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Why the 'Kitchen of the Future' Always Fails Us

In a world full of incredible technology, why can we still not imagine anything more interesting than a woman making dinner alone?


magine the home of the future. It probably has a lot of glass. Maybe a robot butler or two. The living room is full of egg-shaped furniture, the family owns a drone, the television is part of the wall, the thermostat calibrates the temperature of each room based on the body temperature of its occupants, using data gathered from their subdermal implants.

Around the corner, in the kitchen, our lovely future wife is making dinner. She always seems to be making dinner. Because no matter how far in the future we imagine, in the kitchen, it is always the 1950's, it is always dinnertime, and it is always the wife's job to make it. Today's homes of the future are full of incredible ideas and gizmos, but while designers seems happy to extrapolate far beyond what we can do today when it comes to battery life or touch screens, they can't seem to wrap their minds around any changes happening culturally. In a future kitchen full of incredible technology, why can we still not imagine anything more interesting than a woman making dinner alone?

The way any culture talks about its future says more about their present than it does about anything else. Put another way, as scholars Jofish Kaye and Genevieve Bell do in their 2002 paper A Kitchen Manifesto, "The ‘house of tomorrow' is a vision perpetually deferred and one that tells us more about the preoccupations of the time than it does about the designs of the future."

The way any culture talks about its future says more about their present than it does about anything else

The home of the future has a long history. In 1893, at the World's Fair in Chicago, domestic science and home economics were presented on the global stage for the first time as academic disciplines, topics to be systematically considered and innovated upon. In 1933, the Chicago World's Fair was themed "Century of Progress." It had a whole exhibition called Homes of Tomorrow,  advertised by a flyer touting "the home of the new era ... a steel house you would want to live in," one that's "fireproof and sanitary." The home itself was now fair game for innovation, and companies like Monsanto and General Motors started to get on board.

In 1956, GM released perhaps my favorite futurist movie ever made. In Design for Dreaming, a woman slips into a dream world, where she meets a masked magician who whisks her to a car show and asks which vehicle she'd like him to buy her. She window-shops GM models — a Corvette, a Buick, a Cadillac — expressing desire to purchase each one until suddenly an apron appears over her ball gown and she faints. A man in the background yells "Better get her to the kitchen, quick!" and she's whisked away, awakening in a room full of buttons and knobs and devices that cook your food for you, freeing her to go off and sunbathe or play tennis. It's a musical, of course: "Everybody says the future is strange, but I have a feeling some things won't change" she sings.

A year later, Monsanto released their own vision for the House of the Future. While GM's vision of the future was predicated on cars and automation, Monsanto's revolved around plastic. (This was before Monsanto became known as a huge food company, and back when they were one of the big drivers in the push for plastic as a material in the United States). In their future home, nearly everything is made of plastic, including most of the kitchen. A family walks in the front door, and while the father and daughter leave to explore the rest of the house, the mother wraps herself around a beam in the kitchen and sighs wistfully about how wonderful it would be if this kitchen were hers.

Both of these future kitchens are products of a midcentury obsession with efficiency and anxiety about domestic roles. During World War II, American women found footing outside the home, and as the Cold War started to ramp up, the country became obsessed with innovation and automation. These future visions straddled that awkward set of goals: kitchens that were efficient and innovative enough to give women the free time they wanted, but wrapped in narratives that ensured that this time was spent not working, but rather doing wifely things like cleaning the rest of the house, sunbathing, and playing tennis.

It's easy to look back at these films and laugh at both their presentation and predictions. Monsanto thought all homes would be full of plastic furniture and dishes, GM predicted a kitchen where, with the push of a button, a whole cake gets mixed and baked without a single human measure or stir. The dancing, the singing, the haircuts — they're dated. They're that kind of nostalgic sexism we can laugh at together now, because we're over it, right?

Not so much. In fact, the visions of the kitchen of the future produced today can be hard to tell apart from the visions put out by corporations like GE, Whirlpool, and Monsanto fifty years ago. In Ikea's future kitchen, the promotional image they use is a woman alone in the kitchen. In Microsoft's "Productivity Future Vision" we see a woman pour herself a smoothie. In 2011, glass and ceramics manufacturer Corning released a series of videos called A Day Made of Glass, easy to read as a modern take on the Monsanto house of tomorrow.In their vision of the future, car dashboard, tablets, whiteboards, student's desks, CT scanning machines, and, yes, kitchens, are all made of glass. The wife in Corning's future grabs an apple on her way out to work, but we never see what she does (although we do catch up with her again later, while she's shopping). The husband is a brain surgeon.

Not only do these new future kitchens fail to acknowledge the changes in women's relationship with the kitchen, they've also failed to see the way that relationship has changed for men too. Today's men do cook. A recent study that traced the habits of 3,000 men from Generation X confirmed that more than ever before men are in the kitchen. It's a development that makes the culture depicted in these future videos not just inaccurate, but regressive.

Imagined futures aren't selling products. You can't walk into the Carousel of Progress — a live-action version of GE's ideal future that lives at Disney World — point at a stove, and say "I'll take one!" There's no phone number or website at the end of Corning's or Ikea's or Microsoft's videos directing you to an order form. These films and pamphlets and pretty websites aren't selling you goods, but rather ideas, narratives, and stories about how the future is going to work, and how their company fits into that future.

"The vision piece is always such an interesting artifact," Kaye told me. "It's this controlled world in which you're trying to tell a story and everybody has really good haircuts. Nobody ever needs a haircut." Not only that, but nobody in these videos seems to behave or live like average humans do. So we're building these visions of the future without regard for how people actually behave. And a quick look at the features and designs of these kitchens makes it clear how far they live from the realities of what designer Anab Jain calls our "messy, whimsical, unintended human behaviours."

We're building these visions of the future with no regard for how people actually behave

Take the entire premise of the Day Made of Glass. Corning's proposal is a kitchen that seems to be nearly entirely either made of, or coated in glass. Not only is the kitchen covered in glass for aesthetic reasons, but the glass is also projected upon, to show photos and video chats and weather and recipes. This means that it needs to be clean to be usable. But glass requires constant maintenance: Imagine the smudges on your iPhone blown up to kitchen-size, usual fingertip oils replaced with cooking grease. None of the work of maintaining that cleanliness is apparent — or even hinted at — in the video. "All the smart kitchens seem to be completely clean surfaces on which you can project stuff," Jain says, laughing. "I don't know what world these people live in."

Or take another future kitchen invention, this one from Panasonic: a top-down camera mounted inside a fridge, designed to show you what your fridge contains. "Say goodbye to second trips to the supermarket for the cilantro you forgot to pick up while you were there," the narrator says, speaking over a beautifully arranged fridge drawer full of brightly lit, never-overlapping vegetables. After watching the video, I looked into my own fridge, trying to imagine what a top-down camera might reveal. Perhaps your refrigerator is far more clean and organized than mine, but if I were checking in on my fridge-cam from the grocery store, I would think I only had a container of whitefish, some unidentifiable leftovers in opaque-lidded tupperware, and a varied selection of dips. Even if you follow Panasonic's lead and only use the camera on your vegetable drawer, it's useless as soon as you store your fruits or vegetables in bags or containers, or stack anything atop anything else.

Then there's the idea of a "smart kitchen," a room full of devices that learn all about you and help you go about your cooking more efficiently. A domestic installment in the "internet of things," the smart kitchen is the space where all sorts of companies are trying to find ways and justifications for hooking up electronics to the cloud. Your smart countertop could connect to your fitness tracker and suggest post-workout meals. Your smart fork could beep when you're eating too quickly, or too much, or taking bites of something not on the diet you've taught the fork you're following. Your stove and fridge could be controlled by your phone.

The 1957 Frigidaire "Dream Kitchen of Tomorrow"

This might sound convenient for someone with an efficient, perfect life, but it's another case of futurists not thinking about how messy and unpredictable human behaviors actually are. What happens when your kid runs around the kitchen and pushes all the buttons, training the fridge to freeze or thaw or open or close at odd times of night? Or your cat hops on the cabinets and meddles with the toaster so it sends you emails while you're at work asking when you want your toast ready and how well done it should be? Jain is optimistic that designers will come around to reality eventually. "It's time to acknowledge that we are all whimsical, weird people," she says. "I think there are ways to design stuff that's more interpretive, more open to possibilities than just This is going change your lifeI"

This isn't a new phenomenon. There's a rich history of "efficiency enhancing" devices turning out to actually create more work, particularly for women. And in the case of smart devices, much of that work comes in the training. A smart stove is still just a machine; it doesn't know what you want until you teach it. Neither does the fork that tracks your calorie intake, or the cup that monitors your hydration, or the fridge that wants to tell you when it's time to buy more milk or eggs. Suddenly, each device in your kitchen demands attention beyond simply turning it on or off, or lifting it up or down. "The technology becomes the most demanding child you'll ever have to deal with," says Sarah Kember, a scholar at the University of London who studies how domestic technology affects women. "Every gadget is asking what's this? What's this?"

These are fantasies, unconstrained by reality. So why can't their designers break away from domestic roles that have long been outdated?

The kitchens of the future are inevitably full of these kinds of devices, as much as they're both devoid of a real sense of human behavior, and tied to old-fashioned ideas about domesticity and the division of labor. But these videos and presentations are fantasies — they're unconstrained by reality, technical limitations, or cost. So why can't their designers break away from domestic roles that have long been outdated?

There are a few easy answers to that question. The people who are in charge of designing the future right now are a homogenous group. Futurism, as a field, is dominated by men: two thirds of the roster of the Association of Professional Futurists is male, as is 77 percent of the World Future Society's. And it's no secret that the technology industry, the other field generating many of these futures, is struggling with gender inclusivity as well. The men of Futurism tend to be old, and tech is flooded with younger ones — but what both of those demographics seem to have in common, regardless of their age, is that they don't appear to be part of the wave of men who are newly embracing time in the kitchen. "This is one of the reasons I'm a fan of diversity: it gets you people who are in a different world," says Kaye. "You're not stuck with the same set of assumptions, like, Why don't you microwave some Soylent?"

Some of this may be explained by the background and worldview of the folks giving us these visions. Many of the engineers and designers behind future-looking projects see their roles as one of creating hardware and software. They aren't trained to think about technology in a cultural context, and they're not designing kitchens while thinking about the social baggage and gender politics that come along with them. A kitchen is a room in a house, any house, it doesn't matter. Its user is a person, any person, their background and history and personality don't matter. "They should be better at it," says Kaye of these architects of the future. "But their education was focused on algorithms and compilers".

A kitchen is a room in a house, any house, it doesn't matter. Its user is a person, any person, their background and history don't matter.

Not only does the contemporary tech industry see its work as culturally agnostic, but it's particularly solutions-oriented and innovations-obsessed. This means that tech companies, for the most part, don't go looking for a problem and then try to find a solution; rather, they have a solution in mind and go about seeking a problem to retroactively apply it to. Kaye says that in the design classes he teaches, he actually bans any projects involving the scanning of barcodes, a favorite everything-is-data crutch of young information scientists. If he doesn't, he says, everybody ends up making a grocery tracking app, something that will tell the user what's in her fridge or cart, which is a solution he doesn't think connects to a problem: "I don't have this issue," he says. "I don't look in my fridge and say, Cauliflower?!"

But where a consumer might see a disconnect between a glossy vision of the future and the realities of their own human life, engineers and designers aren't necessarily interested in seeing any gap at all. They operate on the premise that people don't know what they need until it's built for them. This is a useful principle in some ways, but when it comes to reconsidering how people interact with spaces and appliances they use every day with fluency, it results in an approach to innovation that only calls for talking, never listening.

The result is an array of potential futures that are strangely both unaware of the culture from which they spring, and at the same time constrained by it. The kitchen of the future is a one-size-fits all, ahistorical, acultural room, one that serves no one well.

It's easy to laugh off the retro-future on display at Tomorrowland at Disney World. It's easy to ignore the showpiece kitchens-of-the-future of today, their smart appliances and interactive surfaces and fridge cams. They're not real, they're silly, they're just PR. But it matters how we narrate the future, both from a pragmatic standpoint and from a cultural one. These hypothetical futures aren't just acts of harmless storytelling, they're acts of storytelling backed by billions of dollars. It's unlikely that a woman is going to see these promos and think "Welp, guess it's back to the kitchen for me!" But nobody wins when the visions of the future that we're accepting, promoting, and sharing assumes that we're all the same, that we all want the same things, and that those things incorporate the same breakdown of gender roles we've always had.

The 1953 KitchenAid "Television Kitchen"

From a purely pragmatic standpoint, while most of what's on display in these hypothetical kitchens isn't available for purchase, some pieces of them will be. It's a little like a runway show: the average person will never see that designer outfit in stores, let alone on other humans. But pieces, elements, ideas of those outfits trickle down into our stores, arriving piecemeal, bit by bit. Particular aspects of these predictions are already headed our way: there's already a smart fork, a set of chopsticks that claim to measure food freshness, and an app that can control your stove from your phone.

Writing off all these hypothetical kitchens as nonsense ignores how powerful the effect of their messaging can be

Here's another way to think about it all. If you're reading this, you're likely a kitchen user yourself. Imagine your dream kitchen, something with every invention and bell and whistle you might want. What does it include? I'd guess it doesn't include a wall of hard-to-clean glass surfaces, or a self-stirring pot, or an easy way for your mother-in-law six states away to watch you cook. For me, it would include a self-cleaning function. Here's how many times I saw anything about keeping the kitchen clean in all the future-home videos I've watched: Not once.

Futurism, both academically and within the world of tech, might have a reputation for irrelevance, and some of that is certainly deserved. But writing off all these hypothetical kitchens as nonsense ignores how powerful the effect of their messaging can be. Panasonic, GM, Corning — these are companies that have huge budgets, and vast amounts of influence. They're companies that have, in the past, truly changed the way we think about technology, our homes, and our food. Who's to say they won't do it again?

The future home is often presented as inhabited by idealized versions of ourselves. They are efficient and methodical, clean, quiet, and easily controlled. They're robots. Humans aren't like that, and no matter how much glass their homes are coated in, they'll be messy — both literally and figuratively. The kitchens of the future will almost certainly be full of high-tech devices, but they'll also be full of low-tech, funny, weird, idiosyncratic humans, and futurists would do well to remember that.

Rose Eveleth is a producer, designer, writer and animator based in Brooklyn. She’s the host of the podcast Meanwhile in the Future, a columnist for BBC Future, and the editor of Smithsonian’s Smart News blog. In her spare time she makes paper automata and daydreams about hanging out with a pack of foxes.
Editor: Helen Rosner

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