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Future of the Family

Long ago, I applied for a grant from a big, famous foundation to study technology’s impact on work-family, as it was called back then. I got a generous grant – but also a caution from the director that ‘technology doesn’t really have anything to do with work-family balance.’ How many times have I looked back and been amused by that assumption.

Fast forward to late 2010, when I spoke at an Emory University conference on “Imagining the Future of the Family”. It was an interesting gathering, and included anthropologists Chuck Darrah, Peter StrombergMark Auslander, historian Stephanie Coontz and among others, and Miss Manners! And it was an honor to be the only journalist invited to present.

Here (belatedly) are my remarks, abbreviated just by a bit:

Let’s imagine the future. What will family togetherness look like in an increasingly technological age? And what are the trends today that will be the building blocks of family life tomorrow?

In the great tradition of EM Forster and HG Wells and William Gibson, I’d like to start considering these questions by offering a little bit of futuristic, science fiction.

Picture an American family in the year 2035. It’s breakfast time on a Friday morning.

The mother, Eve, is swabbing her 8 –year-old son’s cheek, to get his cortisol reading. Although she can easily buy a digital machine to do the same work, Eve uses an old-fashioned “Stress Test” strip – she likes the retro feel.

Oops – it’s high today! Eve gives her son a sympathetic look. But he’s on his Blackberry, and listening to his iPod, so he doesn’t notice his mom’s concern.

It’s been a stressful week for Ben. The family’s robot dog, Zip, is in the shop for repairs, and Ben misses him terribly. Plus, Ben failed his weekly “focus” test in school. He’d rather do anything than sit and meditate. But that’s the lynchpin of the new mandatory attention curriculum. Latin is gone – focus is in.

Eve gives Ben a kiss on the head, and starts to hurry off to work. But her husband Rick walks into the kitchen, so she takes a minute to sync the weekend’s schedule with him.

“Do you want to invite your mother to dinner Sunday?” asks Eve.

The family has a new Skype-model dinner table. The end of the table is a screen that folds up, so that they can include a virtual guest at dinner. Grandma loves to be invited, although it’s hard to really include her in the conversation, given her touch of deafness and the slight camera lag.

Rick nods yes. They hold up their Blackberries – the machines kiss – and the invitation is sent — since the PDAs were on “listening capacity.” Rick then goes back to sifting his emails – he’s had 96 new ones since getting out of the shower. And he keeps one eye on the tv – which doubles as a microwave and a wall safe. That’s where the family keeps its precious collection of passwords. There are far too many for any family member to recall.

Where are we? We’re at home with the Morgen family. And what’s the backdrop to their life? What are the dominant trends today that will likely affect family life in 2035?

First, DATA-STREAMS. Floods of information. The home is a porous place.

And a noisy place.

More than two thirds of children aged six and under live in homes where the tv is on most or all of the time. Often, no one’s watching. The steady hum of the tv is somehow comforting, especially at night. Why? According to Emory anthopologist Carol Worthman, ancient humans gathered together for safety and sociability in the evening. She speculates in her research on the evolution of sleep that the chatter of the tv may cue us to feel that people are around, so we are safe.

Today, the background tv, however, may undercut real time togetherness, according to research by Dan Anderson at UMass/Amherst. In homes with the tv on most of the time, parental-child interaction falls by 20 percent, and toddlers show less focus in their play.

The home is noisy in a second sense. Noise – as you know – is also a technical term meaning “Irregular fluctuations that accompany an electrical signal but are not part of it and tend to obscure it.” Think of the electrical signal as “family cohesion” and the irregular fluctuations – noise – as the multiple, media streams coming into the home.

Often, household members use media to collaborate. They play computer games together, play a match of Wii tennis, build a town in second life. A level of absorption and engagement can be constructed within the sphere of the technology. At times, media can serve as a post-modern hearth, a potential gathering point in the home.

But at the same time, media is often experienced individually – due to its portability and level of customization. Today, children are exposed to 7.38 hours of media, including music, each day. Three quarters have an iPod, up from 18 percent in 2004. Nearly 40 percent of children have a tv or DVD player in their car. More than 70 percent have a tv in their bedroom. These devices present as many opportunities for separation as for congregation.

Parental work-life spillover, meanwhile, keeps adults fused to their own relentless data-streams. A recent survey found that U.S. professionals spend half their workday receiving and managing information. Half said if information keeps increasing, they will reach a “breaking point.” Hyperbole? Perhaps. But expectations of accessibility keep ascending.

In a study of information supply and demand, University of Michigan media technology professor Russell Neuman recently estimated that sources of information have increased 2000 times since the 1960s. And most people he’s interviewed say they are happy with that abundance.

Yet these media “riches” are a pressure point for the family. They change the nature of presence in profound ways. Media is escaping from the box. It’s personal, portable and environmental. It’s both the landscape we inhabit and a biological prosthetic.

Technologists today speak in terms of push and pull media – depending on whether a data-point is requested by a client or streamed to the user. Email is pull, so is a Google search. TV ads are push; once you sign up, you keep getting a stream of messages – despite the mute button.

Perhaps another way to think about the media is in terms of whether it tends to push the family together – or pull the family apart. This is a tug of war that is important to watch.

Let’s return for a minute to our Morgen family.

Eve returns home that Friday evening at 6 p.m. She calls out a hello, but no one answers. (Zip is in the shop, she remembers.) She is too exhausted to check the GPS on her son Ben, or that of her 12-year-old stepdaughter Liz, who’s coming for the weekend.

Instead, Eve heads to the “womb-room” – the only place in the house that is disconnected from the Net. The walls are screens that show virtual landscapes – she presses ocean, and is at a beach, listening to a seagull’s cry and the soothing rush of a wave. These womb-rooms are the most fashionable additions to homes these days.

Eve pulls out a print-out of the family’s weekend activities that she’d brought home from work. Ever since her therapist diagnosed “dimanchophobia” – that is, fear of an unstructured Sunday – Eve is careful to keep the family busy. Yet she and Rick also yearn for those few moments when the family is truly together, talking and having fun.  So she is keeping an eye out for a chance at bio-interactivity, what used to be called face time.

From the printout, she determines that the family will be in the same room for only 22 minutes all weekend. That’s during Sunday dinner. Instantly, she decides on a “black-out” meal – with a flip of a switch, she can regulate the connectivity of the family’s gadgets in any room or the whole house. A black-out shuts off all incoming texts, emails, and phone calls, although still allowing the Skype table to work.

Liz, the stepdaughter, will be upset that her “bf implant” – an open connection to her best friend – will be disrupted for a little while. But Eve will stand her ground. Togetherness is more than a text message, Eve firmly believes.

Moving into the kitchen to get a cup of tea, Eve sees a text from Ben. He’s upstairs, and messaging her: “I’m hungry. What’s for a snack?”

Turn back to the present, and again, what are the trends now that will build family life in the future? Along with DATA, families are being shaped by SOCIAL CONNECTIVITY. This is another facet of the question of porosity.

As sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng writes, “Through each act of (in) accessibility, we establish or end, defend, challenge and/or change the nature of a given relationship.”

This is not new. But what’s new is the level of management that’s demanded in the digital age. Networks are broadened. We are awash in weak ties. And connectivity is instant, and potentially constant. This produces what Kenneth Gergen called the “relational self” or Barry Wellman calls “networked individualism.”  Consider, a quarter of teens check their Facebook pages 10 times a day. Family ties both profit from and are in enormous competition with these networks.

According to research from UCLA, children at day’s end don’t acknowledge a returning dad 40 percent of the time. And distraction is seen in one-third of couple reunions.

Does this matter? Yes. According to anthropologists, a moment of reunion is an acknowledgment of the other, a signal that you are someone. A greeting is a key opportunity for shared intimacy and one of few rituals shared by all societies.

Perhaps it’s natural that threshold moments today are optional. Instant connection allows for more constant togetherness between family members. Traveling parents now shared bedtime stories by Skype. Judges order virtual custody visits.

But if virtual relationships are available at the push of a button, why rush at day’s end to find about another’s day? Always-on connectivity may, as Naomi Baron argues, signal the end of anticipation

Secondly, when family members are together for those 22 minutes on Sunday, their own pulsing networks can puncture their physical presence. When we are in the same room together, attention is likely fragmented. We are multitasking each other, and as much research shows, we don’t do “dual-task” well.

The jury is still out on many of these questions. Half of parents spend some time each week using the Internet with other family members.One study found no differences between Internet users and non-users on how much family members shared ideas. On the other hand, families with multiple communications devices are less likely to eat dinner together. And high Internet use among teens is associated with worse relationships with parents and less family cohesion, even when personality is controlled for.

Families are scrambling to find time together – even in small doses – and they will continue to do so. But the “pull” of media is enormous, and coming together is increasingly a punctured, fragmented, brief experience. How families handle this challenge is of utmost importance to our society as a whole.

In conclusion, I’d like to offer a caveat – and one or two last predictions.

It’s hard to predict the future, especially re technology. So often we underestimate or overestimate the impact of new devices on our culture.

In the late 19th century, telephone companies fought the use of telephone for social purposes. Acting on assumptions from the telegraph age, viewed it as business instrument.

On other hand, we’ve heard predictions that painted gadgets as more powerful than they are. In 1909, one commentator wrote:  “Children’s minds are being poisoned and their morals are corrupted by movies.”


First, the bigger their place in our lives, the harder it is to objectify tech tools. They become “unseen,” or as Dewey said, recognized but not perceived.

Second, technology is a two-way street. It’s a negotiation, as Claude Fisher says. Not just an input. Our tools shape us, just as we invent and shape them to our purposes. Tech artifacts may function like myths, in that “they serve as rationalizing models for the cultures that produce them.”

So predictions are difficult.

BUT looking ahead is what humans are born to do. That’s what imagination and dreaming and planning are all about. Without these skills, our species wouldn’t survive. So I’ll hazard one last prediction.

I believe we might, in another generation, see technology not in terms of tool use or even lifestyle, but as an environmental issue.

We might look back on the Industrial Age as a time marked by the erection of new and idealized boundaries between home and work.

We might see the early Digital Age – our time – as an era when we worked a bit too furiously to tear down the boundaries. And make our homes and family lives vibrant but porous.

And we might someday see the Middle Digital Age as a time of climate control. When families like the Morgans endeavor to create zones of focus – through womb rooms and blackout dinners – so they can enjoy a pocket of bio-interactivity.

In future, technology can’t be put back in the box. But families will, I cautiously predict, want to carve out room for togetherness.

Perhaps in future we won’t even talk about work-life balance. We’ll instead talk about balancing action and contemplation. Or juggling our humanity and our machinery. There may be new types of conflict and spillover and synergy.

All I know for sure is, we can’t get ahead of our biology.

Because when people come together physically – as we are – attention is just a starting point. After that, comes the difficult, complex, work of synchronicity and listening and empathy and understanding. And if those ideals are realized even in part, that’s when family connectivity really gets going. Face time is still – as MIT’s Sherry Turkle has observed – the gold standard of human relations.

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