On Wattson and Electrisave…

11/12/2006

Thanks to a fascinating conversation on haddock the other day, I’m now completely obsessed with a brand new class of personal lifestyle gizmos – a class that is very much in sync with the emergent energy puritanism that I find myself unexpectedly interested in after An Inconvenient Truth. The class of objects is ‘things that help you develop an understanding of your personal energy consumption’, and thus give you a handle by which to control it.

My boss at UpMyStreet had a line he used recurrently about statistics”Everything measured goes up”. Specifically, he meant that the act of measuring itself creates an impetus for change and competitiona pressure to move a figure towards whichever extreme is (sometimes arbitrarily given the absence of context) defined as ‘better’. It’s a comment on the nature of observation, feedback loops and the selection of the criteria by which you measure success.

The energy-tracking gadgets that have come to fascinate me hope that by exposing these figures, a pressure will manifest that drives energy consumption downwards, and that these actions will justify the expense to the earth spent in making and powering the trackers themselves.

This beautiful object is the Wattson available from diykyoto.com. It’s a handmade object that costs a significantly alarming 350 of your Earth Pounds. You attach a sensor near to your elecricity meter and can then place the object itself pretty much anywhere in the home where it will communicate with the sensor wirelessly. It will then display in real time both an ambient and a digital numerical display of the amount of electricity being used in your house, so you can see the benefits of turning off a light or microwaving a meal or having a shower. It can alsoapparentlyconnect to the internet via your computer and broadcast data about your energy consumption to online social environments. But more about that stuff in a minute.

Of course you don’t have to go quite this extravagent to get this kind of functionality. The wooden sides and iPod-like white of the display are clearly designed to fit into some hybrid modernist but environmentalist minimal aestheticand I suspect that it’s really the visual or artistic appeal of the object that really floats my boatbut you can get cheaper and less ridiculous devices that do similar jobs.

The Electrisave Meter is a very different-looking beast – it’s all grey plastic and LCD displays and cables. But then again it’s also the rather more manageable ¬£80. But somehow it doesn’t appeal to me in the same way.

There are two particular things that occur to me about these devices and my own (and potentially other people’s) reactions to them. The first is back to the nature of scoring and measuring. I went to see a rather introductory talk by Judith Donath when I was last in the US around signalling theory and she talked a bit about what signalling actually referred to in particular cases. She talked about the man who buys a fast and flashy car, who probably thinks that he’s communicating in some ways that he is virile and manly and exciting, where in fact in pure signalling terms he’s communicating no more and no less than that he can afford to buy a fast car. Still, being able to buy a fast car actually may be a good thing to advertise. She also talked a bit about the controversial Handicap principle which talked about why there might be advantage in reproductive terms to develop completely impractical or ridiculously showy traitslike the tails on peacocks. The proposal of this particular controversial theory was that the generation of these costly attributes might actually be designed to indicate genetic health and vigour, since only particularly strong and healthy candidates could afford to be so wasteful.

Anyway the thing that leapt to my mind when thinking about this stuff was that anything that’s scored can have at least two positive states. Behaviour that is good is often rewarded, but the inability of all people to be the best on these grounds creates a space where bad behaviour can be viewed as revolutionary or cool or subversive. Lowering energy consumption might be viewed in positive ways by many people, but giving people an easy way to display their own patterns may just as easily lead people into showy conspicuous consumption and indications that they can afford to be wasteful. Metrics are always troubling, conflicting and often uniquely vulnerable to any forms of interpretative activity.

The other thing that occurred to me was that I’m noticing an increasing instinct in my own life towards trying to capture and track as much information about what I’m doing or what I have done as possible – and to be able to get it out somewhere on the internet where I might be able to do things with it. From my playcounts in iTunes and my last.fm profile through to my web stats and geotagged Flickr photos all the way to my sudden almost overwhelming fascination with tracking/displaying my energy consumptions and getting programmatic access to my Oyster card data, over and over again I’m finding myself interested in capturing and making sense of the activities of my life in an ambient and backgrounded way. I want to know what I’ve watched on television, how many days of sunshine I’ve experienced this year and how well my mood as correlated with them, how much I’m sleeping, how much I’ve drank, how much bandwidth I use up in a week and how loud my neighbourhood is compared to the average.

Or more specifically I don’t want to know this stuff, I want to be able to capture it invisibly so that it can be knitted together and sense made of it and data made discoverable and searchable at some point in the future, when the urge or need takes me. This is going to be one of the great benefits of ambient/pervasive computing or everyware – not the tracking of objects but the tracking and collating of you yourself through objects. The citizen of the future will have some of their personal fuzziness removed as the sharp data edges of their lives are captured and tracked for personal use. And I’m not sure what I think about it. Except that it’s fascinating.

Do you know about any more products like this? Things that display in interesting ways the energy consumption or patterns of consumption around your home? What do you think of these ones in particular? Should I get one?