How Much Space Has Technology Saved Us?

Technology is often associated with time-saving, but what about physical space?

Recently, I visited a place where the 18th century homes provided living quarters for servants for the various tasks supporting their daily lives. One of the tasks would be dish washing. This would have been done by the scullery maid; and according to Wikipedia, this is not all that they do:

In great houses, scullery maids were the lowest-ranked and often the youngest of the female servants and acted as assistant to a kitchen maid. The scullery maid reported (through the kitchen maid) to the cook or chef. Along with the junior kitchen-maid, the scullery maid did not eat at the communal servants’ dining hall table, but in the kitchen in order to keep an eye on the food that was still cooking. Duties included the most physical and demanding tasks in the kitchen, such as cleaning and scouring the floor, stoves, sinks, pots and dishes. After scouring the plates in the scullery, she would leave them on racks to dry. The scullery maid also assisted in cleaning vegetables, plucking fowl, and scaling fish.

Perhaps the rich among us still live that way, but for the average Joe (or Joanne) today, we load the dishes into the dishwasher and figure out which cycle we should use. The question is no longer on how much space is needed to house a person for domestic help, but rather if one should rinse the dishes in the sink before loading them into the dishwasher. A dishwasher on average takes up the space of one sqm. Even less. Maybe in the near future, Uber-style maid services, robots, or even nano-coated plates will also help in reducing the area needed to keep the cleaning and housekeeping kit.

What about personal possessions? Housing libraries or shelves of books used to be the norm but unless you are a collector of first editions, digital libraries make more sense. That also includes offices which used to have filing cabinets. Today, digital bills, records and files do away with physical papers and are more easily categorised and retrievable as a result. As for computer monitors, they too have grown thinner over the years, and most people these days use notebooks rather than desktops anyway.

What about photos? I bet very few six year olds can describe to you what a photo album is.

What about the entertainment system? The size of televisions and radios have shrunk. Where at first they occupy the floor, then shelves and cabinets, nowadays, flat-screen tvs decorate walls and as for radios, what radio? Speakers too have evolved into a compact one block on the wall.

What once was a proudly displayed LP player and its stacks of LPs, first evolved into CD players (with stacks of CD casings) and now is fully dematerialized – ask the millennials now, where does one keep all the music? What about movies, are we still lining the shelves with movie DVDs?

Let’s take a look at the kitchen. Multi-purpose kitchenware means fewer items to store. The modern day ease of eating out also means we don’t need to equip our kitchen with a tagine if we want to eat Moroccan dishes, a steamer for the Chinese baos, and so on. The fact that we are (mostly) assured of our food supplies and could order them on-line for weekly deliveries mean that the larders grow smaller and smaller, with just in time stocking from the grocery stores (what does this mean for Costco?). In addition, food arrives pre-cut and pre-washed or ready to go into the oven or microwave, requiring again less counterspace and tools.

What about the nursery, has technology changed how children’s rooms are used? Which toys do children nowadays gravitate to? Physical or digital, and how are they stored?

What about fashion? Ask any woman, and we will always answer in the definitive that more space is needed for the clothes and shoes. Has technology affected the size of a clothes wardrobe? What about fast fashion or 3D-printed dress? Would this mean you throw out your clothes more often?

Outside the house, reverting back to those early centuries, stables were needed for horses, and today, garages for our cars. With self-driving cars on the horizon, Uber and Lyft in operation, public transport systems constantly improving, the need to own a car, let alone provide space for its parking by the side of your house would be a less appealing and wasteful idea.

What about the shed or the attic where we keep all the household junk and tools? Can the sharing economy spare us from having to store a lawnmower or infrequently used DIY tools?

What about 3D-printing? What if we don’t have to keep all the bits and bobs, hoses and parts just in case we need them because one day, we will be able to print the replacements with ease at home just like we use the paper printers?

Never going to happen, did you say? Well, here is NASA building an entire rocket via 3D-printing. Technology grows exponentially, and not in a straight line. What was ten years ago a brick in my hand with the sole purpose to call someone, is now a slim smartphone containing a fully functional computer and my window to the world.

All this leads us to ask, what is the effect of doing without all the past needs for physical space? Has that reduced the size of our dwellings?

Contrarily, no.

In fact, our appetite for space has increased. For example, the average house size in America has grown over the decades, from 1,725 square feet in 1983, 2,330 square feet in 2003, and 2,598 square feet in 2013. So the question is then, why do we need (or perhaps, that’s ‘want’) more space?

In-house cinemas with bigger screens could partially account for this. On the other hand, virtual reality (VR) might change the need for a big screen – why would you want a big screen when you can have an immersive, surround experience? Hence it may be that hung-on-the-wall big screen TV would be passé one day. Maybe.

Or what with more gadgets available, people might prefer to fill up their houses with more and more ingenious technologies. Perhaps a state-of-the-art gym and sauna?

It would be interesting to see how the use of household space has evolved over time and what role technology has played in changing its purpose.

With ageing population, there might be a need to increase the empty spaces between furniture for mobility, or even for robot carers to move about freely. Longevity also means that in some places, we need to start thinking about the shortage of space to accommodate more people.

Has technology made our usage of space more efficient? I’m not sure. But how to use technology to do so in the future may be something worth thinking about.

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