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Man vs. Smart House: A Cautionary Tale

It’s a battle of man and machine agency in 'Uninvited Guests,' a new short film by design lab Superflux.

Uninvited Guests from Superflux on Vimeo

Thomas is 70 years old. He lives a quiet life alone. Out of concern for his health, his children send him gifts to track his habits from a distance: a smart fork that counts calories, a smart cane that counts steps, a smart bed that monitors his sleep. But Thomas soon finds he doesn't like being told what to do, and instigates a rebellion.

This is the concept behind Uninvited Guests, a short film released last month by design firm Superflux. Commissioned by ThingTank, a research project focused on the design and business of the Internet of Things, the film offers cautionary musings on the future smart home. How will we coexist with the data-gathering, service-oriented objects supposedly designed to make our lives better? As Thomas' smart bed incessantly relays messages to his phone, prompting him to get to sleep by 10PM, it's impossible not to feel his frustration. You root for him as he struggles to win his life back, concocting ways to dupe the objects—and his children—into thinking he's accomplishing his daily goals. Ultimately, however, it's hard to celebrate his successes as a true triumph of human agency, as he's now locked into leading a double life: the one he wants to live, and the one his objects demand of him.

The tensions that are so easily triggered by these new technologies were apparent even in the making of the film, while scouting locations for the shoot. "We had some slightly awkward conversations with Airbnb hosts explaining the project," explains Anab Jain, founder and director of Superflux. "It was especially tricky to explain the concept of fake ‘smart objects' placed around their home; I think a lot of people thought that we might be installing covert surveillance devices."

While researching ideas for the film, Superflux explored several scenarios around the theme of the connected home. One centered on the problems that might arise from living with various smart objects in shared accommodations. The objects would need to agree to communal "house terms," and conflicts between different operating systems would need to be resolved. Another narrative played with the idea that these objects, after years and years of collecting data, might become increasingly self-aware. They would be able to identify when they are no longer being used optimally, and even select new owners.

In the end, the Uninvited Guests scenario made the final cut. "We wanted to zoom in on something quite specific and emotive," says Jain. She adds that the team was inspired by their own personal circumstances of maintaining long-distance relationships with elderly parents.

The short film connects to the wider work undertaken by the Superflux design lab, which is concerned with the implications of living with autonomous systems, and does not approach the subject lightly. "We are most interested in the moral and legal implications of code, and the life and death decisions that will be made in relation to this," concludes Jain.

See more work from Superflux here.

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