Sabbath, technological automation and control

My interest in "automation" and how technologies enables it through sensors and so-called computational "intelligence" has been attracted to a paper called "Sabbath Day Home Automation: “It’s Like Mixing Technology and Religion” by Allison Woodruff, Sally Augustin and Brooke Foucault. It basically presents a qualitative study of 20 American Orthodox Jewish families’ use of home automation for religious purposes. The two questions the authors address concern the relationship between home automation and religious practice, as well as the relationship between home automation and family life. Then they derive interesting implications from the results about this topic for a broader population. The paper start by describing the different automation technologies that can be employed on the Sabbath ("The reasoning is that, although an Orthodox Jew should not do anything during the Sabbath that has impact on electrical devices, they can perform acts in advance of the Sabbath"). They found 3 categories: timers (rotary timers), X10 (a system for using household wiring to send digital data between devices) and high-end schedule systems (" rule-based program that uses the Jewish calendar and the families’ specified preferences to dynamically generate a schedule that interfaces with controllers (typically X10) installed by the system developer, as well as with other automation systems in the home, such as lighting, sprinkler, security, entertainment, and security systems.")

IMO, the "meat" of this research study consists in the description of how automation system became interwoven with the family lives:

"the home automation system reflected and shaped the routines, expected behaviors, and social relations of family life – the social order of the home. (...) Home automation systems are particularly rich organizing systems because they can act “autonomously” to modify the physical environment, and because they are embodied in the objects and infrastructure of the home. (...) Automation as a Resource for Influencing Behavior: Automation provides cues as to what actions are expected of household occupants at what times, and it is therefore a resource for influencing behavior – for example, when kids are in the recreation room late at night, a light turning off sends a “message” that it is time to go to bed. (...) Interpretation of the Role of the Automation System Interpretations of the automation system and its actions were varied and complex. However, it was quite common for participants to attribute meaning to actions taken by the automation system, and sometimes to associate them with expected behavior. First, participants sometimes oriented to the automation system as an extension or proxy of the person setting the schedule of the automation system. (...) Second, automation was strongly associated with caretaking, anticipation, and guidance"

Why do I blog this? What is interesting here is the relationship between a desire for automation and technologies. The solutions described here become part of a ritual and a sign of a community affiliation. This is different form other studies about automation (in which there the desire for automation is more tight to curiosity, for early adopters for instance). The accounts provided here gives a critical overview of specific issues regarding control and automation. I also found intriguing the implications for design:

"traditional wisdom argues for a high degree of end-user control. Our findings prompt us to consider a richer set of options in the design space. Studies suggest that there are situations in which surrendering control offers significant psychological benefit. (...) some individuals might be better served by systems that present a wider range of options for autonomy, e.g. that certain individuals at certain times would benefit from experiences that give them a sense of another entity being in control. (...) Plainly, we are not arguing that people should not have any control of their devices. We are however proposing that giving up control can be beneficial or desirable in some situations, and that this is an interesting design space to explore. "