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The gender of smart charging

Author:

Sarah Pink

Emerging Technologies Research Lab, Monash University, Caulfield East, VIC, AU
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Abstract

With the growing focus on the home as a site for life, work, and energy generation and demand, home batteries of many kinds are increasingly ubiquitous. Batteries play a dual role of everyday emerging technologies (which can be used for something) and infrastructure (which enables other things). This article considers how batteries become technologies and infrastructures both for the accomplishment of practical everyday life activities and routines in the present, and imagining future everyday life. A design anthropological and ethnographic analysis of 72 Australian households with a focus on four demographically diverse women is used to investigate the gendered discourses concerning the future of battery charging; new and emerging everyday gendered techniques and routines of battery charging and their entanglements with women’s priorities for socialities of care and wellbeing. The implications of these findings are considered through the lens of recent feminist approaches to technology and technology design, together with future charging scenarios.

 

Policy relevance

Dominant narratives in the technology and energy industries simplify the future of battery charging in two key ways. First, they assume that automated technological solutions will be able to organise battery use and charging in ways that will flatten energy supply and demand across households and other charging sites. Second, they tend to see energy consumers as typically able to perform everyday life tasks in such ways that are typically masculine. Ethnographic research suggests that both of these assumptions are misguided because they are misaligned with everyday life and gender. The implications for policy are that one needs to attend to diverse gendered experiences and uses of batteries and charging to understand how these are embedded in everyday life, and to develop plausible ways of designing inclusive future battery charging systems and technologies, with diverse gendered people in real everyday day life circumstances and for realistic, ethical futures.

How to Cite: Pink, S. (2022). The gender of smart charging. Buildings and Cities, 3(1), 488–502. DOI: http://doi.org/10.5334/bc.212
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  Published on 05 Jul 2022
 Accepted on 21 Jun 2022            Submitted on 05 May 2022

1. Introduction

Everyday life in the home is inevitably and unavoidably a dynamic and generative site where gender is constituted, embodied and performed, and experienced. The home—and the mundane everyday more generally—is also often framed as the static landing site where the gendered imaginaries of energy and technology industries and policy have frequently understood the impact of engineering innovations, automated technologies or pricing incentives as having effect. Much existing literature has been dedicated to the roles men play in the organisation and maintenance of digital systems and technologies in the home. This article examines the different articulations of gender and the future imaginaries of energy and technology associated with dominant industry discourses, alongside those that are performed and imagined in real everyday life circumstances. In doing so, it shows how one also needs to pay sharp attention to how women live with digital, automated, and emerging systems and technologies. This article does so through a focus on the rise of battery charging at home, ranging from charging smartphones to electric vehicle (EV) batteries and many others in between. As the discussion below shows, ways of knowing about the temporalities and spatialities of charging are shared across these technologies, making them part of a useful analytical category. Attention to the real gendered expertise, experiences and imaginaries of battery charging can offer a new insight into both how people might live with batteries and battery-powered devices in the future, and automation might more realistically be understood as being part of life in the home in the immediate future.

There is growing emphasis on the home as a site for life and work, and for energy generation and demand. Accompanying these shifts home batteries of many kinds are increasingly ubiquitous. Batteries play a dual role where they are both everyday emerging technologies (which can be used for something) and infrastructure (which enables other things). Charging batteries is something people do and perform, and to keep the focus on human activity and experience in this article, as well as for the obvious reason of limiting the scope of the analysis, here the focus is on device charging rather than on the storage of energy from renewable sources. As battery charging is performed by people, it is becoming entangled in everyday life activities, materialities and imaginaries in new ways, which in turn have implications for everyday energy demand at home in the present and in possible futures. Simultaneously battery charging technologies are becoming faster, mobile batteries (for instance in EVs, and personal mobile devices) themselves are getting smaller and gaining greater storage capacities and longer use times, larger batteries (e.g. home storage) are small enough to be kept in the home, and automated technologies and systems are being developed, introduced or at least proposed to manage all aspects of battery charging.

Batteries can be seen as technologies, materialities and infrastructures for both the gendered accomplishment of practical everyday life activities and routines in the present, and for imagining future everyday life. Battery charging—both its practical and conceptual dimensions—implies biographical, new and possible future everyday techniques of knowing, sensing and performing everyday life with emerging technologies. Everyday ‘expertise’ and the priorities, values and ethics which are experienced and performed in the home are inevitably gendered (Pink 2004). This matters because ethnographic stories always complicate the dominant narratives of the technology and energy industries (Pink et al. 2022a), and one of the ways they can do this is by revealing how diverse, non-binary notions of gender disrupt dominant assumptions (see also Strengers 2013; Johnson 2020). Gardner & Kember (2021: 5) note that:

commonly, feminist scholars argue that the embodied human is better understood in systems envisioned as chaotic, where principles and rules are cut (Kember & Zylinska 2012) and bend (Barad 2007)

and such sites are precisely the places where interventional design anthropological ethnography is practiced (Pink et al. 2017, 2022a).

The remainder of the article is structured as follows. First, a design anthropological approach to batteries and charging is outlined. The following are then explored: the gendered discourses that seek to determine the future of battery charging; new and emerging everyday techniques and routines of battery charging; and the gendered nature of these techniques, through the example of how they become entangled with women’s priorities for socialities of care and sociality as wellbeing. Next, the implications of these findings for recent feminist arguments about automated technologies are outlined, and the implications of these for how we might rethink future charging scenarios are proposed.

2. Understanding batteries and charging

2.1 A Design anthropological theory

A design anthropology of emerging technologies (Pink 2022) draws on the theory of phenomenological anthropology (Ingold 2000, 2011) and futures anthropology (Pink & Salazar 2017). It is a processual theory that understands life, the environment and all that happens in it, as well as the human imagination, to be ongoingly emergent and indeterminate, and which focuses on how people improvise to move forward through the contingent circumstances of an inevitably uncertain world (Smith & Otto 2016; Akama et al. 2018; Irving 2017). The approach is particularly suitable for understanding how mundane everyday life in the home is lived, through routine and improvisatory acts, and indeed was developed in part through theoretical–ethnographic dialogue rooted in studies of energy and technology use in homes (Pink et al. 2017). Design anthropology, as it is engaged in the present author’s work, involves a particular interest in how people experience and act in relation to uncertainty, how modes of anticipation are entangled in how they live with technologies (Pink et al. 2018). In common with feminist approaches, it recognises the messiness of life as lived. Here this perspective is applied to explore how charging is bound up with a processual, relational everyday world, and with the anticipatory gendered actions it is part of.

Design anthropology of emerging technologies concurs with the need to critically deconstruct the ‘socio-technical’ imaginaries (Jasanoff 2015) and techno-solutionism (Morozov 2013) of dominant public and industry-focused narratives which promote techno-determinist visions where new technologies will solve societal problems—including those associated with everyday energy demand. To cast this in relation to gender, dominant narratives of this kind are masculine in several ways: they represent the idea that heroic engineering inventions can save vulnerable everyday worlds; they assume that finished technologies can land in everyday sites, penetrate markets and change society; and they promote paternalistic agendas that assume that expertise comes from above. The politics of a design and futures anthropological approach concerns the need to challenge dominant institutional, economic and political narratives, and practice relating to emerging technologies in society. This is done through the use of realistic understandings of everyday life in the present and possible futures, in order to collaborate towards sustainable and equitable societal, environmental and everyday life outcomes (Pink et al. 2022a). It does this through an emphasis on the everyday, its materiality, sensoriality and flow as the present continuously slips over into the immediate future.

This subsequently requires a focus on what researchers might learn from how people learn and improvise with emerging technologies as they live out their ethics and priorities within contingent circumstances—rather than by simply accepting either the techno-determinism logics that tend to guide industry, consultancy and policy strategy, or the critical scholarship that unintentionally endorses these logics in arguing that they will have dystopian consequences (Pink et al. 2022b). In this sense an anthropology of emerging technologies is more attentive to, and more closely aligned with, the decolonising agendas (da Costa Marques 2021) and relational theory of Afro-feminist scholarship (Birhane 2021) and the work of critical feminist data scholars who:

refuse data logics of prediction that presume omnipotence and conceit to know better than community-centered forms of decision making [and] commit to countering the risks of defaulting to data-driven forms of prediction and decision-making by valuing the expertise of community-engaged practitioners.

(Feminist Data Manifesto-NO, n.d.: point 25; original emphases)

This means undertaking a form of scholarship that denies both the masculine narratives of techno-solutionism and the equally heroic masculine-gendered academic critique of these narratives often performed by theorists. By figuring this issue as a binary conflict and mode of resistance of one thing, narrative or argument against another the latter simply endorses the former. These perspectives are discussed below to address the everyday ethics, priorities and contingencies of life when considering the future of charging.

From a design anthropological perspective, batteries are relational things and part of the ‘digital materiality’ (Pink et al. 2016) of everyday life. The idea of digital materiality refers to the ways that ‘things’ cannot be considered to be separately digital or material, whether referring to software (e.g. Dourish 2016) or smartphones (e.g. Horst 2016), is processual, and as such coherent with the design anthropological commitment to the idea of the world as ongoingly emergent. As a digital materiality, batteries are ‘things’ in the sense of Parikka’s (2012) notion of a processual materiality, or as anthropologist Tim Ingold has expressed it:

it is in the opposite of capture and containment, namely discharge and leakage, that we discover the life of things.

(Ingold 2008: 13)

Batteries not only leak into devices, infrastructures, energy systems and the material circumstances they are in, but also as active things they involve charging, storage and powering other things. Moreover, batteries are not static: they move between devices, with devices and with people. Thus, they also leak into everyday activity, i.e. into human routines, rhythms and experiences, and as such become part of the entanglement of life. As is explained further below, batteries participate in the present tense of the everyday, and also stand for possibility: they are part of the spatiality and temporality of the everyday, and integral to the anticipatory modes of how life is lived.

The thingness of batteries, as dynamic digital materialities (rather than as objects or finished products of technological design processes), further complicates the story. Batteries are not just energy storage devices, but rather embody broader trajectories involving: the often exploitative labour and environmental degradation associated with their production and disposal; the ambitions of engineers whose careers are dedicated to the invention of the materials and processes that make batteries smaller, lighter and with greater capacities; they underpin the imagined futures of many emerging technologies which are just ‘waiting’ for the technological possibilities of longer battery lives to coincide with the consumer markets and political good needed to make them ubiquitous (Pink 2021a); and they are configured with other automated technologies and systems in imaginaries of smart charging futures where batteries can be charged independently of the humans whose lives their energy supply supports.

Batteries are also something more. They are enabling devices in everyday worlds, since they promise possibility, but they also have particular local historicities. Their use is embedded in the everyday culturally specific and biographically inflected ethics, values and belief systems of real people. The ways they are charged are improvisatory and contingent, part of routines and of how people craft their everyday and informed by everyday, gendered and biographical expertise and ways of knowing and sensing.

2.2 Methods

This article draws on two layers of analysis of ethnographic materials. First, on the generalised findings of digital online ethnographic research with 72 households in Australia to contextualise the discussion. The research team’s methods were adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic conditions, from existing video interview, tour and re-enactment techniques (Pink 2004; Pink et al. 2017) designed for researching gender, everyday life, technology use and energy demand in homes. With each household the research team undertook an in-depth video interview on a digital platform such as zoom, focused on everyday energy and technology use and imagined futures, using a series of real energy use graphics, and future scenario prompts. The research team also asked participants to undertake visual or text-based diary tasks which were reviewed with them in a second digital meeting: a video tour of their homes was undertaken (where possible) using the participants’ smartphone cameras or other mobile device.

This article also refers to findings from a qualitative content analysis of 64 technology and energy industry reports produced just before the Covid-19 pandemic (Dahlgren et al. 2020). However, it is stressed that rather than reporting on the findings of the wider project, the interest in this article is to present a design anthropological analysis of how emerging everyday techniques and imaginaries around charging are gendered through women’s lives and priorities. To achieve this, the focus is on the experiences of four women of different ages, socio-economic groups and family composition, who participated in both the online fieldwork and a subsequent ethnographic documentary, by using reflexive ethnographic narrative and video stills to foreground their experiences. These women were selected because, as noted already, they were demographically diverse, their approaches and values exemplified clusters in the findings which were relevant to emphasise, and because they were prepared to open themselves, their families and homes to the author’s in-depth encounters and documentary filmmaking. The research team’s work with them in the documentary process, in-person, offered the possibility to engage with them in the digital materiality of their everyday lives in the sites where they lived with technologies, batteries and charging.

The materials were analysed to respond to the questions of: how participants improvised to make battery charging work for them, within their specific everyday life materialities, relationships, routines, priorities and values; how they felt, sensorially and affectively, in these situations; and how they imagined their future lives with battery charging would be experienced. Alongside, the materials were treated as an ethnographic site, whereby the researcher followed ‘ethnographic hunches’ (Pink 2021b) generated in one research encounter through the sample to determine themes that should be followed.

A design anthropological analysis opens the possibility to understand the indeterminacy of these everyday techniques and routines, and how they emerge and shift, alongside the contingency of everyday imagination. This can subsequently be compared with the predictive and causal narratives of industry and consultancy assumptions about smart charging futures. Yet the ambition of the present author is not simply to undertake the already obvious task of revealing a misalignment, but to suggest how the everyday complicates dominant narratives in a way that is as generative as its very character.

3. Predicted futures of battery charging

Smart charging hype, like most emerging technology hype, tends to follow techo-optimist narratives, which promote the technologically possible above realistic understandings of markets or the people who constitute them. Ambitions for and industry visions of over-the-air smartphone charging (Brown 2021) and wireless EV charging (Guthrie 2020) appear as increasingly distant possibilities. As reported by the Digital Energy Futures project team (Dahlgren et al. 2020), their socio-technical imaginaries of an EV future are accompanied by an insistence on the need to increase battery capacity and install public charging infrastructure. They are also based on the assumption that EV charging should be ‘managed and smart’ to accommodate a future where electricity demand will be increased by EVs, so that subsequently ‘when and how they are charged is crucial to the future energy system’ (Dahlgren et al. 2020: 69). It is envisaged that if inefficiently managed, EVs would drain the energy system, while conversely, integrating their storage with the system through efficiently managed smart vehicle to grid connections would benefit the grid (Dahlgren et al. 2020).

Assumptions that people will charge their EVs at work simply connect smart home and smart mobility technologies to embody linear masculine commuter trajectories. These imagined people form part of the industry-derived discourse that Rottinghaus (2021: 45) calls ‘New white futurism’, and which:

promotes emerging smart home technologies as tools for data-driven management of work/life balance in contemporary heteronormative, white, middle-class culture.

The person would be doing little or none of the domestic tasks that are usually gendered as women’s work, and indeed that statistics show are still predominantly undertaken by women (ABS 2021). It is easy to imagine how charging at one’s place of employment might work for the rational masculine commuter, who arrives before school starts to get the optimum charging station and stays at work all day to benefit from lower costs, while not for a single parent who needs to drop off three variously aged children at different schools on their way to work, might need to suddenly leave in the case of a dental or medical appointment emergency during the day, and has to drive the children to after-school activities, as well as shopping, cooking and housework. Such narratives fail to account for how automation itself, when people want it, becomes part of the different everyday lives of diverse people.

Such narratives miss the historicity, cumulative everyday learning and recent improvisations of device charging that inhabits the gendered biographies, routines and imaginations of everyday life. They also miss the gendered trajectories and contingencies through which everyday lives are lived and anticipated. In doing so they also make EV charging something that is part of the dominant narratives in the energy industry and its (masculine) problems and solutions, rather than something that is part of the everyday and of real people’s gendered improvisations. The contemporary Australian reality is in fact quite different.

The Digital Energy Futures team’s ethnographic study, reported in the Future Home Life report (Strengers et al. 2021), found that regular battery charging was becoming more central to the participants’ lives at home, with households having more and new battery-powered devices and vehicles, all of which they already charged at home during the Covid-19 pandemic and saw themselves continuing to charge at home in the future. Including smartphones, earphones, laptops and other small computing devices and EVs, to power tools, gardening equipment and electric scooters (Strengers et al. 2021: 6). With particular reference to EV charging, the present research challenged two industry myths in particular. First:

The industry vision of charging electric vehicles during daylight hours at work was seen as infeasible by most participants, but increased working from home presents an opportunity for daytime charging of EVs during the solar peak.

Second while it was predicted that ‘Technology will increasingly automate EV charging decision making for consumers’ it was found that:

Some EV owners had charging settings automated into the car, others had developed manual workarounds to override the car’s automated charging function to better fit their existing routines.

(Strengers et al. 2021: 10)

The article now explores the implications of these wider findings through the prism of charging in the everyday lives of women, for some of whom having an EV itself is not even a possibility, let alone charging it.

4. Gendered techniques and routines of battery charging

If charging is something people already do, and imagine that they will continue doing in the home, how then can charging be understood as gendered? A significant existing literature has demonstrated that everyday life in the home is enduringly gendered (e.g. over the last 20 years, see Pink 2004; Kennedy et al. 2015; Strengers & Kennedy 2020; Thébaud et al. 2021), and that when women and men do housework and do-it-yourself (DIY) home maintenance and alteration activities, they speak about and perform them according to gendered narratives (Pink 2004). Most recently, Thébaud et al. (2021: 1187) reviewed existing scholarship and stated:

Gender remains one of the strongest predictors of how much housework a person does. Although women’s housework hours have declined in recent years, women continue to do more housework in most households, even those where women’s earnings are the same as or greater than their husbands.

Taking this a starting point, what happens when charging becomes part of a redefined vision of the work done in and to maintain the home? How does it configure with the other elements of what has been called ‘digital housekeeping’?—a concept which refers to how digital and smart home devices, data and infrastructures are managed and become part of gendered expertise in the home (e.g. Tolmie et al. 2007; Kennedy et al. 2015; Strengers & Nicholls 2018; Horst & Sinanan 2021). Earlier research suggested that men are more likely than women to take on some ‘digital housekeeping’ in activities such as downloading digital content and managing smart home devices, but implies that digital housekeeping is not exclusively men’s work (Kennedy et al. 2015), and more recent findings show that digital housekeeping is more likely to become embedded in the performance of intergenerational family roles, rather than in normative gender roles (Sinanan & Horst 2021). This question requires further enquiry, particularly in the case of battery charging: what happens when battery charging becomes women’s work at home, and why might women take it on? how will charging be gendered?; and what gendered concepts might be used to understand its meaning?

This article now draws on both the research team’s digital ethnography interviews and subsequent video ethnographic encounters with four women participants created after the online ethnography. Sarah Pink and co-researcher Yolande Strengers visited four participants’ homes in 2021 to explore further the three themes of charging, control and automation with them as a research exercise that simultaneously supported a documentary filmmaking project: Digital Energy Futures:

  • Sue (in her 50s), who worked full time in a hair product company, lived alone in a one-bedroom rented Western Sydney apartment.
  • Pamela (70s), originally from England, was a recently retired market researcher who lived alone in her three-bedroom house in northern Sydney.
  • Anna (40s), an accountant, lived with her husband, their two children and, at the time, her mother-in-law who was waiting to return to Vietnam from where the family originated.
  • Dianne (50s), retired, lived with her husband and two adult children in rural New South Wales.

Here both ethnographic description and video sequences are employed to tell parts of their stories. The article next discusses how battery charging has become part of the temporalities, spatialities and contingencies of everyday life in the home for the research participants.

4.1 The temporalities of not automating charging

When her husband had become too unwell to use the petrol-powered lawn mower, Dianne switched to a battery-powered mower and subsequently to an ultimately extensive collection of battery-powered gardening tools. These are all kept outside in a garden shed, while in her garage she keeps a set of battery-powered home maintenance tools, and indoors a cupboard of home housework tools, all powered by the same batteries, of which she has several that she maintains charged and changes between devices (Figure 1). In this example, it is evident how the digital materialities of new battery-operated tools leak across what has conventionally been split into feminine housework and masculine gardening and home maintenance. Similar systems and logics govern how these technologies are used, and Dianne’s interest in automating the technologies themselves or the way they are charged. In the online interview she pointed out that she would not want a robotic lawnmower because mowing was exercise for her as well as providing grass cuttings. Dianne told the research team that although it would not matter if she left the mower charging, because ‘they shut off automatically’, she did not like to because it was her habit to turn off the electricity. She explained her routine as follows:

as soon as I finish, I check the level and then if it needs charging, it goes in straight away. Then I use the Google Assistant to remind me to get it off charging. That’s the hardest bit. […] I set a timer. I make a guess about how long it’s probably going to take, which is generally in an hour, hour-and-a-half range.

(a, b) Dianne showing her battery-charged home equipment for maintenance and housework; and (c) the batteries and chargers compatible across these devices and gardening equipment
Figure 1 

(a, b) Dianne showing her battery-charged home equipment for maintenance and housework; and (c) the batteries and chargers compatible across these devices and gardening equipment.

Video stills: Author, 2021.

Whether or not Dianne’s charging techniques are performative of a particular culturally specific femininity is impossible to say. (It is not the ambition here to identify new femininities.) Rather, the point of comparison is to show how Dianne enacts her identity differently to that associated with the optimised efficiency-focused assumptions which underpin the masculine narrative of charging focused on EVs. Dianne’s approach to charging has evolved through her own everyday experiences of using the technology and biographically sedimented routines of switching devices on and off, and which consolidates housework, gardening and home maintenance as battery power-dependent activities, all informed by the same principles relating to charging and automation. Significantly, Dianne’s approach is not aligned with the assumptions that underpin the heroic masculine technological solutionism of dominant narratives, but rather, consistent with design anthropological theory, she appears as creative and improvising as she goes along in ways that incorporate existing and incrementally learned ways of knowing, in order to make things part of her in ways that work for her and her family.

As was found more widely, participants did not necessarily wish their home charging technologies or devices to be automated or to use the automated features of those which were. Pamela’s approach to charging her EV demonstrates an approach to digital housekeeping which was similarly built into the temporalities of her everyday routines. She took the researchers out to show her EV—a Nissan Leaf—kept in her tidy garage, where she charged the car. During her digital ethnography interview she had explained that it is easy for her to plan ahead in terms of charging (Figure 2). The longest trip she habitually made was about 140 km to visit her daughter, so she would organise her charging around this in ways that made sense to her in relation to her electricity tariff. Pamela charged at night-time when electricity was cheapest, explaining how she would:

wait until 10:00 [p.m.], or I’ll go and plug it in but I won’t switch the plug on; I’ll set it all up, because it literally takes two or three minutes to set it up.

(a) Pamela showing where she charges her car in the garage; and (b) how she sets the timer on her phone to remind herself to go out to switch it on and off
Figure 2 

(a) Pamela showing where she charges her car in the garage; and (b) how she sets the timer on her phone to remind herself to go out to switch it on and off.

Video stills: Author, 2021.

She saw this as a simple task:

I’ve got the leads in my boot, take them out, go around the front, plug it in, plug it into the mains, and then I don’t switch it on until 10:00.

This fitted with her existing routine, since she told the research team:

I rarely go to bed before 10:00, and I’ll just go out and switch it on. And then in the morning I always get up, I always have the alarm on just before 7:00, so I get up and I’ll go down.

She found that after the trip to her daughter’s this might not give her a full charge, so she would then simply charge it the following night in the same way. As she pointed out, ‘it just depends what I’m doing’. Pamela and her son had also experimented to see if an energy-saving feature the car offered while driving was useful to her, but concluded that the difference was not worth it, and indeed she estimated that she had made significant savings simply by using her non-automated charging method.

Bound up in a narrative of being a mother of adult children, Pamela’s story is gendered towards a particular femininity, which, like Dianne’s, involves maintaining the family home and ties, although in different ways, and involving battery-powered technologies in doing so. The temporalities of charging in both cases are controlled by the women who are responsible for them, following their own understandings of the materialities and qualities of batteries, and in situations where they found the automated offerings of smart charging irrelevant.

4.2 The spatialities of charging

With the increase in home charging has come the rise of ‘home charging stations’. These are sometimes distributed across the home, at workstations, in the kitchen and in other convenient places next to power points. However, the research team found that women had consistently built, or begun to create, charging stations in their bedrooms, usually next to the bed, and thus in the most intimate and private space of the home. While invisible from public view, the bedside charging station was highly visible to participants—as their smartphones, tablets, camera batteries and various other devices silently recharged beside them as they slept. As such many chargeable devices were integrated into the everyday routines of the women with whom fieldwork was undertaken, as part of the materialities of the home. Dianne’s charging station was a bright blue box kept on a table by her bed. It had holes in the side through which the cables could be plugged while the items to be charged were organised inside. She showed the things she ‘needed’ to charge: ‘phone, iPad, backup power unit and my laptop’, and that also she keeps her power bank fully charged so ‘if we get a blackout or something, I’ve got it’ (Figure 3). Diane explained how she had improvised ‘by putting every charger into a box’. This included her camera charger as she was an active night photographer with two cameras. To keep things organised, she would:

put the lid on it so I don’t have to look at it, and I charge from there.

(a) Dianne kept her charging equipment in a blue box beside her bed; and (b) she changes her devices and battery packs on the bed
Figure 3 

(a) Dianne kept her charging equipment in a blue box beside her bed; and (b) she changes her devices and battery packs on the bed.

Video stills: Author, 2021.

Sue had two charging stations, one each side of her bed (Figure 4). On one side she would charge her smartphone, stating:

I put it on this one at night when I go to bed. Partly because it wakes me up in the morning too.

(a) Sue charged her phone on one side of the bed; and (b) on the other side of the bed was a charging station for batteries, a smart watch and a Kindle
Figure 4 

(a) Sue charged her phone on one side of the bed; and (b) on the other side of the bed was a charging station for batteries, a smart watch and a Kindle.

Video stills: Author, 2021.

On the other she had a more complex station where she explained:

I’ve got a few Android USB chargers here. So one’s for the foot thing. One’s for my Fitbit. Another one was, I don’t know, just spare. I’ve had quite a few Android devices in my life. And yeah then I’ve got a couple of AA batteries and some AAA batteries. So cover all bases.

Anna and her husband both charged their phones and watches on their respective sides of the bed, and as Anna explained, she knew you ‘shouldn’t’, but she found it convenient to sit in bed and text her friends (Figure 5). Pamela had her smartphone and iPad charging station in her kitchen, although at night-time she told us:

I do take the phone upstairs, but I usually make sure it’s got some charge on it before

and she generally kept her iPad in her room. When the author toured her home, it was also learned that Pamela had a couple of storage batteries, which she kept ‘upstairs in a drawer, in my bedroom’ and sometimes used to charge her phone and tablet, since that latter ‘seems to take a lot of charging’.

Anna charged her smartphone next to her bed where she would sometimes sit and text in the evenings
Figure 5 

Anna charged her smartphone next to her bed where she would sometimes sit and text in the evenings.

Video stills: Author, 2021.

There are many reasons why women might create charging stations next to the bed, including the availability of plug sockets and the convenience of charging items used and needed during the day, during the night when sleeping, and being able to pick them up charged when waking. However, this proximity of charging stations, and the devices they charge, to the bed is also indicative of their proximity to the routines of everyday life, that is they become part of the infrastructure of the everyday, making it possible for batteries and humans to recharge alongside each other overnight. Similarly, as discussed above, Pamela’s EV was charged specifically as she slept, and Sue imagined that if she had an EV in the future that she might fit in charging it at a shopping centre while she was at the cinema. As such charging batteries becomes something that is part of and monitored alongside the embodied routines of the everyday, rather than an activity that might be governed by external demands, or determined by an automated system. Moreover, as well as fitting into everyday life activities, the monitoring of charging was intentionally developed in relation to participants’ everyday knowledge; one of the reasons why participants in the present research liked to be in control of their batteries, when they charged and when they were unplugged, was because they held strong, biographically sedimented, experientially learned and sometimes literature-based views about how long and how much batteries should be charged. For example, Sue stated, ‘I guess I come from a time when batteries used to have a memory’, so she did not like to charge her batteries if they still had 50–60% of charge in case this would mean that they would only ever charge to that level in future. Participants transferred such knowledge to how they charged existing, or said they would charge future, EVs. Pamela had recently read an article in New Scientist which she told us:

says it extends the life of your battery if you put it on low charge rather than fast charge. […] So unless I’d have to, I wouldn’t use a fast charger […] a fast charger does damage the battery.

Therefore, being in control of charging was also important with respect to ensuring that batteries themselves were cared for.

4.3 Charging for contingencies

It is not only women who hold such theories about batteries and charging; in fact they were widespread across all the participants. However, when performed by women they become bound up with women’s lives and the particular and situated ways in which having a charged battery is important for women. In this sense it is evident how digital housekeeping is not just about maintaining devices charged in preparation for what usually happens next, and in doing so maintaining the everyday routines of life, but it also entails being prepared for various everyday contingencies. This means acknowledging that there are uncertainties regarding how everyday life can play out, and ensuring that battery power is available to ensure that people feel comfortable and safe in relation to situations that are as yet unknown. For Anna this involved knowing that she would be able to back up her smartphone charge in the car as she drove the children to school in the morning. For Dianne, living in a rural area, it meant ensuring that power packs were charged as backups in the event of a loss of power, as well as to take on trips with them in case they needed to recharge devices on the move. For Sue, as a woman living alone, keeping her smartphone charged was paramount, as she emphasised, with her one-hour commute each way to work, and health issues, she needed to make sure she was never stranded on the roadside without a charged phone.

In these examples, charging techniques are gendered because they are improvised, performed and managed by people who are situated through their social identity as women in ways that become entangled with women’s everyday ways of knowing and everyday ‘expert knowledge’ (Pink 2004: 108). This is explicit in the narratives and imaginaries that refer to participants’ priorities relating to socialities of care as a mother, or personal safety as a single woman, yet evident more broadly in the way that charging becomes an element of digital housekeeping.

5. The gender of smart charging

As argued above, seeing charging as gendered in relation to existing ways of knowing, routines and activities in the home alerts one to the reality that everyday gender is experiential, performed, negotiated and subjective. The industry narratives concerning charging technologies and the people who use them, or who would have them automated, discussed above can be interpreted as representing monolithic traditional gender identities. These narratives are inattentive to biological sex in any direct way, but they are not gender neutral because they involve referents to particular, and often binary, gender–sex identities. For instance, the resource man persona represents narratives of smart metering and homes (Strengers 2013) and refers to a narrative about a consumer who represents a particular masculinity, while the narrative itself does not identify him as male. Rather, Strengers’s (2013) interpretation shows that his characteristics are typically those associated with biologically male people who perform a particular masculinity. It has been established in gender theory for a very long time that masculinities themselves are multiple and subjective (Connell 1995), therefore making it all the more significant that the particular ways of being a person that the energy and technology industry envision for future battery chargers/users is a masculine commuter and unhindered by the demands of the everyday or the biographically sedimented ways of knowing about the batteries and the flow of life that guide everyday charging.

For the women whose lives have been discussed above, charging follows and is always relational to the rhythms and routines of life, patterns of sleep, renewal and care, it fits in with these, and batteries fit into the intimate spaces, materialities and temporalities of life as lived and as anticipated. Charging is also not static, in that it is a dynamic and ongoing activity, characterised by learning, testing, and incremental and improvisatory shifts over time, thus like life itself it is part of the ongoingly emergent and processual world described by design anthropological theory. A focus on the thingness of batteries emphasises their relational status and how they flow into not only other things and devices but also into lives, and how their material qualities and possibilities are subsequently shaped by living processes. The temporality and spatiality of battery use and charging as real people perform it is thus intimate and close to life as lived, rather than something that is automated and separated from it: it happens, or is imagined to happen, in the future, in the bedroom beside the bed, in a tidily organised garage space or at a future shopping centre charging point.

For some feminist scholars the consequences of the logics of automation are dire. Gardner & Kember (2021: 3) insist that:

Automated system logic is pervasive and pernicious; it has been shown to be binary, hierarchal, governmental, causal, logocentric, and to normalise preordained outputs, produce rule compliant users, and laud transhumanism.

Yet, ethnography shows that once you get inside everyday life with people, it becomes clear that the possibilities that automation logics create do not necessarily play out; the participants were generally not compliant with the rules embodied in automation logics. These logics are undeniably ‘bred in postcapital, empire-fortified spaces’ and:

automation enacts and reinforces a succinct set of neoliberal values—efficiency, compliance and transparency—and carries legacies of gender, racial, ethnic, and nationalist bias.

(Gardner & Kember 2021: 3)

However, before assuming that these effects are inevitable, one must attend more closely to the sites that it is supposedly threatening.

The case of future battery and device charging, whether for smartphones, EVs, home batteries or the multiple other electric battery-powered mobile and mobility devices that are emerging on the market and increasingly becoming part of people’s everyday lives, is illustrative. Battery charging is unlikely to be gendered or performed in ways that fit the masculinity represented in dominant narratives underpinned by logics of automation. Because charging is unlikely to be performed as these narratives anticipate or expect, their predictions that automated smart charging will solve societal energy problems are unlikely to play out as desired, precisely because they have little to do with what most people actually do, envisage doing or are likely to do.

6. The future of smart charging

The history of emerging technologies shows that technological innovations do not solve societal problems, and that many even fail to land in imagined markets or constitute new markets in ways that their engineers had imagined (Pink 2022). As demonstrated in this article, the dissonance—between visions of smart-charging EV drivers charging cars automatically on the go or at work, and a population of real people who charge everyday mobile and mobility devices at home—means existing dominant narratives are not viable. In itself, this is an unsurprising finding. However, applying a gender analysis to this situation reveals more powerfully how and why the imaginaries of industry do not fit with the everyday people whose lives they wish to automate or otherwise intervene in.

The implication is that the energy industry and decision-makers in housing policy would benefit from rethinking future charging scenarios—for everyday mobile devices, as well as for the perhaps more pressing question of EV charging—in a number of ways. There are two starting points for this.

First, it is clear that people’s relationships with their homes, post-pandemic, and with the increasing concentration of personal mobile devices and the growth in and initiatives towards transitions from fossil fuel cars to EVs, are shifting. However, they are shifting in ways that are complex, and their deep historicity, present and possible futures are inextricable from the gendered relations, activities and routines of home. Battery charging is inevitably embedded in gendered relationships, activities and routines: certain timescales for charging are simply inaccessible to many people because they cannot align with their routines; particular sites for charging are inaccessible to others because they simply do not have the material or economic means to use them. Very often these people are women, due to the ways that gendered work (including childcare and housework), gendered safety (the need to be able to charge at home), and structural inequalities (which mean many women earn less than many men). New possible, realistic and inclusive future scenarios for battery charging need to be designed with women, at the very sites where these modes of inaccessibility and exclusion occur.

Second, women are taking new modes of control in the home by making battery charging part of the ways that they live at home, and engaging with it in the most private and intimate areas of the house, as they set up charging stations by their beds and organise their EV charging routines around their own routines of sleep and personal care. These routines are moreover informed by incrementally learned knowledge about battery charging from their experienced-based evidence and various other sources that they personally have access to. This means future scenarios and design for battery charging in homes must consider it as part of life rather than assuming that it will structure life, understand where gendered expertise needs to be acknowledged and attended to, and how this might be best harnessed to ethically support, rather than be controlled by, possible shifts to automated systems.

The dominant smart-charging narratives are masculine, but everyday charging is not. This lack of alignment is the crucial flaw in the quest to automate everyday charging. The recommendations arising from this article are not simple to apply. They require sustained research, design and engagement with people in the gendered sites of everyday life in homes with technology and energy. But they are necessary if researchers in this field are to work towards inclusive, responsible and ethical energy futures.

Acknowledgements

The author thanks all those who participated in the Digital Energy Futures project, since without them this article would not have been possible. The author also thanks the Digital Energy Futures project team with whom she collaborated to undertake this research and acknowledges their contributions to the research design, fieldwork and project management: Yolande Strengers, Larissa Nichols, Kari Dahlgren, Rex Martin and Hayley McKee. The ideas, writing and any errors in this article are the author’s own.

Ethical consent

The ethics for the Digital Energy Futures project were approved by Monash University’s Human Research Ethics Committee.

Funding

Research was supported by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Linkage Projects funding scheme (‘Digital Energy Futures’, project number LP180100203) in partnership with Monash University, Ausgrid, AusNet Services and Energy Consumers Australia.

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