When your vacation rental feels more like a prison.

I stayed in a short-term rental who used technology as a virtual warden, scaring guests into good behavior.

Photo Credit: aquatarkus via shutterstock.com

As I walked into the homeshare apartment I’d rented for the weekend, my 25-year-old philosphy degree bellowed from a forgotten corner.

PANOPTICON.

Prominently displayed on the kitchen counter was a list of house rules including many variations on their “Number One Rule”

and, ominously

We use a noise sensor to detect the noise level inside the suite, a people counter which counts the number of people nearby, in addition to numerous neighbors who are understandably more sensitive during this time.

I found the warning in no fewer than three laminated signs throughout the apartment. And sure enough, there was a white box screwed into an electrical outlet in the living room, a device which I learned is a “NoiseAware Decible Monitor.”

Fortunately for me, that degree’s bellow hadn’t been heard anywhere outside my own head.

Some online searching brought me to NoiseAware’s website, which explained “NoiseAware works like a smoke detector, but for noise. Our simple plug & play sensors track the decibel levels at your property, evaluate other risk factors and send an alert via text or email if the noise levels exceed your chosen threshold level.”

Wondering what level of noise I might make to cause an alert, I went further down the Google rabbit hole. I learned that sensor measures decibles in the home every few minutes, and sends a text alert to the owner if they exceed a threshold they’d preselected (but hadn’t communicated to me):

NoiseAware’s Description of Noise Level Thresholds

The company assured nervous homeowners that “80% of the time, guests quiet down within 15 minutes of being contacted!”

In the event that I was one of the 20% of visitors who didn’t comply, the property’s cheery welcome note warned me that:

“We do utilize our local law enforcement if you cannot abide by these rules and you will be asked to vacate at your own expense.”

And if the owner of my rental was concerned that I’d be a wily (screwdriver-armed) guest who simply unplugged the device? Never fear— NoiseAware assures them they’d get an alert about that, too — but it’s “SUPER RARE,” and “most malicious attempts … occur within a few hours of checking in.”

The ads struck me as playing on fears that you’d rent your home to wild partiers who are going to be nothing but trouble — which made me curious about who my hosts were, and why they decided to rent their apartment in the first place.

With a little more searching, I learned— I wasn’t staying in some hip couple’s Minneapolis loft while they were away for a weekend. I was staying in one of about 600 apartments managed by a corporation who is trying to scale to 1,500 in the next year.

And suddenly, I realized that — more than many VRBO or Airbnb hosts — this owner was really just viewing me as a liability, who could only spoil their relationship with their neighbors, get them kicked out of the building, and lose the revenue stream from their multiple apartments for rent in the community.

Their installation and communication about NoiseAware, then, was their attempt to minimize their risk with a hope that they could scare me into a particular type of behavior — even as they never had any personal one-to-one contact with me. Indeed, NoiseAware helpfully provides a boilerplate text that the owner can send to a noisemaking renter which “almost always resolves the situation” — no difficult voice-to-voice, or person-to-person engagement needed!

Computer model of a panopticon, via ValdostaToday.com

It’s a strategy rooted in the English philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s concept of a panopticon — a circular prison where the inhabitents of each cell can’t see one another, but are in constant view of a central watchtower that theoretically has guards inside it. The tower is built in a way that the prisoners never know when a guard is watching or not — which allows the prison management to minimize their spend on security staff, while maximizing the prisoners’ motivation to behave well at all times of the day.

When applied to a rental apartment in the form of a NoiseAware device (or their competitor Party Squasher, who detects troublesome behavior by counting cell phones in the area), the panoptic approach left me feeling completely devalued. Prior to rental, I had to provide copy of an ID so that my host could conduct a criminal background check — but my clean record and otherwise sterling public reputation didn’t afford me any goodwill.

Indeed, there was no goodwill extended to me by virtue of my basic humanity — just a sense that that my hosts expected me to be problematic, and had cooked up a menu of punishments that might include texts reminding me of quiet hours, a visit from the police, or immediate expulsion with nuisance charge that is the equivalent of four night’s rental fees.

The ever-present threat that someone or something may be listening left me on edge, even though assurances are given that the device is “100% privacy compliant” and is not actually recording your conversation — simply measuring decibels like a “smoke detector for noise.”

I was especially unnerved since I knew I was being held accountable for staying in compliance with a specific measure of “quiet” which was left vague and undefined. How loud is too loud for the TV? Background music I want to play with dinner? Running the dishwasher? I have no idea.

And as a professional who spend a lot of time thinking about the intersection of business, technology, and humanity, I really don’t like it.

From a business standpoint, I sort of understand the approach. When you see your customers as also your biggest risk (who can damage your property, or cause so much trouble with your neighbors that you’ll lose your contract with the building), this is a technology that attempts to elicit compliance, do it quickly, and at the lowest possible cost.

But from a basic humanity perspective, it begins a relationship by telling your customer (who is the ultimate payer of your bills) that you don’t trust them — and if they step out of line, you’ll be quick to bring in the authorities for eviction, rather than working out your problem as an empathetic, human equal.

Which ultimately, I think, is bad for business. Because the way this corporation left me feeling “less than” through their use of technology made me extremely unlikely to rent from them again — and more likely to encourage others to avoid them due to this icky-feeling business practice.

In announcing their partnership with NoiseAware, my rental host announced that making the devices standard in all of their guest suites makes them “short-term stay friendly,” but my experience is that it did the exact opposite.

Do you agree? Have you had experience with noise monitoring devices in a rental home — as the renter or owner? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Leading at the Intersection of Business, Technology and Humanity | Conference Speaker | Board Member | Sales Transformations | C-Level Exec | jdmillerphd.com