At the Threshold of a Private Utopia

Photo-Illustration: Vox Media

Season one of Curbed’s Nice Try! podcast investigated failed utopias — attempts to imagine new and better ways of life through polyamorous communes like Oneida, modernist cities like Chandigarh, and 20th-century suburban neighborhoods like Levittown. Each of these communities inscribed their values and morals into idealistic social agreements of their own design. And they all failed — spectacularly. Because of conflicts between individuals, structures that replicated the harms a utopia claimed to solve, and the exclusionary ripple effects of creating a place for one strata of society, these places no longer exist as they were originally intended.

Still, the yearning for a better life endures. This utopian ambition is reflected in the everyday objects we use to eat, sleep, exercise, work, and clean. But the problems these objects are designed to solve, and the way they solve them, promote a distinctly American ideal that prioritizes personal betterment over improving society as a whole. In the second season of Nice Try!, host Avery Trufelman heads inside the private utopia of the home and explores that tension.

Since the 20th century, a housing model called the haven strategy has influenced American culture writ large. “It’s this idea that the home is a distinct, separate world where you can totally retreat from business, from your neighbors, from public life, into a dominion all your own,” Trufelman explains in the episode. This archetype, embodied in the suburban white picket fence, is outdated — and one that never really existed for most Americans. Still, Trufelman says, “The haven model still persists in popular imagination — even if you don’t have a house or a spouse. Just this idea of a home that exists as a separate little dominion from the rest of the world.”

One of the technologies that’s intimately entangled with the construct of a private utopia is the humble doorbell. It’s the device that mediates between public and private spheres, between society as a whole and the world that an individual creates in their home. And the way it has been designed and redesigned physically, sonically, and technologically — from an annoying buzzer to Marie Van Brittan Brown’s 1969 patent for a closed-circuit television home-security system and the video doorbells of today — reveals how we think of our private worlds and our relationship to what’s outside of them.

The episode features historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan, the author of A Social History of American Technology; Dolores Hayden, professor emerita of architecture and American studies at Yale and author of The Grand Domestic Revolution: A History of Feminist Designs for American Homes, Neighborhoods, and Cities; Robert Dobrin, curator of the Doorbell Museum; Josh Roth, chief technology officer of Ring; Chaz Arnett, an associate professor of law at the University of Maryland; ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley; and Shontavia Johnson, an intellectual property lawyer and Clemson University’s associate vice-president for entrepreneurship and innovation.

New episodes launch every Thursday and are available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and Stitcher.

Nice Try! Interior

Nice Try's second season, Interior, is all about the home goods that have been sold to us over and over, and the promises of self-improvement they have made, kept, and broken. From Curbed and the Vox Media Podcast Network.

At the Threshold of a Private Utopia