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The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue Electronique de Communication

Volume 17 Numbers 1 & 2, 2007


Chris Shepherd
Michael Arnold
Craig Bellamy
Martin Gibbs
University of Melbourne

Abstract: This article uses and extends Altheide´s notion of communicative ecology to explore how the spatial logics of ICTs produce particular sociotechnical performances in domestic places. Drawing on data from our ¨Connected Homes Project¨, we discuss what people and ICTs do to the materiality of space, what these arrangements in space do to households of people, and to what space-using people and space-defining technologies do to each other. We present five cases of domestic environments as five spatial logics for making boundaries: surveilling a place, producing a dedicated media space, building a nesting place, and for distributing leisure and work. It is concluded that as social agents we construct and design these environments with particular social performances in mind, understanding that social performance and the material arrangements of technologies in space and time are intertwined.


Altheide’s An Ecology of Communication (Altheide, 1995) draws our attention to a world of power relations comprised of communicative acts that emanate from conjunctions of communications technologies (e.g. television, databases), communications formats (e.g. genres, protocols) and communicative activities (e.g. war reporting, goods consumption). Particular conjunctions of technologies, formats and actions are pervasive in any given situation, and the media constituents that pertain are multiple, varied, yet interdependent, hence Altheide’s apt appropriation of the metaphor “ecology”.

So far so good. The notion that technologies are usefully understood as forming an “environment” (rather than being objects that occupy an environment) is a profound one, and the fact that the claim looks somewhat unremarkable 10 years after publication is a tribute to its usefulness rather than a criticism. Nor is the fact that this notion has many antecedents a criticism, although some of these forerunners (Heidegger pre-eminently), treat the relation between technology, culture, and the human condition in ways that are both broader and deeper than Altheide’s technologies, formats and actions approach. Nonetheless, the fundamental proposition of a lifeworld framed by technology and not simply occupied by technology is powerful enough to warrant revisiting with a variety of metaphors, methods and emphases.

In this spirit we situate our analysis of ICTs in the domestic environment in the context of Altheide’s ecology of communication, but in doing so, also use this position as a point of departure.

The first of three respects in which we depart from Altheide’s construction of an ecology of communication, and therefore the first point at which we may also make a contribution to the fundamentals of its construction, is by differing from his insistence that the ecology is populated by symbolic entities, not by things. A second, closely related point of difference is with Altheide’s emphasis on an ecology of communication that is temporal but not spatial; that is symbolic action arranged in time, without reference to objects arranged in space. For Altheide,

spatial arrangements, which are usually implied by the concept of ecology, increasingly are replaced by temporal or sequential arrangements with information technology (Altheide, 1995).

For Altheide, the ecology is populated by symbolic interactions, by forms of logic, or by interconnected transfers of meaning, and analytically, information technologies (and people et al.) are immaterial, disembodied, and outside of space. The “thingness” of the things that mediate communication is absent, except in so much as they mediate symbolic formats and communicative acts. In this we differ, and we explore the physical and spatial aspects of environments of communications technologies in the ecology of the home.

The third respect in which we depart from Altheide is in the scale of the analysis. Altheide’s “helicopter view” moves us from Kuwait to Hollywood, from Waco to London, dropping down and capturing samples from the IRA, NBC, the Gameboy, the bar-code, and several other spots along the way, and from this, speaks of implications for generalised millions of people, over decades. In this we differ, and rather than traversing a vast and exotic landscape, the horizons of our environment are limited to the domestic backyard.

Material and Spatial Aspects of Domestic Ecologies of Communication

The arguments presented here have been developed within the Connected Homes Project, which takes as its premise a view of the home as a communications hub in a dense network of local, global and international communications networks [1]. The home’s role as a site for the production and consumption of communications constitutes an important aspect of the contemporary domestic environment, within which family life is played out. Domestic technologies thus provide resources for the shaping and performance of domestic life in all its facets. Some of these resources are encoded within the socio-technical processes of product ‘design’ (Bjiker, Hughes, & Pinch, 1987; Winner, 1986; Oudshoorn & Rommes, 2004). But as many ethnographies of technology use show, how a particular technology is accommodated depends upon many variables in the ‘host’ environment (Dobrow, 1990; Lally, 2002; Morley, 1999, 2000; Livingstone, 2002, 2003; Livingstone & Bovill, 2001; Lull, 1990). Our method of exploring the domestic environment of communications technologies employed a “Domestic Probe” (Arnold, 2004) through which our participating families collaborated with our research. Over a period of four to six weeks, members of the household assembled a family-scrapbook and made individual diary entries, took photographs, drew maps and diagrammes of the house, reflected on their technologies, and recorded conversation about all of this. As we have argued at length elsewhere (Arnold, Shepherd, & Gibbs, 2006), the material provides access to the immaterial. In this case, the material arrangements of communications technologies in the space of the home, and the communicative acts mediated by these arrangements, provide access to otherwise ephemeral aspects of home life as it is lived on a day-to-day basis. The incorporeal ideologies, or the logics, of being a parent, taking responsibility, working, cooperating, growing up, being assertive, defining gender, is developed in relation to our embodied, situated, material circumstances, and are accessible to reflection and analysis through considering these material arrangements (Arnold, Shepherd, Gibbs, & Mecoles, 2006a, 2006b).

Consumers of domestic electronics are well aware that their information and communications technologies are material objects that have weight, shape, colour, and extend in space. They are not “pure function”. They are not “machines made of light”. The signals that flow into and out of the home are produced and consumed by machines made of plastics, exotic metals, and glass. Space needs to be made in the home for their materiality, and they are situated, with deliberation, in particular places and in particular arrangements in space.

Sometimes the aesthetics of the plastic, metal and glass are themselves problematic. Few people found the “beige box” of the 1980’s “Personal Computer” an attractive addition to household décor. Many people find snaking trails of retrofitted wiring to be an affront to both safety and aesthetics. Even with the attention given to the design of contemporary consumer electronics, many people prefer to put them away out of sight, even though the wireless modem or the remote control input might not work so reliably from a hidden position. Sometimes the volume of space required by the plastic, glass and metal is in itself a problem. For example, one might not have a spare cubic meter in the lounge room for that 42” CRT television, and consequently, be prepared to pay two or three times as much for a plasma or LCD screen. In effect, the additional money buys back that cubic meter of space. But in most circumstances it is not so much the dimensions of the technology per se that is the problem, but the space required by the activities we undertake with and through technology. It is not enough to configure the room or the desk for the television or scanner, the room also needs to accommodate television viewing, and the desk has to accommodate scanning, in addition to other activities.

And so, domestic information and communications technologies require us to arrange the home in certain ways, and arrange ourselves in certain ways, and these special arrangements that place the television or the scanner go on to constitute the place for recreation or work, and the place for us. They constitute the home. In an existential or phenomenological sense, any given Cartesian space is made into a place by that which is situated within it, and that which occurs within it. Just as time is an ordering of things and acts, place is an arrangement of things and acts. It is clear then, that domestic spaces and places for communicative action are derived phenomena, emerging through a consideration of the relation between the things and actions that are located in space and constitute place. The material conditions of space and place are in this way important to an ecology of communication.

In this paper, we aim to explore an ecology of communication through attending to the material arrangements of communications technologies, the places they help define as they are appropriated, and ideologies and logics that inform these arrangements and appropriations. We begin with a historical overview of domestic technologies, and then present five vignettes that show how and why people make spaces and places for communications technologies in particular ways. Corresponding to each of these vignettes, we have identified five logics to ICT-home-spatialities: those that define boundaries between life’s domains; those that facilitate surveillance of communications; those that dedicate space to media; those that use technologies to define “nesting spaces” for self; and those undifferentiated spaces in which communications media are ambient.

Home Technology – A Historical Overview of Material and Spatial Environments

Historically, the design of houses and the development of domestic technologies have shaped each other.  The pre-modern European home of the well-to-do was essentially a place for work, built for sheltering technologies of production, such as tools of trade, benches, animals and raw materials, as much as providing a place for people. Few technologies were devoted to human comfort, let alone entertainment or communication. Furniture as we think of it today did not exist, heating, lighting and cooking was limited to naked flame, and technologies for cleaning and ablutions were for the most part non-existent (Rybczynski, 1986). For the poor, who had no technologies of production and worked only with their own bodies, home was a very crude place indeed. In the first half of the nineteenth century the urban poor lived whole families to a room, and collections of rags and bags of straw served as furniture and for warmth (Engels, 1971). In the first half of the nineteenth century more than half the rural inhabitants of Ireland lived in a “scalpene”, a single-roomed, windowless mud hut, or worse, in a “scalp”, a hollow in the earth covered with branches (Beckett, 1966; Correspondent, 1849). A place we call home, a sophisticated machine for living, is clearly a modern construction.

Through modernity and the industrial revolution, the production of goods migrated from the home to special-purpose factories, offices, shops and workshops, and the home became a place for technologies of consumption. Water, coal, gas and electricity were provided to and consumed in the home; more sophisticated technologies for washing, cooking, heating, cooling, lighting and cleaning became centred in the home, and wood, metal, paint, glass, leather and cloth were appropriated to make the home a place of comfort. The home continued to be a place of work of course, but housework became "women's work", and is not considered productive in measures such as a nation's Gross Domestic Product.

Through this period, the distribution of indoor plumbing systems, electric lighting, piped gas, and an increasing array of household appliances, all contributed to the definition and redefinition of ‘the modern home’. Indeed, throughout the 20th century the ‘technological evolution’ of the domestic environment was a powerful symbol of society’s modernisation and the various ‘creature comforts’ thereby implied (Ierley, 1999a, 1999b). Noting that “much of our comfort results from advances in science and technology,” William Worthington in his forward to The Comforts of Home (Ierley, 1999ab, 6-7) observes that “it is the ease with which we obtain and how we use such amenities as heat, light, water, gas and electricity that determine our well-being.” Gumpert and Drucker make the point by quoting Rybczynski:

The main difference between, say, the house of one hundred years ago and one of today is that the latter contains a great deal of machinery.... The contemporary house, as the French architect Le Corbusier remarked, has become a "machine for living," that is, it has become an environment that is conditioned primarily by technology. Electricity powers pumps, motors, furnaces, air conditioners, toasters, and hair dryers. There are technologies for providing hot and cold water, and for getting rid of it. There are telephone systems and cable television systems; unseen waves carry radio and television signals. The house is also full of automated devices--relays and thermostats--which turn these machines on and off, regulate the heat and cold, or simply open the garage door. Remove technologies from the modern house and most would consider it uninhabitable. Cut off the power that fuels the machine for long enough and the dwelling must be evacuated. (Gumpert & Drucker, 1998)

Through modernity into postmodernity, the home also became significant in the development and performance of communications systems. Postal services provided to homes became a feature of state-regulated infrastructure in many nations, and the letter and then the postcard became part of family life (Milne, 2003). Printed cards were hand-delivered to homes, and elaborate practices developed around this apparently simple media. Careful attention was paid to the media; to the quality of card, embossing, typeface, and of course the salutations, suffixes and statement of occupation that surrounded the name. Corners of the card and sometimes the whole card were folded to indicate whether the call was to an individual or to the family as a whole, to thank someone, to make an unannounced introduction, to congratulate, to offer condolences, and so on (Cronin& Rogers, 2003). Many forms of furniture and architecture came to serve as information and communication technologies, though they may not often be thought of in those terms. A common rectangular table for example, is arguably the most important communications technology ever employed in the domestic environment. It provides an ordering of people in close proximity for conversation; provides a reflective surface that assists acoustics; provides a common surface, and thus "shared ground" for the exchange of ideas as well as the sharing of food, drink, or documents; provides a modest covering for much of the body, but leaves the arms, hands and face free for expression; and provides privileged places at each head from which all others can be seen, and thus establishes an implicit hierarchy.

If the table is an important technology within the home’s material ecology of communication, the front porch is an example of important communications technology within the neighbourhood. Ierley (1999b:148) argues that in 19th century America, the front porch was a pivotal node in an informal communications network that connected the house to the outside world. Without modern communications technology

it was necessary to rely on more fundamental forms of communication to keep in touch. Antenna-like, the front porch extended out into that most immediate of worlds, the street, to transmit or receive world of what was going on. As recalled by Elizabeth Paxton Forsling of her street in Independence, Missouri: The porches of the houses on Delaware Street [were] where the people sat in the evening, their voices were part of the evening. Friendly voices of good will between neighbours, an intimate connection to the life of the street. (Ierley, 1999b:150)

The special thing about the porch is that it is an ambiguous environment that is both private and public, and not all architectural traditions provide such a place. For example, in England during World War Two American soldiers and young English women would meet in public places, and after a period of courting, the English woman might ask the American to visit her at her home. Many Americans were accustomed to visiting a girlfriend at the family home, and to spending time with her in a place private enough to afford a degree of intimacy, and yet public enough to be decorous – such as a porch. In England however, there was no such place in the home, and the young soldier was often taken aback to find himself in a different communication space, thrust directly into the bosom of the family, and expected to give a formal account of himself at a meal in the dining room, or tea in the parlour, an occasion considered to be only one step away from a commitment to marriage (Mead, 1942).

Note here that it is the materiality of the calling card, the table, the porch, that constitutes an environment for a domestic ecology of communication. In postmodernity few people use calling cards, though business cards continue to be an important ICT. Many homes are without dining rooms, parlours, and front porches, and whilst we have tables, it is less often that we all sit down around them. We do have new technologies though. In the 1890s the home’s communications ecology was rearranged as we made a place for radio and gramophones, for telephones in the 1910s, television in the 1950s, video in the 1970s, home computing in the 1980s and the internet in the 1990s.

Each of these communications technologies reshaped the home materially, and in Altheide’s terms, altered its ecology. The telephone established worryingly open lines of communication to the home, and integrated “the social” and “the domestic” in ways that were difficult to adjust to (Marvin, 1988), and the television required what may be a still greater reconfiguration of the domestic environment, both materially, and in its logic. In TV Houses, Derham Groves provides insight into the home cultures that co-emerged with the introduction of television to Australia in 1956. Those who could afford a television very often designated a room for television viewing – the ‘TV room’ – and ancillary technologies were marketed for this new place. Furniture such as TV lamps, rugs, tables and armchairs were designed to suit the television watcher and maximise his or her comfort. To guarantee winter viewing comfort, the TV room was furnished with radiator heaters, some of which (such as the Ezyheat Infrared Twin-Beam TV Heater) were marketed specifically for TV viewers. Special fireplaces were also designed in the form of a conical brazier to enhance the heating while viewing (Groves, 2004). Television parties became common, giving new expression to gendered roles such as that of the wife as hostess. New clothes such as television pyjamas were promoted as loose and comfortable clothing suitable for television viewing. New packaged TV foods came on the market—foods that were quick to prepare, came in disposable foil and could be well consumed while watching television. Stain-resistant upholstery targeting the messy TV eater also became available around this time. In Accent On Design For TV Viewing (1956), the author observed that

TV is having far-reaching effects already. Special fashions have been designed for TV viewing so that the acme of comfort can be enjoyed while you relax in a specially designed TV chair and eat a TV meal from a TV tray (quoted in Groves 2004: 141).

Television thus changed the material environment of the home, concomitant with the practices of the household communications ecology. With the television, the home truly became the centre of consumption for much of the economy. This role remains today, and many houses still contain a room that might fairly be described as a TV room, though contemporary media consumers often use the term “Home Theatre”, or “Home Entertainment Centre”.

The ‘Home Study’ is another designated domestic place, and the more recent transition from ‘Home Study’ to ‘Home Office’, indicates a subtle modification to architectural nomenclature as well as to the way the room is fitted out. The Home Study, imagined as a cosy place of worthy leisure, gives way to a neon-lit place of work, and denotes an important economic and cultural shift to independent contracting, self-employment, consultancies, open-ended working time, and other distributed work practices. In conjunction with the rise of ‘a new philosophy of work’, Schleifer (2005) observes that home offices are [increasingly] being incorporated into bedroom spaces, living spaces, attic spaces and lofts, and in between spaces. Designers and architects are also positioning themselves in this market to reveal innovative modes of furniture design, lighting arrangements and spatial modifications to accommodate new syntheses of living and working boundaries. Central to this design is ICT. This goes beyond the facilitation of plugs and sockets to include how spaces are functionally and visually adapted and demarcated by devices such as sliding panels and furniture parts. Thus in transforming a home office to a guest bedroom, the desk may be collapsed to form part of the structure of a bed.

Whether it be entertainment places or office places, architectural planning sometimes precedes the acquisition and appropriation of technologies, but in most cases, the construction of domestic space proceeds in a more improvised, do-it-yourself and ad hoc manner. Although apparently ad hoc, this may involve a good deal of reflection on how the environment will work, and how people will live in that environment.

In what follows we present a number of vignettes that reveal different ways in which space is modified and environments are created for information and communications technologies. In doing so, we attend to material arrangements that are made as part of the everyday process of appropriating these technologies. We attend symmetrically to what people do to the materiality of domestic space, what these arrangements in space do to households of people, and to what space-using people and space-defining technologies do to each other as they define a domestic ecology. We present five cases of domestic environments as five spatial logics—making boundaries, a surveilled place, a dedicated media place, nesting places, and distributed space. Each case and its vignette is chosen for the relative clarity with which the case illustrates a particular logic of domestic spatiality in relation to ICTs. Though the cases and the vignettes that describe them may well be regarded as Weberian ‘ideal types’, they are ‘real’, and are drawn from data that pertain to a particular household, and are not pastiches manufactured for analytic or descriptive purposes. Though no claims are made to particular distributions across a population, like all ideal types, we argue that their characteristic elements are cautiously generalisable.

1. Making Boundaries

Bob and Katie Briggs [2] live with their two children, aged six and eight, in a new housing development in a north-eastern suburb of Melbourne, Australia. Bob is an MBA graduate and runs his small but successful business from home. Katie, trained as a lawyer, teaches family law at university and also works as a mediator in a government department. Bob’s business relies on the internet, email and a mobile phone—“it couldn’t have happened ten years ago,” Bob tells us [3]. For a long time, much of Bob’s work was concerned with arranging workshops and forums in Sydney, and his domestic communications technology enabled him to do this ‘at a distance’.  Without email, he claims, he would have had to relocate to Sydney. Home is not Bob’s only place of work – he also visits clients and works at their locations – but home is his work headquarters. Katie, in contrast, works three days a week out of her University office, one to two days a week at home, and most evenings at home. To maintain continuity across both offices, Katie uses a laptop, carries paper files back and forth, and uses an internet connection to the University’s servers. Both Bob and Katie have been working at and from home for a number of years, although it is only in the new house, to which they have recently moved, that they each enjoy their own custom-built ‘home office spaces’.

Katie and Bob’s house floor-plan, furniture and technology have been carefully planned and arranged around the boundary between parenting and paid work. Both Bob and Katie are clear in the view that there is a boundary between the two activities, that at certain times one “does” parenting and that at other times one does paid work, and have determined spatial arrangements to mark that boundary. There are thus well defined places for work, and places dedicated to parenting. However, whilst establishing a clear material demarcation of work and parenting, Bob and Katie are determined to make arrangements such that the boundary may be traversed back and forth as easily as possible. The objective, in both establishing the boundary, and in facilitating boundary crossing, is to maximise parenting. Bob says, “My aim in my career is to be among the top 5% of fathers in terms of time spent with my children whilst also working at the senior executive level on implementation and communication projects.” Bob estimates that if he did a similar job in a large firm, he would have to work 60 hours plus a week, ‘making a mockery of the time I want to spend with my children’. Katie agrees: “[our children are] our absolute priority in terms of working out priorities and career issues”.

Katie and Bob achieve boundary marking and boundary crossing through strategies that are material and spatial, and some that are symbolic. The most important of these is the design of the floor plan, and Bob and Katie put considerable thought into the problem of boundaries at the planning stage. The result is that Bob has his work place built into an alcove, on the ground floor, in the open-plan living area. The alcove is purpose built and equipped with desk space, filing space, shelving space, computer, printer, scanner, internet connection and telephone connection. It is clearly a well equipped office, unmistakably a place of work, and the material presence of the furniture and technology mark it off and distinguish it from the rest of the living area. This semiotic and behavioural boundary between office and living area is easily crossed though, as an uninterrupted line of sight is provided from Bob’s work place to the places the children inhabit during much of the day, when Bob is at home and Katie is at university. Bob and Katie planned this, but anticipated that perhaps the boundary was too easily crossed, and that Bob would be too frequently interrupted by the children to get any work done. This poses a spatial problem. A closed-off home office establishes a material boundary that prevents this happening, but does not facilitate boundary crossing. A home office that blurs entirely into living space facilitates boundary crossing but offers no demarcation. Bob’s alcove provides part of the solution in so much as the three walls provide a separate, demarked place, yet the absence of one wall integrates this place with the rest of the ground floor. This spatial boundary defining a place and implying an activity is reinforced with the use of a Japanese-style sliding screen that moves to open or close access to the desk, shelving, computer and so forth. The screen is both material and symbolic. Bob and the children are mindful that an open screen indicates paid work time – “don’t interrupt if possible”, and a closed screen is parenting time – “you have my full attention” – and one can move between the two very readily throughout the day.

Fig. 1 Bob’s screened work area.

With a similar degree of forethought Katie built her work place upstairs, and equipped it with a desk, shelving space, filing space, a network connection for her laptop and a connection for the landline phone. This was all located on a large landing at the top of the stairs, and was open to the corridors leading to the bedrooms. Katie determined that her office was to be upstairs rather than down because, unlike Bob, it was her habit to work at home in the evenings more so than in the day, and being upstairs provided easy access to the children’s bedrooms. There was no need to reinforce a boundary around her work place by closing it off in any way, because the bedroom walls and doors themselves did this.

Fig. 2 Katie’s study on the upstairs landing.

A similar strategy of material boundary marking applied to the telephone, where Katie and Bob each used their mobile phones almost exclusively for work purposes, and their landline almost exclusively for personal communication. This arrangement was also oriented around a logic of boundaries, in so much as the ring gave forewarning of the class of call, and in so much as the mobile phone was readily switched off and on during the day, whereas the landline remained open to personal calls.

Curiously, neither Bob nor Katie found a need to draw a boundary in the case of email, and each used the same address for personal and work related correspondence. Nor did Bob or Katie use an answering machine to screen phone calls.

Bob and Katie consider it a privilege to work from home, believe their spatial arrangements work pretty well, and neither would have it any other way.

2. A Surveilled Place

In a scene familiar to many parents, Andy Valerio, a fifteen year-old adolescent, is meant to be concentrating on his homework in the home study, but is actually on MSN chatting with some friends. When he hears his mother’s steps in the passage, he deftly minimises the MSN window. As she walks by, she peers in to make sure that he is doing his homework. He is, assiduously. As the sounds of her footsteps recede into the kitchen, Andy reopens his MSN and messages his friend to continue his online chat. This time, Andy’s MSN use escaped parental detection. Yet it is no secret that Andy spends a good deal of time on MSN. Indeed, his parents have become very concerned of late about their son’s persistent Internet use, the time he spends on it—particularly in chatrooms—and the sorts of relationships he develops ‘there’, many of which remain uncomfortably intangible and indistinct to them. In an important sense, the sanctity of the home as a space separate from the outside world, under firm patriarchal or matriarchal control, has been undermined by these new communications technologies.

Andy also has a computer in his room, but this is not networked. He has been asking his parents for permission to link his bedroom computer to the household network, but they are resolute in their refusal. Evidently, they do not want to cede the small measure of control they still have over their son’s internet use, by allowing Andy to take his MSN from the relatively public space of the home study (in family terms), to the relatively private space of his bedroom. Andy must continue to do his homework in this “public place”; a room in the centre of the house, sandwiched between the kitchen-family room and the Lounge room, and accessible through two doors, each on opposite sides of the room. This floor plan enables Andy’s parents to enter at will, or cast a glance through one of the open doors as they move up and down the passages from the kitchen and living room at the back of the house, to the vestibule and bedrooms at the front of the house. Andy often closes the doors to the home study, while his parents keep opening them.

Fig. 3 The Valerio’s ‘open access’ study

Like most parents, the Valerios do not consider that privacy is a right or a privilege that extends to children (McKinney, 1998) – and particularly not when it comes to their children’s use of the internet, or even television. In the context of privacy and surveillance the spatial arrangements of the contemporary “open plan” home may be likened to those that pertained in almost all homes prior to the eighteenth century. For it was not until then that corridors began to be used to connect rooms in the largest of the stately homes (Shapiro, 1998; Stone, 1991). Without a corridor, in the relatively few homes that did consist of more than one or two rooms, each room simply connected to the next, and privacy was only afforded by servants who permitted or denied passage according to the instructions of those within. A return to the premodern absence of private places within the living areas of the home is an attraction of the twenty-first century “Open Plan” home, wherein spaces are undifferentiated, and children in the living areas may be surveilled at all times.

The Valerios do not live in a stately home, nor an Open Plan home, but even in their Victorian cottage they made do with open doors and random walks down the corridors. Curiously perhaps, electronic surveillance that monitors and selectively blocks internet content is not a preferred option to first-hand, direct involvement in surveillance.

3. A Dedicated Media Place

Akashi Sato has been living with his wife, Ruth Bishop, in Melbourne’s inner north for some ten years. After meeting Ruth in Japan, they married and he immigrated to Australia. They now have two children: a 9-year-old son, Mikio, and Sana, their 5-year-old daughter. Akashi and Ruth have recently completed their PhDs in Japanese Studies and Media Studies respectively. They now work in their fields, teaching at universities in Melbourne, and as one might expect, are sophisticated consumers of media.

In their home, in the middle of the house, is a media room. Against the back wall of the room is a line of sofas, which face a television, DVD and video player. Either side of the television are large piles of videotapes of Japanese television programs, fairy tales, and animations.

Fig. 4 The Sato-Bishop’s media centre

Lying on the floor is an electronic keyboard, and a drum-kit takes up rather more space than they might wish. Akashi is very keen that the children learn Japanese ‘while their brains are still soft.’ Both parents encourage them to watch the videos ‘especially for their education’ and discourage them from watching television. Both parents are keen to encourage the children to play music as well as to listen to it. With the media room centrally located and adjacent to the kitchen, they are in a better position to facilitate video watching and music practice, and to control television watching.

The media room is not elaborately configured and lacks a state of the art wide screen, DVD, surround sound and so forth; on the contrary, the technology is quite modest, but the space warrants the name “media room” because it is a place dedicated to the screen, and to music. It is not a place used for entertaining visitors, or doing homework, and the seating is configured for viewing and to accommodate the drum-kit rather than for conversation. There are no other televisions in the house.

Ruth and Akashi have arranged this material environment to mediate purposeful, deliberate action. That is, in this home the television and the video are not ambient background features of a multipurpose space, ready at hand to be called upon at a whim, or turned on as a default position to background other activities. Just as one makes a decision to play the drums or the keyboard, and moves to the instruments to do so, so one makes a conscious decision to watch a video, or to watch a broadcast programme, and relocates to do that. This arrangement of place, space and time may be contrasted to other arrangements, made by the Hemps for example (see following), whereby media presence is ambient, and throughout the house one is rarely out of line of sight of a screen, or of sound.

Often the children watch a video while the parents do other things, and occasionally vice versa, but the media room is more often the place in which the whole family gathers. This is exemplified in the ritual Saturday night family video, when Ruth makes a pizza and Akashi goes to rent a new video to bring home. Then the whole family retires to the media room to eat and watch. Described as “a bit of an institution,” this regular event brings the family together in a way which is qualitatively different from just sitting down together and watching whatever happens to be on television. In a sense Ruth and Akashi are recreating the ethos of televised content in its first decade or so of broadcasting, when programming was frequently pitched to the undifferentiated “whole family”, as opposed to contemporary programming, which is more often pitched at individuals, defined narrowly as a particular demographically bound market segment (Spigel, 2001). Both the media room and this Saturday night event are highly valued by the parents, who see it as an opportunity to foster family communication and solidarity while exerting a gate-keeping and interpretive influence over the media content the children engage with. The media room is thus a place for social co-participation within the family (Morley, 1999; Rosenblatt & Cunningham, 1976). Video, and to a lesser extent music, bring them together in a shared space and provide a shared experience and an orientation to one another, both spatially and through responses to character, plot-lines and music. Priority has been given to the media room in the design phase for a forthcoming renovation—the new media room will be bigger and brighter and will extend into what is now the kitchen, while the kitchen will extend into the garden. Some garden will have to be given up, but decisions have to be made on the basis of priorities.

4. A Nesting Place

Matthew lives alone in a run-down, one-bedroom apartment in Melbourne suburbia. Visitors to Matthew’s home are extremely rare. However, if one should enter the apartment and navigate through it, as we did, one does so at a risk; the sides of the walls are piled ceiling-high with old technology—keyboards, computer boxes, typewriters, monitors, amplifiers, radios, televisions, cables, circuit boards and other artefacts. Once in the living room, one may proceed along a narrow path between haphazard stacks to find a desk with a computer, a telephone and a stereo. Matthew sits here up to 12 hours a day, downloading from the Internet, chatting to one or two of his online friends, or drafting a letter of complaint about something he has heard on the radio. At night, Matthew may swivel his chair to watch a documentary on a television surrounded by and mounted on non-functioning electrical goods. Navigating one’s way around the kitchen is similarly precarious, for it too is piled high with electronic paraphernalia.


Fig. 5 Matthew’s passageway

Matthew leaves his apartment only when necessity dictates—to visit a chiropractor, to submit his fortnightly unemployment form at the Social Security Office, or to get supplies at the supermarket. When he ventures into the outside world, he often returns with an old monitor, a computer box, a TV, a typewriter, a telephone, a fax machine, a kettle, a toaster or an electric orange squeezer that has been discarded on the street. ‘You never know when something will come in useful, and I hate to see things chucked away’, he informs us. Indeed, Matthew’s desk computer is an assemblage of parts he has found, and he is often opening the box to exchange a hard drive, replace a switch, or just poke around. Matthew is very competent at assembling, disassembling and repairing computers, particularly Macintosh computers.


Fig. 6 A portion of Matthew’s collection of electronic paraphernalia

One might wonder why Matthew has chosen information and communication technologies to collect. For many people, even those who collect teaspoons or old bottles or what have you, a collection of non-functioning ICT equipment might appear odd. But it is apparent that for Matthew (and for many others) old ICTs have inherent interest. For those with a little background knowledge, and Matthew has more than a little, each has its own place in a fast changing history, each represents a different solution to a technical problem, each can in principle be returned to working order, each is complex enough to be intriguing, and for someone with very little money, a large and varied collection can be acquired at the right price.

Matthew’s personal relationships with ICTs goes well beyond the pragmatics of ICT ‘as a communications tool’ and well beyond the acquisition-consumption semiotics of ICT ‘as a status symbol’, and are constituted within a nexus of powerfully emotive states expressive of desire, possession and pleasure on the one hand, and aversion, rejection and pain on the other (Shepherd, Arnold, & Gibbs, 2006). Whatever the psychological rewards, Matthew’s collection presupposes a particular dualistic relationship with his domestic environment. On the one hand, the items that make up the collection are often bulky, and space must be found for them. On the other hand, Matthew must allow space that he can live in and to move in. The occupied spaces define the clear spaces which constitute his space—the narrow passageway between the kitchen and his desk at the far end of the living room, and the visual corridor between his desk chair and the television. The material presence of ICTs thereby shape and define Matthew’s available living space, giving him (a) little room to move.

In principle, Matthew’s position is no different to any of us. A chair, a table, a television, a heater, together with the 30,000 or so other objects in our homes (Lally, 2002), occupy their place and define the environments that we occupy, through both form and function. Where Matthew’s position differs from ours is that it is not the function performed by the technologies that shape the space, but simply their inert material presence. Matthew doesn’t engage as actively with his technologies as we do with a chair, a table and so forth; it is not the interactive performance of the human and the technology defines the space, but the brute reality of the plastic, glass and metal.

Matthew has clearly taken clutter to an extreme, but in so doing has built a convivial nest for himself in amongst the towers of stacked machines. In this too, he is not so far removed from the rest of us. We have all heard stories of how architects and interior designers despair when they return to one of their design projects post-habitation, to find that the carefully calculated sharp lines, clean surfaces, and proportioned volumes that for them define the aesthetic of the space, have been cluttered up with the trinkets and dross of everyday life. We all bring things home to make our nest, to affirm a particular identity, and to make a space that might be any place our place. Matthew is just a little more focused, and thus his 30,000 items are mainly of a kind.

5. Undifferentiated Space

The Hemps have installed ‘smart home’ technology in their house. Primarily, the technology controls security, lighting, heating, curtains, stereos and televisions. The basic functions of the system can be altered remotely via the Internet or phone but a programmer must be called in to make all other major alterations. For security, all the televisions in the home are able to view the output of a camera at the front door and driveway; for entertainment, all televisions are able to view Fox-Tel, DVDs, videos, and free-to-air television. The stereo system is also remotely controlled and distributed so it can play in various parts of the house. The kitchen has sockets for ‘network appliances’—although none are connected as yet—and the ‘light switches’ can be programmed to perform various function including turning on lights(!), and turning on the television, the heaters, opening the curtains and so forth. Digital photographs can be accessed from any one of the three networked computers, or can be viewed on an automated screen dedicated to that purpose, framed in silver and located on a shelf in the living room. Many of the systems can also be operated by way of remote control. The Hemps have 7 remote controls with dozens of buttons each, and a universal remote which is able to override all the others. The children know how to use the universal remote, but the parents use the single-purpose remotes by trial and error. 

Fig. 7 The Hemps’ remote controls

The remote controls are kept in a coffee table drawer in the living room. The remote controls operate all the devices in the living room, which include a DVD player, a video player, a FoxTel box, a 52 inch plasma TV, a still larger retractable screen with projector, and a stereo music system. But the range of the remotes also extends to all the televisions throughout the house. There is at least one networked television in every room including in the kitchen and the garage, and the outside pool patio area also has a large television, as well as a BBQ and brick oven (the BBQ has no remote control however).

Like most of us, the Hemps can go to a particular room to watch television, or a movie, or to listen to music. But the distribution of screens and speakers through the house, the garage and the garden effectively mean that the media content — be that a film, a cable or a free-to-air show, a radio broadcast, music CD, or the output of the home security cameras — goes to the Hemps wherever they happen to be, and when requires, follows them around the house. The eldest daughter likes to watch her favourite shows in the privacy of her bedroom, and her mother likes to lie in bed before sleep and watch an old movie on the cable movie channel. Mrs. Hemp also likes to watch and listen as she moves around the house cleaning, cooking and attending to her other duties. With a full-time job, two children and her self-professed role as ‘house manager’, she operates on a tight schedule and has no time ‘to stop’ and watch television. Likewise, if she chooses to listen to music, this too will keep up with her movements.

Fig. 8 The Hemps’ central control module

The application of remote control has given the Hemps (and the rest of us) a different orientation to space in the home. They enable us to stay put when we might otherwise move. The distribution of ambient vision and sound through the Hemps’ home also gives a different orientation to space; it allows the householders to move when they would otherwise stay put. In so far as media technologies are concerned, space within the home environment is not sharply differentiated, and media consumption is not sharply differentiated from other activities. Whilst some screens and speaker systems are better than others, and do sometimes attract dedicated viewing and listening, the ambient presence of distributed media mutes and blurs spatial differentials. Viewing is every place, and therefore no place in particular. The ambient, ever-presence of media suits the Hemps and many others very well, but will raise the eyebrows of those who have pointed out that the erasure of distance, or space, has not so much made everything near, as made nothing near, in a context where everything is now equally near and far (Heidegger, Ellul, Borgmann).


Not all people have the opportunity to build their own home and to custom design furniture to suit their ICT and family needs, as did the Briggs family. Many parents attempt to create an environment in which to monitor at first hand their children’s consumption of media, as did the Valerios, but many do not, and Internet wiring to children’s bedrooms is standard in new homes in the middle and upper price brackets in Australia (Stonehenge Group, n.d.). Some, like Akashi and Ruth, dedicate a place and a time for media consumption, framed as education and social co-participation. We all populate our homes with thousands of items, but not in as focused a way as Matthew, and even fewer have the money or the desire to live the high-tech life saturated with media flow that is represented in the Hemp’s home. But all people who position and then use ICT in the home are engaged in multiple processes of aligning and negotiating spatial arrangements that materialise a certain logic. This logic, moreover, is not simply instrumental or purpose driven, but impinges fundamentally on the affective lives of householders and the interrelationships within the home’s domestic ecology.

Many of our spatial orderings are historically given, as is our knowledge of these spaces, and traditions that bear upon homes and the design of domestic space and place are strong. Most of us do not design and build our own places, and even those who do, do not start with a clean sheet. But even so, there are always new considerations which reflect the changing sociocultural and sociotechnical milieu we find ourselves in. New technologies, such as remote controls, flat screens, networked computers, portable devices, and networked sound systems, invite some of us to explore new relationships between space, work, leisure, home and each other, just as did the telephone and the television. Different technologies demand different spatial arrangements to contextualise the different family practices and protocols, sanctions or moralities that are invited by these technologies and their configurations in space. Domestic technologies, spatial arrangements, and the social performances invited by them, imply an aesthetic, an ideology, ideals and fears, a code of what it means to work, appreciate, to love, to enjoy, to relate. All of these possible worlds are played out not just through communicative function, but through a certain type of material relationship to domestic space and place.

We provided vignettes that are illustrative of certain modes of spatial and environmental ordering, but the field is far from exhausted. We have seen that the spatial logic of ICTs does boundary work around paid work and family life, that it affords surveillance, that it closely defines place and social purpose, that it defines a space as our place, and that it distributes space and blurs the boundaries of place within the home. As social agents we all construct and design environments like these with communicative acts and other social performances in mind, knowing that social performance and the material arrangements of technologies in space and place are intertwined. Research following Altheide, which seeks to attend to the ecology of communicative acts, may therefore do well to attend not just to the performance of those acts, but also to the logic of their material ecology.

End Notes

[1] This research is supported under the Australian Research Council's Discovery funding scheme (project number DP0557781)

[2] The names of all participants have been altered to preserve anonymity.

[3] All quotes are derived from videotaped conversation or from Domestic Probe traces.


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