Following up on our deep dive into virtual nightlife, this week’s FRONTPAGE finds us delving into the vast array of gadgets and appliances that have sprung up in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. The virus is temporary, but its influence in the home-sphere feels permanent.
In 1923, the modernist architect Le Corbusier wrote that “a house is a machine for living in.” He listed elements that were previously shared infrastructure but have come to define what we now think of as the private trappings of our homes: “Baths, sun, hot-water, cold-water, warmth at will, conservation of food, hygiene, beauty in the sense of good proportion.”
Nearly 100 years later, amid the first pandemic of comparable scale to the Spanish Flu that struck in Corbusier’s time, our notion of the home is being reinvented once again. Covid-19 has accelerated the next urban transformation, bringing new strange things into our abodes that didn’t used to be there, and inventing things that didn’t exist at all.
As lockdowns went into effect earlier this year, alongside the “nature is healing” memes or the fatalistic danse macabre of the Ghanaian pallbearers, new home protocols began to surface online. These checklists were improvised from infectious disease wards, but what they reminded me of most was moving through an airlock on a spaceship. Suddenly, the outside world was a foreign planet: an uncertain landscape onto which we projected dreams of dolphins, elephants, and wild boars onto our sidewalks and waterways. As we step tentatively through an uncertain present, it is clear that our notion of space will never be the same.
Our human needs for rest, medicine, sex, entertainment, sustenance, spirituality, or simple relief from boredom don’t stop because there is a plague. Halfway through the weirdest year of our lifetimes, capitalism has come knocking with a new cabinet of curiosities for us to accept or reject. In the same way masks have become a fashion staple, what we think of as “appliances” has changed, too. These are some of the new fixtures — some essential, some less so — of our post-pandemic world.
From the Factory to Your Bedroom
Simply put, what we call “gadgets” are infrastructure that has been scaled down to fit in your pocket. Choosing which gadgets to install at home is like an IRL version of SimCity, and many of the tools we use domestically today were devised to keep people and things moving in an urban setting.
For example, non-contact, infrared thermometers — better known as thermometer guns — were designed for industrial use by workers who needed to monitor refrigerators, air vents, servers, and other machinery that was too hot, cold, or awkwardly located to approach. After the SARS-1 outbreak of 2002-2004, they became a semi-regular feature of travel through airports, train stations, and metro systems across Asia, where they were used on people rather than things. Following a radical spike in demand leading to a temporary shortage in spring, there are now plenty available on Amazon.
While vast troves of government data and computer modeling give us a picture of society’s physical health — the graphs and 2D shapes we call the curve — smartwatches, health trackers, and other wearables offer this service to individuals. One of the smallest on the market is the Oura Ring, which curates personalized “sleep,” “readiness,” and “activity” dashboards that incorporate sleep cycles, heart and respiratory rates, and overall energy burn. The longer the pandemic continues, it becomes difficult to imagine that our collective fascination with tracking real-time vital signs won’t continue to grow. Although the ring is not a doctor, the chic multi-sensor has already been deployed in US hospitals and is part of the NBA’s return, which begins this week.
Smart homes, IoT devices, wearables, and ever-present screens combine to produce an interface between open-source humans and the homes that shield them from disease and a slowly deteriorating climate. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that every tool is “smart,” and that even a screwdriver is an artificial intelligence of a sort — that is, an idea that became a thing. The Leatherman Tread LT is beautiful, but its mystique is not reducible to functionality. The 29 miniature tools encoded in this modular metal bracelet makes it a worthy nomination for a 2020 time capsule. Alien or future-human archeologists might study it to figure out what kind of creature would carry a bottle opener, an oxygen tank wrench, multiple screwdrivers, a sim card opener, and a tungsten carbide glass breaker. That would be us.
Clothing is a Spacesuit You Wear Every Day
The term cyborg — short for “cybernetic organism” — was coined in a 1961 essay titled “Drugs, Space, and Cybernetics” in the journal Astronautics. The text argued that rather than adapting space for humans, we should adapt humans for space. It was written by two scientists, Nathan Kline and Manfred Clynes, just three years after NASA was founded, and proposed we modify the human organism with technology and drugs to manage and control itself in inhospitable conditions like those of outer space. To date, sadly, we remain highly vulnerable not only to marauding parasites, but to cold, heat, toxic fumes, malnutrition, and exhaustion. Yet modest domestic augmentations such as the Circadian Optics Therapy Lamp or the NormaTec PULSE 2.0 leg recovery system remain faithful to the adaptive spirit of Kline and Clynes. One offers UV-free LED light to calibrate the homeostatic rhythms that determine sleep, focus, mood, and fatigue, while the other provides a pulsing compression massage to warm-up or recover from sport and injury… or long walks performed out of fear of mass transit.
Our clothes dictate the way we interact with the city — whether we have lightweight technical apparel that lets us move around in the rain, or the right shoes to be permitted in a fancy restaurant. If you do need to venture beyond your personal quarantine, a new range of artificial skins and protective measures have been adapted to fit your personal spacesuit. The flashlight beanie from workwear giant CAT sees the incorporation of headlamps — a practical must for everyone from fishermen to security guards — in colorways more familiar from streetwear. While it may feel like the year has been stolen from under us, the planet continues to turn, and seemingly benign snowsport accessories like an Arc’teryx gaiter have now become interwoven within the context of global crisis. Lastly, one of the weirder pickings from the twilight zone of design-by-algorithm is silicone slip-ons which fold over your creps during quick missions to the pharmacy.
In-Sourcing the Weekend
A notable aspect of Covid-19 has been the way it has either accelerated pre-existing social changes or just made them stranger. Human habitats were already being transformed by the Internet, reconstituted as command centers to which all manner of human necessities are delivered to the home, like a contact-free emotional pizza. YouTube yogis, cam girls and boys, online tutors, cultural producers, and the armies of WFH regulars became prophets for a new way of life. And as businesses adapted to remote work at lightning speed, we began to create a sharper idea of what an online weekend could look like.
I’ve been shaving my head every Friday since March: a ritual that continues whether I’m going anywhere or not. The Master Cordless Lithium Ion Clipper from Andis is a lightweight barbershop-grade aluminum clipper with 90 minutes runtime — and an essential for the masses who have been un-barbering into the new world order.
Dining out has also been put asunder, exchanged for culinary science experiments. Although the food replicator featured in Star Trek seems like the distant end point of 3D printing, perhaps the closest thing to molecular assemblage available on a budget would be the Instant Pot, a 7-in-1 appliance that can prepare rice, ferment yogurt, steam vegetables, or marinate stews. The Aarke Carbonator II actually looks a bit like a sci-fi replicator, though it in fact carbonates water, offering ’90s sodastream nostalgia or a high-end restaurant experience without hauling plastic bottles in from elsewhere.
To bring a large social experience into the private realm, you need to virtualize it. Highsnobiety recently explored the expansion of the metaverse not only as a place to read, shop, work, and watch, but also as a place to party, yet there are still diversions that remain available to the solo psychonaut in search of a good time. Pioneer’s DJ DDJ-1000SRT is a nightclub sound system compressed into a single, digital unit that will have to suffice until nightlife PPE or viroblock coating become industry standard. The libidinal function will be a mail-order experience too — with instruments like the Tenga Flex Silky White forming the basis for auto-experimentation. For now, the vices of the club will need to remain in our homes, or deeper still, in our minds.
Historian Beatriz Colomina has argued that the smooth, wipe-clean surfaces and glass towers of modernist architecture were defined by illness — particularly tuberculosis and the x-ray machines that observe it. Might the rewiring produced by virus time lead to the creation of an architecture of self-care? Despite the isolation of 2020, the “social” in social distancing is simultaneously as necessary and potentially destructive as ever, something Gen Z is already more familiar with navigating than the rest of us. To turn inward on a quiet Sunday when the DJ stack is packed away, the Internet spiritual among us might unwind on a chakra rainbow mat — featuring hot gemstones and a smart controller, aurally enclosed with a pair of family-engineered headphones from Brooklyn audiophiles GRADO.
Or you could just go for a walk — if that’s allowed where you are. The trees won’t make you sick. Online concerts were already happening before the virus. The same is true for fashion, which had already taken an interest in video game skins and cheap alternatives to live fashion shows. But at what point will we completely stop distinguishing “being there” from the virtual? Something to ponder on the crystal mat.
David Brandon Geeting