“In the winter, family members gathered 'round the fireplace - which was the only source of heat and light. Here,
the children studied, the parents exchanged news of the day, and Grandma worked at her embroidery. The hearth
held the extended family together. Then pipes for delivering energy were put in-electrical wiring and central heating
ducts. Family members could be warm and have light to read by everywhere. The fire was no longer kindled, except
as a kind of nostalgic entertainment on festive occasions... The fireside circle could no longer serve as social glue.
The old social fabric - tied together by enforced commonalities of location and schedule - no longer coheres.
What shall replace it?” Bill Mitchell, e-topia, 2000
1. The liberated hearth. The earliest 'habitation technology' was the grotto - a natural feature that
man sought out for warmth, protection and sociability - there, he built the primordial hearth. Up until
the 20th century, the hearth remained a focal point: it was not only functional, but, as Frank Lloyd
Wright famously noted, it was 'the psychological center of the home'. Over the course of human
history, the evolution of the hearth is a story of liberating heat: from grotto to fire pit, from Victorian
pipes to central heating and suburban thermostats, man exerts more and more control over his climate.
2. Unmooring across dimensions. The same trajectory towards spatial liberation happened, in fits and
starts, across many dimensions of habitation. Along with heat, a parallel transition occurred in lighting,
from gathering by candlelight to the modern proliferation of fixtures in every room; in water, from the
social gathering space of a village well to networks of pipes bringing water to each room; even
entertainment, from the theatre as locus of art and culture to the rash of screens permeating public and
private space. Every element of habitation has been individually outsourced - distributed, personalized
3. Digital controls. Today a superposition of digital systems over physical space - the convergence of
bits and atoms - allows an unprecedented degree of control. We are at a crossroads in the history of
technology, when a ubiquitous blanket of sensors
is telling us more and more about the environment and
technology can respond in real time. Every dimension of habitation is impacted: from the simplest
example of occupancy-sensing lights within a single room, up to the scale of a city, where we can begin
to analyze and transform complex systems like waste management, transportation, or energy production
4. Domesticated heat. With central heating, there has come to be a dramatic asymmetry between
human occupancy and energy use. Entire homes are heated during the day when residents are at work or
school, and even when they are home, empty corners of the house are indiscriminately kept just as warm
as those in active use. To ensure constant comfort, man heats every space he might possibly inhabit. As
a result, energy consumption has become so excessive that during a cold winter on the east coast of the
US, global oil prices rise in a direct correlation. Research shows that using digital technologies to
modulate energy usage based on occupancy could reduce consumption by almost one third.
5. The new ‘Nest’. This is still at the scale of the building, where a binary choice between ON or OFF
comes at the expense of efficiency. Yet it could be solved with a simple device. The thermostat was
invented during the 1880s to keep a constant ambient temperature at the user’s discretion, however it is
only with the recent integration of smartphones and digitization that users can exert a degree of climate
control approaching dynamism. A new technology, aptly named the 'Nest', is a digitally integrated
thermostat system that learns from its users’ daily habits, can be controlled via smartphone, and
encourages playful family dynamics - all with the goal of saving energy.
6. Local Warming. The Nest allows dynamic control of temperature over time, but we could begin to
imagine the same degree of control over space - that is, synchronizing heat with people. A dynamic
system for 'local warming' could enable fine-grained control over personal climates while
simultaneously improving energy efficiency by orders of magnitude. An individual thermal 'cloud'
would follow each human throughout a building, ensuring ubiquitous comfort while minimizing overall
heat requirements. Man no longer seeks heat - heat seeks man.
7. Extreme liberation. Individualization and a finer degree of control are beginning to save energy
across a broad spectrum of functions. Turning a tap can hardly be compared to trekking back and forth
between home and the village well, nor videoconferencing to costly and arduous global travel. Across
dimensions of human habitation, the trajectory toward systematic emancipation has been synonymous
with increased efficiency and spatial liberation. Thanks to WiFi, the world accompanies everyone at all
8. The Ultimate Generic. Could this climax of freedom be, in fact, a consummation of the ultimate
generic space? If
anyone can be anywhere and have access to anything, the anchor has been raised on a
newly itinerant human society. As Constant Nieuwenhuys noted, 'sedentary man is dying out; we are
becoming nomads once more, wandering over earth, not looking for rest but for dynamic motion… the
airport of today can be seen as the anticipatory image of the city of tomorrow, the city of man’s passing
through'. Non lieux as the only lieux?
9. Alienation: digital connection, spatial isolation. As humans become increasingly networked in digital
space, there is a corresponding physical alienation. The evolution of the grotto is complete: the hearth
has become entirely atomized and mobile, and its decentralization brings a simultaneous fragmentation
of social cohesion. Rather than the locus of domestic life, the hearth has been reduced to twee nostalgia
(or glorified knickknack shelf), and with its disappearance, an entire social fabric unravels. The
hermetic environment of a personal climate seems to be the final capitulation of human interaction -
digitally connected, spatially isolated.
10. A new sociability: mobile heart(h)s? Yet ingrained human proclivities tell a different story. Man is
a social creature. Although we no longer need to share space, we still yearn to, and digital networks can
provide a powerful antidote to the blight of modern alienation. AirBnB and CouchSurfing connect
travelers seeking a unique story and a personal touch to hosts with an extra room. Meetup brings
together perfect strangers with common interests in cities throughout the world. A new 'sharing
economy' has been sparked on the ashes of a global recession. An asset-light, neo-nomadic and
digitally-integrated mode of living may yet be compatible with (and even augment) human interaction.
The value of our cities’ ubiquitous digital overlay will be proven in its capacity to achieve a new
sociability - from our mobile hearths to vibrant encounters in physical space.
Carlo Ratti and Matthew Claudel
Image: Justin Kern
Carlo Ratti e associati , Torino
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