Infant Interactions in the Domestic Space by María Roldán
Humans develop 90% of their brains during the first five years of their life  when they are the most physically vulnerable they will ever be. A historical and sociological analysis of infants’ roles in society shows how babies went from being considered small adults to “cute” only recently. Domestic life has adapted to this societal shift, but architecture has not. Consequentially, an industry centered around domestic infant surveillance has infested the home. Concurrently, scientists have begun to question whether an infant’s needs for healthy development are satisfied by the home or hindered by it. Domestic architecture must spatially evolve to more holistically address the needs of infants, as well as those of caregivers, in response to product-scale solutions that have transformed nurseries into questionable data hubs.
The 21st-century social attitude towards childhood has its origins in the late 17th-century when philosopher John Locke published an Essay Concerning Human Understanding. To a society in which child swapping was a mechanism to increase wealth, Locke dared express that the mind of a newborn is a “white paper”, a tabula rasa, implying that children were not simply adults of smaller stature, but rather innocent, pure beings. This statement polarized society at the pinnacle of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th-century, a movement dependent on child labor.
To differentiate themselves from the poor working class, wealthy families in the 18th-century began nurturing children, elevating the status of the infant to a venerated member of the family. “The child went from being an asset, as a worker, to being a dependent.” This new vision of infanthood drove the British Government to pass the Factory Acts, a group of bills that, among other things, protected children from lengthy workdays under the arduous conditions so vividly described in The Adventures of Oliver Twist. This social transformation inevitably affected domestic life because “childhood created an alternate set of needs nested within that of adults ones.
In the 19th-century book The Gentleman’s House, Scottish architect Robert Kerr explains in intricate detail the parameters to design a classic opulent British estate. Thinking of the infant experience, he suggests nurseries be in a place of easy access for the mother and the caregiver. Yet he also indicates that the “main part of the house must be relieved from the more immediate occupation of the children.” His concrete recommendations are that nurseries be located either on the top floor of the house, adjacent to the servant’s quarters and scullery or on the first floor, behind the high-traffic main stairs. In a guide that has a chapter solely on ornamentation, he suggests simple elements for a nursery: a window, a bed, a chair, and some storage. The program in his typologies portray the dichotomy of the time and while it does not prioritize infants, the mere fact that he said infants are entitled to private domestic space gave rise to nurseries.
Throughout the first half of the 20th-century, public health officials were battling steep infant mortality rates that, in the United States, reached an outlandish 30% at times. The need to protect children and ensure their livelihood resulted in the creation of the United States Children’s Bureau (USCB) in 1912. Efforts for child protection gained even more traction when Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget published his theory on Cognitive Development, known today as Piaget’s Theory. In outlining the ways in which the brain develops, he created a new field within the cognitive sciences that would focus solely on infancy. Shortly after, Polish neuroscientist Jerzy Konorski coined the term “neural plasticity” to describe the important changes the malleable brain undergoes during the first years of life. Along with these advancements and coincidental with the baby boom generation, what George Boas’ called the “cult of childhood” materialized.
The latter half of the 20th-century saw endless inventions that catered to babies’ needs while protecting them. Cages for babies to take fresh air were hung in the windows of major cities, baby bottles were modified to trap fewer bacteria, and incubator-like devices were deployed to create curated environments optimized for development. These inventions formalized in an industry around babies, which quickly infiltrated the home with products that offered solutions to protect babies and enhance their development.
“Providing a proper environment for children became synonymous with good parenting.” In the United States, families across economic strata integrated children into their daily domestic life by “placing their children, their toys, and their needs at the center of the middle-class family home.” Satirical cartoons by William Heath Robinson and Robert Goldberg entertained the rising desire to automate infant care in the domestic space. In 1979, the 40th International Design Conference chose childhood as the theme. Milton Glasier, an American designer best known for the “I Love New York” logo, presided over the event and motivated attendees to better cater to infants when designing, emphasizing that “there are some very tough problems to be solved for children.”
By the end of the century, the baby industry exploded with the rising use of technology and inevitably had an impact on domestic interactions. “Inventions being released every day “threaten to swamp twenty-first-century domestic space.” In 2008, Brad Stone coined the term “Babytronics” to refer to the “growing category of products meant to help with the exhilarating and exhausting task of keeping infants happy and healthy, if not dry.” This industry is expected to be worth $16.8 billion by 2025. The baby monitor market alone, which focuses on devices that measure sleep or oxygen levels, is expected to reach $1.63 billion by 2025. However, “technology is just the beginning of a new age of newborn surveillance.” Baby monitors have been able to create omnipresent identities by crossing the physical partitions of the home and allowing members to occupy more than one place within the same domestic space. While monitoring devices can be useful in keeping babies healthy and alive, they raise questions about ethics, data collection, loss of autonomy, and marginalization.
From an ethical standpoint, pre-verbal infants are not able to consent to parental surveillance. Post-verbal infants may be able to agree, but “may not have full knowledge or understanding of the implications of data accessibility and subsequent users.” Furthermore, due to the inherent physical and mental vulnerability of infants, companies can engage in passive data collection. There is a chance that baby data is “utilized and analyzed by indeterminate algorithms, for indeterminable clients, to create digital identities of which the individuals and children are unaware.”
Baby monitors, like any device connected to the Internet, can be used as mechanisms to “open homes to potential cyberattacks, and can subject parents to the simmering dread of relentless alerts and false alarms.” These devices compromise to some extent the autonomy of inhabitants, to the point that parents will frantically take their healthy baby to the hospital because “the alarm has triggered, so they’re terrified something awful might have happened to their child.” While most of these devices might be successful at tracking vital signs, they are not predictive and thus can only notify, rather than prevent, an unfortunate situation. By themselves, they provide undigested and isolated data which is not as effective.
Furthermore, the increasing array of baby products entering the market and the home can be marginalizing. When Kerr depicted the ideal English estate, he made sure to note that his writings did not “deal in any way with inferior dwellings.” In 1928, American architect Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Rosenwald Whittier School of Negro Children in Virginia. He decorated it under the “belief that African Americans had a keener perception and appreciation of color, geometry, pattern, and abstraction.” With assumptions like this still present in the design fields and at-large in corporations, baby data collection can have larger, detrimental implications for minority infants. If the baby data collected were to be analyzed by third-party companies using a biased or discriminatory algorithm, minority babies could be automatically put at a disadvantage.
In analyzing the sociological history since the concept of childhood was born, it is clear that architecture did not play a critical role in development. Apart from the creation of private quarters for infants, there were no major revolutions in nursery design as in other parts of the home, like kitchens. Nurseries of the 18th-century carry the same basic elements as those today. From a construction standpoint, a business case cannot be made for investing in a home customized for infancy. Humans spend less than two years being babies, and the lifespan of a building and of individuals in that building is far longer. For this reason, solutions at the product scale sprinkled around the domestic space have been a reliable solution, but they have failed to integrate more seamlessly with architecture, bugging the home and altering the natural state of domestic dynamics.
Modern day nurseries cater only to infant-particular needs, while becoming domestic data centers. Recent research by building scientists and neuroscientists suggests that toxins in materials, temperature, and lighting can have a long-lasting effect in many aspects of human life, from lung health to reading time. This raises the question of whether products do enough, or do they plateau because they are not seamlessly integrated with the architecture. Arguably, simple architectural interventions in the nursery could be less costly and more efficient compared to mass-produced baby products. It is also worth noting that nursery design has historically neglected the caregivers’ experience, which tends to be defined by anxiety and lack of sleep. While the nursery is designed for the infant, the person that spends the most time in active interactions in the nursery is the caregiver.
Panopticon-inspired typologies of infant housing should be considered to ameliorate these issues. Rooms exist because of a human need for privacy and distraction. But why should there be walls if they will be taken down with cameras and sensors? Domestic space has evolved with society’s changing perception of children, but it has not yet reached an optimal state. A home that is better integrated with technology such that it supports a healthy development while reducing the daily stress caregivers experience is the future.
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