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There once was a woman who lived in her computer

By Christine Boese
CNN Headline News

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(CNN) -- I've been abuzz lately with a fantasy of a "smart home." My mom and I share a hobby of obsessively drawing house floor plans, but mine are always a little goofy because I try to cram every gizmo I can think of into them. At the very least, I have visions of server closets dancing in my head: the whole house networked and wireless. I can dream, can't I?

But when I jump online to research what are starting to be marketed as "smart homes," I get irritated. They don't match my daydreams at all. Instead, with Internet refrigerators and toasters, all-seeing sensors monitoring my every burp and gurgle, I think I'd feel more like a prisoner in my own castle. I have paranoid fits just thinking about it.

Which is why I don't want to waltz into my first smart home without thinking about how the technology will shape me more than I may be empowered by it.

Basically, I want to shift my frame of reference from thinking of technology as objects I manipulate to thinking about technology as an immersive environment.

Or, to put it more simply, instead of thinking of a computer as a beige box of fans, chips, drives and a motherboard, I want to start thinking of my home as a large, walk-in computer.

I'm reminded of how early automobiles were given the limited nickname "horseless carriages," as if that were all a car culture could or would become. Social structures will always shape and twist technology into uses few can foresee.

In a past column, I wrote of Marshall McLuhan's concept of technologies as extensions of our physical selves outside our bodies: the car an extension of the foot; a book an extension of the eye, etc. As long as we think of technology in terms of gadgets outside ourselves, I believe we will continue to become more fragmented and extended. We are dependent on our calculators just as the classical Greek orators lost their memorization skills with the advent of writing technologies and literacies

But McLuhan wrote of how we "interiorize" technology as well. He looked at how a technological culture "writes" and shapes our inner worlds. The thoughts we think in an Internet chat room are vastly different than the topics that come up by candlelight or around a campfire.

Once distributed among many people, lowly personal computers became much more than the sum of their scaled-down parts. With many contributors, the technological environment expanded rapidly. Some computerized objects stayed very small, such as digital cameras or music players. Meanwhile, networked systems began to grow that beige box of the PC to the size of a house some of us would actually consider living in, just like the old woman who lived in a shoe.

How will this immersive environment shape the interiors of our minds? Will we master and direct the technology to our needs? I also have a nightmare where my maxed-out smart home does nothing but blink 12:00 over and over.

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