Personal life in smart energy systems

The unique challenge of behavioural change in the private sphere of the home recently inspired me to pick up Vanessa May’s book The Sociology of Personal Life (2011). I’ll share some of her insights here and then reflect on personal life in the smart grid from a cultural sociological perspective.

May suggests that “the personal is not something that is unchanging, arising out of human nature, biology or individual psychology but which is shaped by particular historical or cultural circumstances”.The personal is socially constructed, its boundaries flexible, uncertain and contested. The home is the given special environment in which the idea of the personal can be realized and reinforced. ‘The idea of home itself is powerful’, May writes, ‘one which is frequently identified with security, warmth and intimacy’. She continues: “Home ownership is identified, like the idea of home itself, with security, which means having a measure of control over one’s life and one’s immediate environment. This sense of personal control contrasts with the more abstract ways in which individuals are controlled by the market and the state in modern societies.”

Smart grid innovations, too, imply interventions into established domestic practices and their transformation. Energy demand is problematized, and personal life is now subjected to ‘demand side management’. Smart energy systems enable and incentivize householders to monitor, time and reduce their energy consumption using various smart grid instruments, and to choose (grid-) optimal courses of action based on economic, environmental, and practical considerations.

What, then, are the consequences for personal life? To put it in academic terms, how do domestic energy practices co-evolve with smart energy systems? I turn to a cultural sociology perspective to shed some light on the matter.

The boundary between public and private life is a cultural structure, and constantly shifting. The concepts of personal and public have different moral connotations: to make a sharp distinction, personal life is essentially self-expressive and self-styled, whereas more scrutinized public life is responsible and adjusted. Borrowing language from cultural sociologist Jeffrey Alexander, we know what public and private life mean, as binary culture structure, regardless of contemporary examples of what behaviour constitutes either. In other words, the meaning of ‘public’ and ‘private’ life has relative autonomy vis-a-vis the current practices which occupy social structure. Practices in the private sphere can be reconstructed as public affairs, such as the holiday practices of royal families, or the business dinners of executives, or the hitting of children by parents as disciplinary measure. This does not mean that when areas of domestic life are eco-rationalized and subjected to a new ‘governmentality’, that they become “public affairs”; rather, practitioners usually internalize social responsibility into personal practices. For example, it is now the norm to separate most waste at the source and to conserve electricity by switching off lights and appliances whenever possible. These personal practices can be considered Goffmanian backstage performances. In rarer cases, initially personal practices enter public life and become front stage performances: consider the curious social significance of gardening through the ages. Domestic energy practices could face a similar ‘socialization’ in smart energy systems.

This is not to say that efforts to ‘eco-rationalize’ domestic consumption are necessarily invasive intrusions into the personal sphere; rather, I argue, the binary discourse of public versus private lends moral weight to dismissals of behavioural change programs. The notion of personal life supports a strong social language with which efforts to make consumption more sustainable are morally evaluated, labelling them as intrusive and unjust, or responsible and righteous.

Smart energy systems, in other words, issue a moral challenge to the personal lives of householders as much as a practical challenge. How this challenge is met remains to be seen.

Smart grid researchers should be sensitive to the underlying culture structures which frame the public debate on smart meters, and the smart grid discourse more generally. A division between personal and public practices seems to hold empirical and analytical relevance. A cultural perspective on domestic practices in the personal sphere reveals that the boundaries of personal and public life are culturally constructed and flexible, and that the ecological modernization of personal practices engages the collective moral imagination.