying to sleep, you’ve also got light on your digital clock. You’ve got light, perhaps, coming from your computer. From any of the other electronic objects that, the technology that is meant to entertain and inform becomes really quite intrusive when you’re trying to get sleep. What’s your … I don’t know if your take on light pollution is quite the same as mine, Dirk. You know, what are your impressions of that? Both as a technologist and designer?
I don’t know. I mean, I guess I’ll talk about it, my impressions as a human.
I don’t know. I think it’s very idiosyncratic to the individual, right. I mean, some of us need it to be totally dark to be able to sleep well. Some are more flexible. You know, how much of that is nature versus nurture. With nurture simply being you’ve never known anything other than being bathed in light to ways large or small when you sleep. You just deal with it. I don’t know.
I see light pollution as sort of part of a bigger narrative. I think you’ve got some more things to talk about, and maybe I’ll get into that later. In terms of people, I don’t know. When we’re talking about sleep, it’s sort of individual based. I think, you know, I would bet for most people they don’t realize what they’re losing by virtue of the light. The example I’ll use is … You know, I grew up in a suburb in the Midwest. I mean, you know, homes were fairly close together, but we had half acre yards, or whatever, at the same time. You know, it felt pretty dark all the time, right.
Now, fast forward to 2005. Took a family trip way up into the Hinterlands of Northern Ontario. You know, my father said I want to show you guys something. Took us out in the middle of the night on the boat. We went in the middle of the lake, and he just said look up. There were orders of magnitude more stars in the sky than I had ever seen in my entire life. That’s obscured by the light pollution, and we don’t even realize it. We have no cognizance of it. It’s just kind of the way the world is.
Yeah, I think perhaps the reason that Ikea included this in the report about home life is that this becomes really a design factor. I mean, at least it’s a factor that’s increasingly important to me. To your point, there are places where the light pollution is night quite so bad, if you’re in the woods in Ontario on a lake looking up. You know, unfortunately, the world is becoming more-
Is it unfortunate? Keep going, keep going.
That the world is polluted with light? I don’t know. I mean, it is when I’m trying to rest, certainly. It’s part of this always on feeling that I think culturally, and as a design constraint, you know, I think is gonna become more important. I don’t like the always on feeling. It takes me longer and longer to pull away from that. I find light pollution to be one piece of that.
I believe you when you say that. I don’t know if you’re looking at it hard enough, right. Light pollution is the product of the fact that we can watch Game of Thrones. Light pollution is the product of the fact that we have refrigerators with these wonderful, nice, cool, everything that we need. Light pollution is part of the fact that we have these handheld computers that give us any nugget of knowledge that we could imagine. Absent all of that, I totally believe that, boy, you want to unplug and get away from the light pollution. If you really consider all of the things you gain from it, do you still feel that way? Like if it’s an either/or, would you truly say F it. I’m gonna give it up, I’m gonna put it all away, and I’m going to meditate. Really? Is that where you’d go?
You know, you’re taking it as a sort of a on/off like scenario there.
I would say it’s an interesting design constraint from, you know, an ecosystem standpoint. Yes, I would very much prefer a more tailored environment that knows that at a certain time at night, all of these LEDs just hibernate, right. They don’t give me an indicator that they’re on anymore. Things tone down a bit, right. Like that would be a nice start. You know, I’m making this up, but some product where you know, when I’m saying I’m going into sleep mode, all the devices within 10 feet of me can’t give out ambient light because they know I’m in sleep mode now, right.
I think there are ways to consider more of a, you know, as a consumer of digital things, when I can pull away from the system, and at least get some of that need taken care of without necessarily unplugging from everything. Setting the boundaries of my own interaction with the digital, and the world of, you know, all this light bleeding in. Then being able to turn that back on when I’m good and ready.
I don’t think these are considerations that we take as very important when we’re looking at a single piece of hardware. Or you know, just a single device. I think in aggregate, it becomes very important. It’s about context. It’s about culture, too, right. This is like this creeping, always on culture. Like we didn’t go out and say we want all of these things to be part of our lives all the damn time. It crept in, one piece at a time until it becomes … It could feel a bit overwhelming, right.
I’m interested in designing the push back a little bit. Not the divorce, but the deliberate separation, both culturally and from a design standpoint. If that makes sense.
It does. I’m trying to think where it started. Probably the light bulb, I suppose.
The genesis of it. No, listen, I mean, the vision is good. I mean, I’m applauding, I can get on board with that. The tech is just so far away, right. I mean, I use an ambient device called Sense for monitoring sleep, and it’s just total garbage. I mean, you know, I wake up at 5:30 to go to the bathroom, and it doesn’t recognize that I’ve come back to bed, and go to sleep. We’re watching a movie, at eight, and then I go off and work, and come back to bed at two. It’s got me sleeping since eight. It’s representative of the stage that this kind of technology is in at the moment, right.
Amen, brother. Certainly, we’ll get there at some point. We’re still not there. We’re still in the world of artificial ignorance, not artificial intelligence.
Right … There’s one other item on the Ikea report that I think we could dig into a little bit. Of course, you know, it’s much more deep than we’re just touching on the show today. You know, I’d recommend, if you’re interested in this sort of ethnographic report, you should really check it our yourself. The other thing that they drew out, which I thought was interesting to hear from people. Especially from a product company like Ikea. You know, talking about things, and what things mean to us to day. What things mean to us today, meaning the objects that make up our everyday tools, and the things that are meaningful. Very, very different than what things meant to, you know, like my father’s generation.
There weren’t a lot of things for … You know, my father grew up in sort of the World War II era. Where you patched, and replaced, and you made sure that that your things were taken care of, because you didn’t have necessarily the money to go and replace them. Obviously with our consumer digital culture, we’re upgrading even our phones on a fairly regular basis. Let alone all the other stuff that sort of creeps into our house. You know, whether it be devices, or for entertainment, or toys for the kids, you name it.
I’ve heard people call it, you know, we’re at peak stuff, right. There’s gonna be a moment when we’re all like hey, I don’t know if this consumer paradigm is gonna work anymore, because where am I gonna put this crap? While Ikea didn’t draw that out in its entirety, there is a burgeoning sensibility that having maybe fewer, but more meaningful useful things is better than having this incessant clutter, you know. We sort of live with clutter right now as the byproduct of the consumer, the always buying consumer paradigm. Maybe, you know, it is going to be about less stuff that’s more meaningful. Less stuff that, you know, maybe our stuff has more soul to it, and is less disposable.
I thought that was an interesting, maybe a trend is too strong a word for it … But observation from the Ikea report. It does resonate with me, because I certainly dislike clutter. I find that I’m always fighting with it. Being a person with a lot of digital devices, I feel like it’s a never ending fight. Similar to the light discussion that we just had. You know, we’ll call it the pollution of too many things. Dirk, I think we probably have similar perspective on that.
Yeah, yeah, for sure. I mean, this is one those things that falls into the category of it’s so old, it’s new, right. I mean, from the time I was a little boy in the ’70s, my parents had that discipline. Where they told me that it’s about a small number of nice things. That was clearly counter to the culture of the time. You know, early plastics, production of lots of disposable stuff. It’s something that I kept with me. You know, I mean, I think it was some time in the ’90s that I stopped giving physical gifts. I just 100% stopped giving physical gifts. I either didn’t give gifts, and expressed love and appreciation, or I would give experiences. Go to a concert, go to a restaurant. Create a moment that by definition is intended not to be clutter, unless you consider your memories clutter.
Yeah, for me, it’s like well, what took people so long, right. I mean, why is it now like oh my God, in 2016, this great revelation. You know, that was taught to me by my parents from the time I was young, and I’ve been living that way consistently as an adult. I mean, you know, we were in transitional housing over the last year. The possessions that we do have were in storage. What I realized in that transitional housing is that if I never saw any of my possessions, I really wouldn’t care. You know, there’s some old family photos that I’d probably want to scan first. There’s some art that, in a perfect world, I’d like to keep around … But if somebody said that that storage locker blew up, it wouldn’t be that big of a deal.
I mean, ultimately what was important was the interactions with my family. I mean, frankly, just the core computing devices that are sort of my gateway into the world, and a very small number of a few things that were close enough to me that they didn’t go in the storage locker in the first place. Yeah.
Yeah, yeah, I understand the sentiment. I think once again, these observations from Ikea are valuable in so far as they frame up a society that may be in love with technology, but there’s like cultural aspects that are still very much being worked out. You know, I’m anxious to see how this evolves, and frankly, how product companies respond to this, right.
You mentioned giving experiences, you know. That was one of the trends that they highlighted. People were more interested in experiences than necessarily accumulating more stuff. That, in and of itself, is quite different from the idea that you’re going to get the next greatest gadget, or automobile, or whatever it is to sort of fill up all that space.
These are trends that bear watching, I think. Especially as we see emerging technologies on the rise. What does that mean for how these get implemented, and what is important for human interaction. What can be sort of dropped by the wayside.
You know, Jon, reading the report, I mean, the big thing that I took away from it was a real sadness of the migration into the mega city. You know, Ikea explicitly focused on people in big cities.
You know, I’ve lived in big cities. I’ve lived in the country. I’ve lived in suburbs. I’ve lived in many different orientations. You really lose something in high density environments. You just do. There’s a higher level of stress. It’s tough, and now having just moved from a high density environment into a really nice wilderness type environment. In a suburb, but on an acre of wooded land in a low density area. The quality of life is night and day. It’s night and day, Jon. I mean, the stress level on a daily basis is lower. The appreciation of nature and feeling part of a bigger ecosystem of the world. You know, being able to make choices about noise and light, and not have other people imposed upon those, because you happen to be close to each other. Having a little extra space so you’re not having to install a bed that doubles as a dresser, that doubles as a washing machine just to fit into the space.
You know, again, I’ve lived in cities, and there are things, conveniences that are nice about that sort of life. I think the migration into big cities that’s happening as the world changes is one that’s really bad for the human animal. The time horizon’s longer. It’s decades, not years, but probably not centuries either, where I think that’s going to flow the other way. There’s lots of land that nobody’s living in. You know, 90n percent of Canada, 90n percent of Russia.
Huge portions of China, even as those people race into the cities. You know, in the context of how that particular culture and economy are evolving. We aren’t at a loss for space. You know, the other thing about that, too, is people project out. Say well, eventually, centuries down the road, we will be out of space. We’re just gonna all be in these giant cities of cement.
It’s total bull shit because if you look at countries around the world, the higher educated the country, the lower the birth rate is. The birth rate problems we’re having is coming from low educated countries. Low educated, low socioeconomic class countries. What’s happening, unfortunately slowly for a lot of those people who I just referred to, but what is happening is that our planet is becoming more and more educated. As we become an educated species, largely in the aggregate. Not just in the sort of, what we today would consider sort of first world or emerging, people are going to be having less babies. We’re going to get to the point where’s there’s not gonna be problems with population in that same way that there seems to be, if we just project out. As if today was, you know, permanently fossilized.
I just felt very sad about all the people who are having to come into these cities, and adjust, and try and make the best of it. When, you know, it’s not the right way to live. There’s so many more places out there that we could be living instead. It will just take some time for our species, sort of as a whole global ecosystem, to catch up with that. To go from the contraction, back to an expansion, I think.
Yeah, that’s an interesting take, Dirk.
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You can follow me on Twitter at @DKnemeyer. That’s @D-K-N-E-M-E-Y-E-R. Thanks so much for listening.
That’s it for episode 162 of The Digital Life. For Dirk Knemeyer, I’m Jon Follett, and we’ll see you next time.