Household conditioning (if you are cold, put on a sweater)

In my childhood home there was a note taped next to the thermostat that said, “if you are cold, put on a sweater.” It was written by my mother, who had learned her frugal habits during the Depression, but the note crisply summarizes the issues raised by environmental conditioning. The first is that conditioning is experienced through intensities of sensation—coolness, freshness, brightness—which vary from person to person, and even from moment to moment, which is to say that conditioning is subjective and historical. That doesn’t mean it isn’t real, nor does it mean it can’t be measured. What it does mean is that environmental conditioning has a subject, lots of them really. The second issue concerns the different costs of conditioning, some of which are local and proportional—my parents had to pay for the amount of heat we used—while others are distant and dramatically cumulative—if we all turn up our thermostats, even a little bit, the climate changes. The third is the reason for the note, the luxurious appeal of the thermostat. A sweater might be okay, if someone else would get it, preferably someone that wouldn’t comment on our choices, but even then it can’t touch the convenience of automated conditioning. Environmental conditioning is more than a matter of efficiency or cost (or laziness); it exemplifies the imperatives and temptations of power.

“Household Conditioning (if you are cold, put on a sweater),” in Building Systems: Technology, Design & Society. Ryan E. Smith & Kiel Moe, Eds. (Routledge, 2012)