Learning to Love the Spy in Your Living Room

Alexa wasn't the first device to listen to us in our domestic spaces, and it won't be the last.

In September 1964, LIFE magazine published an article about a new technology that tried to solve the problem facing all broadcasters - who is actually watching or listening to their shows? The technology was the Tanner Electronic Survey Tabulator, or T.E.S.T truck. Invented by electronic entrepreneur Jim Tanner, it was a van fitted with seven television sets, each tuned to a different TV channel. As the van drove through a neighbourhood, a circular antenna picked up the frequencies emitted by televisions in people’s living rooms. If they matched the frequencies from the TVs in the van, an indicator pinged and the correct channel was noted in the Tanner Survey for that house.

Tanner proposed it as a better alternative to the standard Nielsen ratings. At the time, Nielsen measured around 1,100 carefully chosen households, but Tanner claimed that with 300 T.E.S.T trucks he could measure 20 million TV sets in any half hour of the TV schedule. TV execs argued that they didn’t just need to know that TV sets were on, but who was watching - which family members, for how long, and the age and demographic info about the families. Tanner’s T.E.S.T truck couldn’t do that, so he offered a follow up survey so he could match the frequency recordings with demographic data.

Despite this, the T.E.S.T didn’t take off, although in the UK similar technologies were used for TV Detector Vans, checking to see that households watching TV owned the correct TV license. There is some doubt about whether these license detector vans actually did patrol the streets of the UK, or whether they were just a marketing device to strike fear into people without a TV license. But TV Detector vans did exist in the UK, dating back to 1952, whether they were regularly used as enforcement or not.

There are early versions of UK TV detector vans, like this example from the late 1950s/early 1960s, that look like they have similar technology to the T.E.S.T’s circular antenna:

File:Dodge detector van.JPG

Like a lot of technology in the 50s and 60s, these vans feel simultaneously futuristic, yet rooted in the everyday. The huge antennas and banks of TV screens speak of cutting edge technology networks, but the vans themselves are ordinary, usually seen doing more mundane tasks like taking school-kids to and from football matches. They are at once homely and strange - the very definition of uncanny. In his essay on the uncanny, Sigmund Freud uses the German word Unheimlich, which translates as ‘un-homely’. The TV Detector vans were definitely ‘un-homely’, creepy symbols of a paranoia that people had, and continue to have, about domestic technology - that we don’t just watch it, but it watches us back.

The story of how we’ve measured media audiences is, to a surprisingly large degree, a battle to find ways into our living rooms. Audiences became ghosts not because we disappeared, but because technology emerged that took media and culture into our private spaces.

Once we stopped going into a newsagent, bookstore, cinema or theatre to give someone money in return for culture, we became invisible. We stayed at home, and in order to continue making money, companies had to convince us to let them in (I’ll leave the obvious vampire reference to the reader).

The first device we let in our living rooms to measure us was the Audimeter, invented at MIT, but bought by Arthur C Nielsen to help grow his emerging radio measurement service. You’ll know if you’ve read my other newsletters that I’m fascinated by Nielsen, and think he’s the most influential, but overlooked, figure in the 20th Century.

The Audimeter was a metal box, with a slowing rolling coil of tape inside, onto which were etched marks triggered by a listener turning and tuning their home radio. I wonder what it must have been like to be one of the early radio audiences asked to take in an Audimeter. First of all, this magic box called a radio is invented that brings voices and sounds from all over the world into your living room. Then someone asks you to take ownership of this small metal box, about the size of a hardback book, and explains that it’s going to record everything you do with your radio, to be sent off somewhere for someone to analyse.

I wonder why you would do this. At this point in history, the living room was a very private space. Not every house had a phone or a radio, so domestic space was truly unknown and unconnected to the outside world. The only communication was printed - books, magazines and catalogues coming in, letters coming out.

Electricity brought networked communication into our private domestic spaces - first the telephone and radio, then televisions, then computers, and finally the internet. With every new device, there have been legitimate concerns and paranoid delusions about whether we are being listened to, and yet this doesn’t stop us inviting them in.

The Audimeter - the first device that actually did listen to what we did in our living rooms - was invented in 1936. Seventy-Five years later, Amazon announced the Alexa - a device that combined the broadcast capabilities of the radio and the data recording capabilities of the audimeter into one neat package, about half the size of a hardback book.

The smart speaker has been the breakout technology of the last few years, but it really is just combining two things that have been going on for seventy-five years - broadcasting audio, and listening to our living rooms. The difference now is that the listening and broadcasting are combined and sold to us in a single device.

Somehow, we seem to have come to terms with people listening to us in our living rooms. We’ve given up the privacy our our domestic space, and invited people in to have a listen. The history of how we’ve gradually invited in these spies is not well known, and it’s something I’m researching at the moment. I’m interested in how this happened, what worked and didn’t work, and when, and how, some people resisted.

In the end, it turned out that the best way of listening to what we do in our living rooms wasn’t to drive outside in creepily modified vans bristling with antennae. It was to package the microphone and speaker into one slick black cylinder, connect it to the internet, and ask us to pay for the privilege.