The Tragedy of The Thermostat

NEST Thermostat

by John Wood (2002)

See also my further notes and an art exhibition and public lecture on this topic given in 2014


alienation | co-dependent individuation | solipsistic individuation | technology | thermostat


This paper suggests that the destructive aspects of over-consumption can be attributed to Western approaches to technology and individualisation. It argues that the tendencies toward solipsism coincided with the rise of the 'individual' citizen and the invention of autonomous, self-regulatory machines such as clocks and thermostats. This has practical implications for design and engineering in the 21st century. While it is often assumed that we need self-regulating mechanisms to ensure the high 'efficiency' of industrialised technologies, thereby reducing waste and damage. This is only partially true because such automation bypasses our phenomenological realities. Where we entrust our individual identity and autonomy to clocks and thermostats we increase our alienation from Nature and society.


The paper reminds us that the autonomy of the monarch became a convenient prototype for the emancipation of ordinary citizens, after the French revolution. This has had adverse ecological consequences. Just as palace officials are inclined to shield Kings and Queens from certain unpalatable truths, so today's producers isolate their consumers from the ecological system that nourishes and sustains them. As a consequence, consumers enjoy strong individual rights of consumption but carry few acknowledged responsibilities, apart from payment. Taking a designer's perspective the paper shows how industrialists encouraged individualism as a catalyst for economic growth. Here, product diversification became integrated with consumer individuation (Forty, 1986) to become an increasingly co-productive process. In this system, people and things become equivalent. The rhetorical self-identity of products (Buchanan, 1989) regulate the self-identity of consumers, and vice versa. When the process takes place within a stridently competitive system of economic production it leads to the self-increasing flow of materials and energy. The system is also sustained by myths of solipsism that encourage individual citizens to consume, despite the inevitable consequences for all. (Hardin, 1977; Festinger, 1957; Sloterdijk, 1988). The paper argues that these myths are created by the advertising and entertainment industries to make us inward looking and socially fragmented. In offering a historical thumbnail sketch of individuation the paper contrasts solipsistic individuation with more co-dependent modes of individuation. As technology becomes more dependency sustaining (Wood, 1989), noumenal, distributed, ubiquitous (Norman, 1999), omniscient, and invisible, these problems are likely to increase. The paper warns that although 'phenomena-feedback' systems would save energy, they might also enslave us as human 'pets'. A better solution would be to use the spirit of individualism to guide us from a macro-capitalism of consumption to a micro-capitalism of production.

Destructive aspects of consumerism

A generous view of the values that underpin our economic (and ecological) system is that globalised consumerism encourages transactional flow to ensure the self-regulation of collective wellbeing. Within this system, all transactions tend to be seen as part of the exchange of products and services at a global level. Because it is evolving within a competitive, user-oriented framework the system ultimately seeks to dispense 'convenience', 'comfort', 'speed', and 'mobility' to everyone, everywhere, at anytime (Wood, 1998). This is, to some extent, counterproductive where, for example, social ills continue to rise in some of the richest countries. Arguably, where globalisation of markets tends to make us, as consumers, geographically dispersed we become alienated from the source of our sustenance. At the political level governments create trading subsidies (Raven, 1995) in order to stimulate and sustain transactional flow. This process often includes the exchange of similar perishable goods across thousands of miles, even though it must be obvious that this reduces their real and, ultimately, their economic value. More importantly, economic growth has greatly enlarged our collective ecological footprint (Wackernagel & Rees, 1996). It is now many times larger than the Earth itself. This is only the latest stage in a long history of systematically destructive habits that pose enormous dangers to the long-term wellbeing of many species on Earth. As the range of these arguments is too wide to map comprehensively we shall use representative historical details to highlight key points of argumentation. The paper will remind us of the way that automation permeated and influenced the pace and flow of the culture, especially with regard to the introduction of clock-time to induce self-discipline and social control.

Technological individuation

We may remember how, in 1577, clocks became more socially intrusive when the first minute hands were added to their faces. Around the same time that Galileo invented the thermometer, (1597) the Dutchman Cornelius Drebbel (1572-1633) developed a thermostat to regulate the temperature of an oven. Not long afterwards (1637) Descartes declared humans to be self-moving machines. Here, the fusion of individual and machine was made possible by a belief system that found technology irresistibly glamorous. Indeed, Blaise Pascal (1623-1672) is said to have prefigured the modern wristwatch by walking around with a small clock tied to his sleeve. The wristwatch was later issued to soldiers (1901) as a replacement for the fob watch, because it would be more immediately accessible in emergencies. It is interesting to note how, after the sixteenth century; ideas of self-regulation became blended at the social and technological levels. Perhaps we could imagine Pascal's prototype as exemplar for the modern 'cyborg' (Haraway, 1991).

Bureaucratic and technological individuation

As we have said, it is important to distinguish between self-defining and state-defined individuation. The latter case can be found in many bureaucratic and imperial contexts, where evidence of rank, class, and identity were required to sustain the vast social hierarchies of empire. In the fourteenth century, a government official in Persia noted that no two fingerprints were exactly alike. It has since become almost impossible for us to dissociate this observation from the technologies of criminal investigation and security systems. Sir William Hershel was the first to use fingerprints in India (1856) and Bertillon invented a picture identification system for suspected criminals (1879). handwriting analysis, lie detector tests, DNA tests, and many other technologies continue to emerge at a rapid pace.

From bureaucratic to self-organising individuation

The above methods are also compatible with F. W. Taylor's ruthless system of production that ignores the individual skills or views of workers (Taylor, 1911). Taylorism (or 'Fordism') became liberalised after World War 2 when the dance innovator, Rudolph Laban, collaborated with management consultant F. C. Lawrence to devise a method , for personalising the body movements of factory workers in the UK. Today, many companies are becoming less hierarchical and more dependent upon networks of smaller companies. The subsequent development of 'flexible-time' and 'teleworking' has apparently created a more relaxed work regime. Nevertheless, despite the distribution of faster and more sophisticated technology, many people still work long hours and are subject to employer surveillance. This is partly because there is a degree of voluntarism (Wood, 2000) in the use of email, mobile phones and palmtop computers etc. which, although privately owned, render many workers 'on-call' to their workplace at any time of the day and night.

'Homeostasis' as emancipation

At an analytical level, by emphasising the role of the individual player within the collective domain, it subsequently became possible to visualise society as an emergent aspect of individual self-regulation. This has been a familiar theme within a variety of fields and eventually came to be seen as a form of homeostasis. The idea has also had important political and economic implications. In 1704, the Dutchman Bernard de Mandeville wrote an ironic and optimistic satire, "The Grumbling Hives" that explored the premise that individual selfishness might lead to benefits for all. This provocative argument made a deep impression on Adam Smith, and inspired theories of "self-help" and the "Invisible Hand" (1776) which influenced Darwin's theory of evolution (1859) and many later generations of laissez-faire economists.

Self-awareness becomes more self-conscious

In the mid-nineteenth century the Flâneurs were gentlemen of leisure who rebelled against the pace of industrialisation by taking leisurely walks, and gazing at anything that would amuse them. Some were reputed to keep pace with pet Turtles as a way to resist the acceleration of industrial life. There is irony, here, in the theatrical detachment of the Flâneur, and the preoccupation of the factory workforces that hurried to serve him. His self-importance displays some of the militaristic vanity of the Dandy, who wanted to appear aloof and well groomed in every situation. The codes of behaviour that upheld these very public appearances were important to the way that fashion later developed within consumerism. Perhaps it is too fanciful to suggest that the consumer's twin imperatives of 'feeling good' and 'looking good' derive from the complementary modes of solipsism offered by Descartes and Berkeley. (Wood, 1999) This is not to suggest that this solipsism is absolute, but that its fashions have been inspired more by individualism than collectivism.

The self-designed self

Today we have a growing range of tools for re-defining and representing an apparently autonomous ego. The variety of such approaches may remind us that the independent self can be defined using many different perspectives such as time, place, or phenomenological focus. As the twentieth century progressed, the attainment of self-awareness became an increasingly self-conscious act. Erving Goffman's 'Presentation of Self in Everyday Life' (1959), was an academic work based on observations of contemporary American society. However, it can also be used as a self-promotion handbook for citizens who wish to become more successful in business. The subsequent advent of the Internet gave Goffman's work a new relevance because it opened up a popular interest in a solipsistically defined and rhetorical 'self' . Likewise, where most of Michel Foucault's work describes the individual as an object of power, his last works (1984) went on to explore issues including the individual as a self-creating subject.

The self-reflexive shopper

Since the mid-twentieth century, the empowered, reflexive self has become increasingly important to the evolution of consumerism. Several key theorists provide a useful map of western individuation. For example, Jacques Lacan (1966), claimed that individual emergence is an inevitable phase in child development. Using Freud's theories he argued that infants in the developed world become individuated from society in an irrevocable experience of language-defined self-awareness called the 'mirror-phase'. Where Lacan's theory seemed to offer a clear proof of individuation Carl Rogers' (1980) client-oriented psychiatry placed the adult individual at the centre of his own solipsism. Not long afterwards the artist Barbara Kruger coined the phrase: "I shop, therefore I am". Kruger's hyperbole is not surprising, given the perceived importance of trading within a twentieth century society that increasingly believed itself to be governed by economic forces beyond national leaders or their States. In such a system, the need for increasing consumer individuation built upon the self-defining tendencies that already existed in western societies. This remains a mutually reinforcing process.

Individualism designed to maximise profit

Although, as modern, self-centred individuals we have become alienated from our ecological habitat, we are increasingly integrated within an economic system that has been designed us to be 'self-regulating'. The fashion industry, for example, must moderate innovation so that designs are novel enough to attract sales whilst being sufficiently recognisable that they will not challenge the commercially sustainable genres of fashion (Barthes, 1983). Likewise, there is always a trade-off between social conformity and individualistic autonomy in choosing clothes. The glamour of technology itself has also played a part in this process. Despite the subsequent development of digital wristwatches, Palmtops, Radio Watches, Mobile Telephones and Bluetooth technology, the rhetorical principle behind Pascal's wristwatch is intact. All of these gadgets individuate their wearers by enabling them to feel independent of them, whilst being controlled by, networked protocols of 'public time-space'. More importantly, the myth perpetuates an instrumentalist, reductivist, and atomistic view of the world as functional and artefactual theme park.

The age of cynical reason

Where life is defined according to perceived industrial imperatives, consumerism becomes a danger to the general wellbeing. Hardin (1977) notes the tendency for individual (over) consumption to endanger what is available to all. This is a sub-optimal version of Weber's (1964) argument that shows how individual action became rationally oriented to a system of discrete individual ends. Similarly, Habermas describes modern work patterns as 'purposive-rational action' He speaks of "instrumental rationality" (Habermas, 1971, pp. 91-92) to show that we may excuse our actions by seeing them as individuated from the whole. Festinger (1957) talked of "cognitive dissonance" where we strive for 'consistency' between our desires and the conflicting evidence that we encounter in satisfying them. We see that there are dangers in what we do, but we may tell ourselves that the dangers are not immediate, real, important, or irreversible. Sloterdijk (1988) suggests that we live in an age of 'Cynicism', which he distinguishes from the conventional meaning by calling it "enlightened false consciousness". Sloterdijk's version is more dangerous. We may be aware that what we are doing is wrong but we do it anyway.

We assume that the thermostat is noumenal

Perhaps these attitudes have emerged in a society that has become accustomed to the invisibility and dependability of production. In times of plenty, automation seems to ensure that food is produced, no matter how we behave. The thermostat, to take a modest example, has become indispensable within the domestic environment, and we usually assume that its technological efficacy is inevitably higher than that of a human. Within systems thinking, a thermostat, in conjunction with a heater, is depicted as operating very much like any other negative feedback system. As such, we assume that it is a noumenal regulator that seeks to maintain whatever absolute conditions to which it has been set. This poses problems for consumption because we tend to associate consumer rights to comfort without regard for the specific effects that it causes. Where temperatures can be confined to a moderate level we may tell ourselves that we have subscribed to an acceptable level of environmental damage. This can be an illusion. Even the most energy-efficient boiler, coupled with many well-placed thermostats can hide the fact that one's home may lack adequate insulation and draught proofing.

The noumenal alienates us from Nature

In many actual systems, the initial phase of a negative feedback control cycle uses positive feedback (e.g. an 'avalanche device') to hasten the decision-making process. In solid state devices this would be exemplified by Schmitt Trigger devices that convert subtle analogue levels almost instantaneously into binary decisions of 'on' and 'off'. 'Monostable' switches are designed to do a similar operation, and to leave the device in an 'on' condition for a pre-determined length of time, irrespective of the user's needs on that occasion. Exterior security lights work in this way, switching on and off throughout the day and night, perhaps triggered by passing animals or innocent visitors to the area. They are usually unnoticed by their owners for most of the time that they are in operation. Likewise, thermostats keep our rooms warm even when we are not in them. An additional problem is that many people tend to misunderstand its operational 'psyche' and override the temperature control by 'switching' it alternately 'off' and 'on'.

The binary, decision-making self

This paper has suggested that the technological metaphor of the thermostat has guided Western humanism towards mechanistic visions of the self as remote from society and Nature. Just as the thermostat emphasised decisive, autonomous decision-making, so the epistemologies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries tended to take a digital, rather than an analogue path. (McCorduck, 1979). Wilden (1987) claims that this has made our society fact-oriented, rather than values-oriented. This is evident in the importance of binary decision-making, required by virtually all human-computer interfaces. Correspondingly, as Blackman (1995) points out, the post-consumerist role of selfhood requires us to frame ourselves in such a way that we are merely 'free to choose'. We should note that this is a mode of self-reflexivity in which, despite its claims to 'freedom', emphasises choice rather than a freedom to imagine alternative visions. As thermostatic individuals, globalisation promises us the bland safety of homeostasis in return for dumb allegiance.

Could technology become more co-creative?

At present it is unlikely that the trend to consumerist individuation will decrease, especially where commercial corporations need increasingly individuated products as a way to create new markets. Within the current value system of orthodox economics, this tendency is likely to be stimulated by technological innovation, rather than from a radical shift to human services. But could technology be re-designed to save humanity from its solipsistic self-importance? Such an approach may call for a more playful relationship between users and their automatic gadgets. For example, if designers were to adopt a more phenomenological, 'smart-systems' approach we could have automatic systems that evaluate the perceived, rather than the actual warmth of a room. This would entail judging the user's perception in an anticipatory way. It would probably use neural net technology to ameliorate energy reductions over a given period. It would also be designed to take the user's health and age, etc. into account. Such systems would, perhaps, tease users by bargaining with them to attain a lower level of fuel consumption. Ultimately, there are dangers with such a system where emergent properties in creatively intelligent systems may eventually make decisions that are dangerously counterproductive, or damagingly sub-optimal.

Arrogant self-absorption

As we have suggested, the ecological outcome of an organism's excessive self-absorption is alienation from the system that co-produces it. When individuation occurs without adequate reference to the organism's ecological context there is failure and death. Even at the social level, solipsistic individuation is a self-limiting condition because the individual only survives when altruism and egoism are balanced to contend with his/her social and ecological context . Nevertheless, genres of solipsism became useful for the marketing of entertainment systems, for fashion, and for beauty products. How problematic is this? Should we worry about the contrast between the 'actual' solitude of the computer workstation and the 'virtual' togetherness of an online 'community'? Perhaps we should seek to avoid individualism for its own sake, and see it as something that emerges only when we achieve an emancipatory order that reconciles Nature with society.

Global consumers become local producers

If we are to regain a more ecologically harmonious place in the world, perhaps we should see individualism as a special condition that justly emerges from shared wellbeing, equity, and conviviality at the local level. In this sense, individual emergence would be most helpful where it is situated in the immediate present and locality. In short, an individual should be proximally embedded within his/her ecological context via the shortest spatio-temporal paths. For this reason, a less technology-oriented solution would be a better place to start. Indeed, we would need structures that more closely emulate ecological systems themselves. Such an approach would probably require an organic model in which many species of discourse and exchange are encouraged to co-exist. At present we are moving towards fewer, larger currencies. Ultimately, this will tend to encourage the dominance of one or two highly rationalised ideologies and ways of living.

Personal eco-currencies

Smaller, more diverse money systems would have the effect of emphasising value, rather than quantity. It would be far easier to launch small rather than larger currencies because they can be 'seeded' by example. Also, they can evolve from local and consensual need, rather than be designed and imposed by a central ruling. In any case, small currencies do not preclude their users' participation in larger ones. Micro currencies can be designed in such a way that their circulation is responsive to the ecological and social circumstances within which they are used. How could we achieve this? One way might be for governments to tax currencies according to the numbers of their participants. Ideally, the transactional system should be small enough to enable all currency users to know one another. (Douthwaite, 1992:1996). This enhances individuation in a way that brings local economies closer to their local ecologies, and therefore ameliorates the benefits to each community. If designed for a specific neighbourhood, the value of a given denomination would be affected by the perceived credibility of the bearer of the coin, within a given context. Ultimately, individualism could be reflected in the currency itself. Arguably, the personal CV is already a form of currency within the job market. If designed to reflect the holder's past and future relationship to the environment, it could provide the template for a new kind of personal eco-currency.


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