How Parenting Tech Opens the Door to State Surveillance
Baby monitors and nanny cams are a political choice
In 1939, the Great Depression still raging, the president of Zenith Radio Corporation, Commander Eugene McDonald, Jr., commissioned the first baby monitor, designed by the famous American sculptor Isamu Noguchi. The monitor came in two parts, the Radio Nurse Receiver and the Guardian Ear Transmitter. The receiver tends the baby when the parent cannot, with no risk of falling asleep itself or harming the baby while working under the sign of its care; the transmitter springs to action, relaying information instantaneously to the parent over a distance—a gendered parental ideal, augmented through technology.
McDonald was, to put it bluntly, rich, and a father to a young child. Worried that his daughter was a prime candidate to be the next Lindbergh baby—who had famously been kidnapped from his crib seven years earlier—he needed a device that would afford him a form of security the Lindberghs hadn’t had. A full staff was not enough to safeguard his little one: The Lindbergh baby's nanny, Betty Gow, had been the first suspect in that case. Although she was cleared, domestic workers were often subject to classed, raced and/or xenophobic distrust by the families who employed them. Gow, a Scotland immigrant, would return to Glasgow after her questioning; Violet Sharp, a woman working in the household as a servant, was subject to such intense questioning and suspicion that she ended up taking her own life by drinking poison—she was cleared via alibi post-mortem the very next day. McDonald, who likely shared his peers' classist attitudes, didn't want to have to rely on human care. He wanted to be able to put his baby to bed securely at one end of his yacht, and have his wife entertain at the other, without sacrificing knowledge of her whereabouts and well-being.
The baby monitor began its life as a techno-optimistic fantasy of perfect vigilance and perfect control, and it has remained just that—a fantasy. Nevertheless, the promise of extending and augmenting parental nurture and protection has driven the marketing and development of much parenting tech since, which has grown to include monitoring tactics absorbed from, or associated with, more suppressive forms of surveillance. Many of these technologies encode the same class-based suspicions of their predecessors. Today, state-of-the-art parenting technologies are frequently designed to monitor not only children, but those suspected of posing harm, making targets out of bystanders and importing state surveillance—inseparable, as Simone Browne has shown, from a history of racial formation and violence—to the home.
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