Monday, January 11, 2016

Repurposing the Refrigerator

The development of consumer technology is a two-way street.  Manufacturers can't sell a product if nobody wants it, so successful consumer-product firms pay attention to what their customers are using their products for, and adapt new versions to those uses.  A good example of how this can work is on display at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas:  Samsung's Family Hub refrigerator.

As described by the Washington Post's Hayley Tsukayama, the Family Hub features an electronic version of the pictures and sticky notes that many of us cover the front of the refrigerator with.  It's a large touchscreen on the refrigerator door that can display a calendar, notes, photos, and I suppose anything else an Internet-enabled appliance can download.  It interfaces with a Samsung mobile-phone app, so you can easily transfer data from your phone to the front of the refrigerator.  The refrigerator also has cameras inside that let you see how much milk you have left when you're grocery shopping—no need to call home and ask somebody to look in the fridge.  Just call up your refrigerator app and take a look yourself.

How did a device whose original purpose was to preserve food become a communications center?  Will Samsung's innovation catch on?  And what difference does it make in the broader scheme of things? 

In 1996, historians of technology Ronald Kline and Trevor Pinch showed how U. S. farmers took an early-twentieth-century technology intended for one purpose—the Model-T automobile—and repurposed it for a variety of other uses, ranging from plowing to running washing machines.  It's pretty safe to say that Henry Ford did not anticipate these alternative uses for his brainchild.  Kline and Pinch say this was a specific example of what is known to historians as the "social construction" of a new technology, in which users become active agents of change rather than just passively accepting what the manufacturer sells them and using it only in the way it was intended.

You could say that the refrigerator as family bulletin board is another socially constructed technology.  My grandmother had a refrigerator that must have dated back to the 1950s.  It had the old-fashioned (and dangerous) mechanical-locking door and a smooth white enameled finish.  I don't recall that she ever affixed notes or other documents to the door, but she died in 1992, just as the rubber-ceramic refrigerator-type magnets were becoming popular, both for the easily opened gasket seal around the door (which kept abandoned refrigerators from becoming deathtraps for small children), and for holding notes and photos to the front of the door.

Almost everyone in a household who is old enough to read is going to open the refrigerator on a regular basis.  So the refrigerator door is a logical place to put notes, photos, and other things that you want everyone to see.  For at least the last twenty or thirty years, the refrigerator-magnet calendar or business card has been a staple of promotional advertising products.  Most homes I have visited, especially if there are children involved, have had a refrigerator door festooned with a kind of graphic history and projection of the family's life and activities.  I suppose some sociologist somewhere has made a study of the kinds of things people put on their refrigerator doors, but the content isn't so important as the fact that it became a sort of custom, like the town crier in old New England.

Then came the stainless-steel refrigerator, first in high-end products, and later spreading to pretty much the entire line of products.  The stainless-steel style is so dominant now that I'm not sure you can find new refrigerators with a painted or enameled steel exterior anymore.  When our fifteen-year-old refrigerator died last year, the stainless-steel models were pretty much the only choice at the hardware store we went to.  If somebody had asked me, I could have told them that stainless steel is non-magnetic, but the full impact of this didn't happen till we'd stripped all the refrigerator magnets off the old unit and tried to put them on the new one.  They stick to the non-stainless sides, but not the front. 

So I welcome Samsung's attempt to bring back the repurposed refrigerator as family communications center, but I'm not sure whether a twenty-inch touchscreen is the right idea.  It all depends on the software.  Unless the Family Hub comes with its own keyboard, typing inputs is going to be a pain, as typing on a vertical surface is not that comfortable.  Of course if you have a Samsung phone, it won't be a problem.  (I don't know about the other kinds.)  A promotional video shows that you can write on the screen with your finger, but that rarely works well for more than a word or two.  And another question involves permanence.  Some of the photos we had on our old fridge were twenty years old and more.  Somehow I doubt that it's going to be easy to keep old images or other memorabilia that long on the Family Hub display.  And what about power failures?  If your emergency numbers are on the display and the display goes blank in an emergency, that's a problem. As for the camera feature, I can see potentials for hacking issues.  In addition to all your other passwords, you'll now need a password for your refrigerator.  But these are things that can be dealt with fairly easily.

The touchscreen-enabled refrigerator shows that Samsung is thinking about how people really use their products, not just how they're supposed to use them, and acting accordingly.  If it catches on, all the other appliance makers will have to come out with their own versions, which of course will not be compatible software-wise with Samsung's.  So if you get a new refrigerator, does that mean you'll have to get a new phone to match?  I hope not.  The Family Hub may be one of those silly things that disappears without a trace.  Or it may be the first sign of something that will become as universal as mobile phones themselves.  Time and the consumer will decide.

Sources:  Hayley Tsukayama's report on the 2016 Consumer Electronics Show was carried in the Washington Post online edition on Jan. 8, 2016 at  The article "Users as Agents of Technological Change:  The Social Construction of the Automobile in the Rural United States," by Ronald Kline and Trevor Pinch appeared in the Society for the History of Technology journal  Technology & Culture, vol. 37, no. 4 (Oct. 1996), pp. 763-795.

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