Where the hearth is: we tend to remember details of homes we've lived in with a striking clarity. Photograph: Getty Images
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Lighted rooms inside your head

Houses aren’t just bricks and mortar; they become part of us.

A crash pad, a haven, a residence, a home . . . The 18 different buildings I’ve lived in to date have been, between them, all of these things to me. Most of my frenetic itinerancy has taken place during my adult years, though by the time I left home for university I’d already notched up six different addresses.

The first house I can barely remember; the second comes back to me in hazy snapshots – a sip of orange juice by the open door of the kitchen, a go on the tyre-swing in the garden (or was it a proper plastic seat?); but the third, where I lived between the ages of three and six, is a different matter. I can still take a mental walk through the rooms of that house in Newtown Road, Southampton. I can view it from the street – the rough, pebble-dash walls, the little bay window, the narrow tarmac drive – or I can walk through its interior, taking note of the layout, pausing at the turn on the stairs: right to my parents’ bedroom, left to my brothers’ and mine. I know where the windows are, the furniture – I can even see the fabric of the armchairs and curtains. And I can do the same with all the homes that came afterwards.

There is nothing exceptional about this. Why is it that we remember our houses with such uncanny clarity? The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard believed that there is a dynamic interplay between the mind and its surroundings. Each is shaped by and responds to the other. At the simplest level, a house may reflect something of our character through the furnishings we choose to adorn it, the colours we paint its walls, the number of locks we put on its doors and so on. But there is more to it than that.

The psychologist Carl Jung spent over 30 years building and extending Bollingen Tower, a second home for him and his wife, Emma, on the banks of Lake Zurich. He believed that the towers and annexes of this castle-like structure represented his psyche. After Emma’s death, he added a second storey, which he said symbolized the expansion of consciousness attained in old age. If our consciousness does expand, our sense of home begins to grow the moment we are born – from the womb, to our parents’ arms, to the cot, and eventually to the building where we spend our earliest years.

Since our association with houses is a lifelong affair, it’s hardly surprising that our fascination with other people’s houses grows as we mature. Bachelard maintained that candlelight in a window was enough to bring a street to life. He saw the house, animated by the mind’s activities, as a kind of theatre. Many artists – painters, poets, film-makers – have shared this vision. Wes Anderson’s recent Moonrise Kingdom opens with the camera tracking across the rooms of a home whose façade has been cut away to reveal what is, in effect, a life-size doll’s house. It is a compelling prelude: in a matter of moments the basic tenor of one family’s life – its habits, quirks and make-up – is laid bare.

What makes Anderson’s device so potent is that the narratives played out behind the screening facade of a house are not intended for public view. But sometimes the players have no say in the matter, as the former poet laureate Ted Hughes (an avowedly private man) knew only too well. His final collection, Birthday Letters, was written secretly over many years, following the suicide of his first wife, Sylvia Plath.
Several of the poems in it recall specific houses and other buildings that served as the backdrop to the couple’s difficult union. In “18 Rugby Street”, Hughes calls to mind the house in which he once waited for his future wife, at the start of a relationship that was to be exposed to the cruellest level of public scrutiny:

So there in Number Eighteen Rugby Street’s
Victorian torpor and squalor I waited for you.
I think of that house as a stage-set –
Four floors exposed to the auditorium.
On all four floors, in, out, the love-struggle
In all its acts and scenes, a snakes and ladders
Of intertangling and of disentangling
Limbs and loves and lives . . .

While the voyeurism here is imagined, a flick through the television guides of recent years reveals the scale of our appetite for looking into other people’s homes: Through the Keyhole; Come Dine with Me; How Clean Is Your House? It’s an obsession that seems to take little account of class or temperament or political persuasion. Even the most serious-minded are susceptible – witness the success of the Guardian’s “Writers’ rooms” series, where readers can scrutinise at leisure the minutiae of an author’s private workspace. There is the mandatory desk, the chair, the teetering piles (or neatly arranged shelves) of books. But what is that bizarre-looking trinket on the mantelpiece? The open hip flask in the corner? We are a species of nosy parkers.

Walk down any street after dark and it’s hard to stop your gaze from being drawn sideways wherever there are undrawn curtains framing a lit interior: few of us can resist these fleeting tableaux of domestic life. Edward Hopper was another artist to exploit this impulse in his work. The New York photographer Gail Albert Halaban recently took pictures of 16 houses in Massachusetts that were first made famous in Hopper’s paintings. Many of the originals – Night Windows, Cape Cod Morning, House at Dusk – offer tantalising glimpses of interior scenes, said to have been suggested by Hopper’s rides through New York on the elevated or “El” train. In Rear Window, Hitchcock poses an uncomfortable question by subtly implicating the viewer in the action: how many of us, finding ourselves in the place of James Stewart’s housebound character, would withstand the temptation to observe the goings on in our neighbours’ apartments?

It has been ever thus. The heroine of Wuthering Heights is unable to resist the lure of lights in her neighbours’ house. One of the book’s most enduring images is of Cathy and Heathcliff as children clinging to the window ledge of the drawing room under cover of night to spy on the wealthy Linton family through half-closed curtains. The book’s two contrasting houses are clearly symbolic of the two different sides of Cathy’s nature – one wild and windswept, the other (Thrushcross Grange) full of decency and order. She is not unusual in this: again it was Bachelard who observed that we all have our cottage moments and our palace moments.

Our infatuation with houses stems, perhaps, from a conviction that in some way they both contain and express an essential part of us; as if our presence might seep into the very fabric of the walls that surround us. Over time, that presence is absorbed deep into the stone and brickwork – and what we are really talking about here is memory. Several of Thomas Hardy’s poems (especially those about his late wife) express this idea. “At Castle Boterel”, for instance, tells us how the presence of the speaker and his nowdead sweetheart is preserved forever in the surrounding rocks: “what they record in colour and cast/Is – that we two passed”.

The thought is not so very odd: houses have long served as monoliths for the dead. English Heritage puts up around ten new blue plaques each year in London and there are similar schemes across the UK, from Aberdeen to Zennor, from the British Film Institute to the Plastics Historical Society. The process by which a proposed residence is deemed worthy of recognition is lengthy and elaborate but in every instance it’s the worthiness of the inhabitant, and not the building itself, that is assessed.

It would seem, then, that houses remember us just as we remember them; that memories become embodied by the places we live in. The poet Christopher Reid’s award-winning collection, A Scattering, is a moving tribute to his late wife, Lucinda. Towards the end of it, in the long poem “Lucinda’s Way”, the speaker recalls a moment one afternoon when husband and wife:

. . . crossed on the stairs.
Unprompted, you announced, “I love
our house” –
an outburst of the plainest happiness
that the high stairwell
enshrines still.

By the same token, to revisit an old house and discover that there’s no outward evidence of our ever having been there can leave us with an unsettling sense of our smallness. In “55 Eltisley” Ted Hughes registers such a shock:

Our first home has forgotten us.
I saw when I drove past it
How slight our lives had been
To have left not a trace.

Our sense of past self is often so closely connected with the house we lived in at the time as to be inseparable from it. Seeing that house inhabited by strangers is disquieting – like bumping into an ex who’s found a completely new way of dressing or doing their hair, on the arm of someone we’ve never seen before.

At the root of our disquiet is the queer but strongly felt notion that if we live inside our houses, they also live inside us – often long after we’ve left them. In his semi-autobiographical The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, the poet Rilke describes a house he had lived in many years before as “quite dissolved and distributed inside me; here one room, there another, and here a bit of corridor. […] Thus the whole thing is scattered about inside me: the rooms, the stairs that descended with such ceremonious slowness; others, narrow cages that mounted in a spiral movement, in the darkness of which we advanced like the blood in our veins.”

Philip Larkin combines the notion of the internalized house with that of the house as theatre in his unflinching portrayal of ageing, “The Old Fools”:

Perhaps being old is having lighted rooms
Inside your head, and people in them, acting.
People you know, yet can’t quite name; each looms
Like a deep loss restored, from known doors turning,
Setting down a lamp, smiling from a stair, extracting
A known book from the shelves; or sometimes only
The rooms themselves, chairs and a fire burning,
The blown bush at the window, or the sun’s
Faint friendliness on the wall some lonely
Rain-ceased midsummer evening. That is where they live:
Not here and now, but where all happened once.

Given the symbiotic nature of the relationship, it’s hardly surprising that the boundary between house and human should sometimes blur into non-existence. While Bachelard perceived a lit window as a portal to the action inside a house, for the French poet Rimbaud a lit interior is an eye looking outwards on to the street: the lighted lamp “watches in the secret heart of night” (veille au coeur secret de la nuit). And in the contemporary poet Jen Hadfield’s “Still Life with the Very Devil”, other, more covert body parts are in evidence in a house where the dishes are “stacked like vertebrae./ Under the broiler,/turned sausages ejaculate”.

This way of thinking is by no means confined to poetry and philosophy. The house/body analogy is so woven into our everyday language that we hardly notice its presence – in medical as well as other phrases. We talk of the “roof” of the mouth, the “wall” of the womb, the muscles of the pelvic “floor”; and – more curiously – our eyes are said to be the “windows” of the soul. On the flip side, every chimney has a “breast”, every cave a “mouth”, and walls (as many a gossip has learned to their cost) have “ears”.

I think about this last phrase in relation to the house I live in now. What conversations must it have been witness to? Set in a pretty Somerset village, it’s a far cry from the modern red-brick house of my teenage years, which was perched on a dead-end road with a huge chemical factory at one end and a smaller electroplating factory at the other. My current house is almost 400 years old; it was put up during the only time in English history when there was no monarch on the throne. Here and there, the flagstone floors are worn to a hollow by the many hundreds of feet that have travelled over them. So it is that the house serves as a reminder of my own impermanence – a thought I find every bit as consoling as it is discomfiting: more often than not our houses both precede and outlast us. And if they do retain some sense of our existence – even if only fleetingly – so much the better. Life rushes on, before, behind, around us; for the time being, at least, I’m more than happy to stay put.

Julia Copus’s latest collection is “The World’s Two Smallest Humans” (Faber, £9.99).

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

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Are smart toys spying on children?

If you thought stepping on a Lego was bad, consider the new ways in which toys can hurt and harm families.

In January 1999, the president of Tiger Electronics, Roger Shiffman, was forced to issue a statement clearing the name of the company’s hottest new toy. “Furby is not a spy,” he announced to the waiting world.

Shiffman was speaking out after America’s National Security Agency (NSA) banned the toy from its premises. The ban was its response to a playground rumour that Furbies could be taught to speak, and therefore could record and repeat human speech. “The NSA did not do their homework,” said Shiffman at the time.

But if America’s security agencies are still in the habit of banning toys that can record, spy, and store private information, then the list of contraband items must be getting exceptionally long. Nearly 18 years after TE were forced to deny Furby’s secret agent credentials, EU and US consumer watchdogs are filing complaints about a number of WiFi and Bluetooth connected interactive toys, also known as smart toys, which have hit the shelves. Equipped with microphones and an internet connection, many have the power to invade both children’s and adults’ private lives.

***

“We wanted a smart toy that could learn and grow with a child,” says JP Benini, the co-founder of the CogniToys “Dino”, an interactive WiFi-enabled plastic dinosaur that can hold conversations with children and answer their questions. Benini and his team won the 2014 Watson Mobile Developer Challenge, allowing them to use the question-answering software IBM Watson to develop the Dino. As such, unlike the “interactive” toys of the Nineties and Noughties, Dino doesn’t simply reiterate a host of pre-recorded stock phrases, but has real, organic conversations. “We grew it from something that was like a Siri for kids to something that was more conversational in nature.”

In order for this to work, Dino has a speaker in one nostril and a microphone in the other, and once a child presses the button on his belly, everything they say is processed by the internet-connected toy. The audio files are turned into statistical data and transcripts, which are then anonymised and encrypted. Most of this data is, in Benini’s words, “tossed out”, but his company, Elemental Path, which owns CogniToys, do store statistical data about a child, which they call “Play Data”. “We keep pieces from the interaction, not the full interaction itself,” he tells me.

“Play Data” are things like a child’s favourite colour or sport, which are used to make a profile of the child. This data is then available for the company to view, use, and pass on to third parties, and for parents to see on a “Parental Panel”. For example, if a child tells Dino their favourite colour is “red”, their mother or father will be able to see this on their app, and Elemental Path will be able to use this information to, Benini says, “make a better toy”.

Currently, the company has no plans to use the data with any external marketers, though it is becoming more and more common for smart toys to store and sell data about how they are played with. “This isn’t meant to be just another monitoring device that's using the information that it gathers to sell it back to its user,” says Benini.

Sometimes, however, Elemental Path does save, store, and use the raw audio files of what a child has said to the toy. “If the Dino is asked a question that it doesn’t know, we take that question and separate it from the actual child that’s asking it and it goes into this giant bucket of unresolved questions and we can analyse that over time,” says Benini. It is worth noting, however, that Amazon reviews of the toy claim it is frequently unable to answer questions, meaning there is potentially an abundance of audio saved, rather than it being an occasional occurrence.

CogniToys have a relatively transparent Privacy Policy on their website, and it is clear that Benini has considered privacy at length. He admits that the company has been back and forth about how much data to store, originally offering parents the opportunity to see full transcripts of what their child had been saying, until many fed back that they found this “creepy”. Dino is not the first smart toy to be criticised in this way.

Hello Barbie is the world’s first interactive Barbie doll, and when it was released by Mattel in 2015, it was met with scorn by parents’ rights groups and privacy campaigners. Like Dino, the doll holds conversations with children and stores data about them which it passes back to the parents, and articles expressing concerns about the toy featured on CNN, the Guardian, and the New York Times. Despite Dino’s similarities, however, Benini’s toy received almost no negative attention, while Hello Barbie won the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood’s prize for worst toy of the year 2015.

“We were lucky with that one,” he says, “Like the whole story of the early bird gets the worm but the second worm doesn’t get eaten. Coming second on all of this allowed us to be prepared to address the privacy concerns in greater depth.”

Nonetheless, Dino is in many ways essentially the same as Hello Barbie. Both toys allow companies and parents to spy on children’s private playtimes, and while the former might seem more troubling, the latter is not without its problems. A feature on the Parental Panel of the Dino also allows parents to see the exact wording of questions children have asked about certain difficult topics, such as sex or bullying. In many ways, this is the modern equivalent of a parent reading their child's diary. 

“Giving parents the opportunity to side-step their basic responsibility of talking to, engaging with, encouraging and reassuring their child is a terrifying glimpse into a society where plastic dinosaurs rule and humans are little more than machines providing the babies for the reptile robots to nurture,” says Renate Samson, the chief executive of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch. “We are used to technology providing convenience in our lives to the detriment of our privacy, but allowing your child to be taught, consoled and even told to meditate by a WiFi connected talking dinosaur really is a step in the wrong direction.”

***

Toy companies and parents are one thing, however, and to many it might seem trivial for a child’s privacy to be comprised in this way. Yet many smart toys are also vulnerable to hackers, meaning security and privacy are under threat in a much more direct way. Ken Munro, of Pen Test Partners, is an ethical hacker who exposed security flaws in the interactive smart toy “My Friend Cayla” by making her say, among other things, “Calm down or I will kick the shit out of you.”

“We just thought ‘Wow’, the opportunity to get a talking doll to swear was too good,” he says. “It was the kid in me. But there were deeper concerns.”

Munro explains that any device could connect to the doll over Bluetooth, provided it was in range, as the set-up didn’t require a pin or password. He also found issues with the encryption processes used by the company. “You can say anything to a child through the doll because there's no security,” he says. “That means you've got a device that can potentially be used to groom a child and that's really creepy.”

Pen Test Partners tells companies about the flaws they find with their products in a process they call “responsible disclosure”. Most of the time, companies are grateful for the information, and work through ways to fix the problem. Munro feels that Vivid Toy Group, the company behind Cayla, did a “poor job” at fixing the issue. “All they did was put one more step in the process of getting it to swear for us.”

It is one thing for a hacker to speak to a child through a toy and another for them to hear them. Early this year, a hack on baby monitors ignited such concerns. But any toy with speech recognition that is connected to the internet is also vulnerable to being hacked. The data that is stored about how children play with smart toys is also under threat, as Fisher Price found out this year when a security company managed to obtain the names, ages, birthdays, and genders of children who had played with its smart toys. In 2015, VTech also admitted that five million of its customers had their data breached in a hack.

“The idea that your child shares their playtime with a device which could potentially be hacked, leaving your child’s inane or maybe intimate and revealing questions exposed is profoundly worrying,” says Samson. Today, the US Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) said in a statement that smart toys “pose an imminent and immediate threat to the safety and security of children in the United States”. 

Munro says big brands are usually great at tackling these issues, but warns about smaller, cheaper brands who have less to lose than companies like Disney or Fisher Price. “I’m not saying they get it right but if someone does find a problem they’ve got a huge incentive to get it right subsequently,” he says of larger companies. Thankfully, Munro says that he found Dino to be secure. “I would be happy for my kids to play with it,” he says. “We did find a couple of bugs but we had a chat with them and they’re a good bunch. They aren’t perfect but I think they’ve done a hell of a lot of a better job than some other smart toy vendors.”

Benini appears alert to security and the credibility it gives his company. “We took the security very, very seriously,” he says. “We were still building our systems whilst these horror stories were coming about so I already set pipelines and parameters in place. With a lot of devices out there it seems that security takes a backseat to the idea, which is really unfortunate when you’re inviting these devices into your home.”

As well as being wary of smaller brands, Munro advises that parents should look out for Bluetooth toys without a secure pairing process (ie. any device can pair with the toy if near enough), and to think twice about which toys you connect to your WiFi. He also advises to use unique passwords for toys and their corresponding apps.

“You might think ‘It's just a toy, so I can use the same password I put in everything else’ – dog’s name, football club, whatever – but actually if that ever got hacked you’d end up getting all your accounts that use that same password hacked,” he says.

Despite his security advice, Munro describes himself as “on the fence” about internet-connected smart toys as a whole. “Most internet of things devices can be hacked in one way or another,” he says. “I would urge caution.”

***

Is all of this legal? Companies might not be doing enough ethically to protect the privacy of children, but are they acting responsibly within the confines of the law?

Benini explains that Dino complies with the United States Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) of which there is no real equivalent in the UK. COPPA says that companies must have parental permission to collect personal information over the internet about children under 13 years of age. “We’ve tried to go above and beyond the original layout of COPPA,” says Benini, when describing CogniToys transparent privacy documents. Parents give their consent for Elemental Path to collect their children’s data when they download the app that pairs with the toy.

Dino bears a striking similarity to Amazon Echo and Google Home, smart speakers that listen out for commands and questions in your home. Everything that is said to Amazon Echo is recorded and sent to the cloud, and an investigation by the Guardian earlier this year discovered that this does not comply with COPPA. We are therefore now in a strange position whereby many internet of things home devices are legally considered a threat to a child’s privacy, whereas toys with the same capabilities are not. This is an issue because many parents may not actually be aware that they are handing over their children’s data when installing a new toy.

As of today, EU consumer rights groups are also launching complaints against certain smart toys, claiming they breach the EU Unfair Contract Terms Directive and the EU Data Protection Directive, as well as potentially the Toy Safety Directive. Though smart toys may be better regulated in Europe, there are no signs that the problem is being tackled in the UK. 

At a time when the UK government are implementing unprecedented measures to survey its citizens on the internet and Jeremy Hunt wants companies to scour teens’ phones for sexts, it seems unlikely that any legislation will be enacted that protects children’s privacy from being violated by toy companies. Indeed, many internet of things companies – including Elemental Path – admit they will hand over your data to government and law enforcement officials when asked.

***

As smart toys develop, the threat they pose to children only becomes greater. The inclusion of sensors and cameras means even more data can be collected about children, and their privacy can and will be compromised in worrying ways.

Companies, hackers, and even parents are denying children their individual right to privacy and private play. “Children need to feel that they can play in their own place,” says Samson. It is worrying to set a precedent where children get used to surveillance early on. All of this is to say nothing of the educational problems of owning a toy that will tell you (rather than teach you) how to spell “space” and figure out “5+8”.

In a 1999 episode of The Simpsons, “Grift of the Magi”, a toy company takes over Springfield Elementary and spies on children in order to create the perfect toy, Funzo. It is designed to destroy all other toys, just in time for Christmas. Many at the time criticised the plot for being absurd. Like the show's prediction of President Trump, however, it seems that we are living in a world where satire slowly becomes reality.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.