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Tech on the Family

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Technology is binding the world of work and the world of home in ways that redefine what is means to be in each. Some changes are dramatic, others are subtle, but the changes are experienced in the mundane activities of everyday life. To begin this presentation I will tell you a story. This story may not reflect your own lives, but
I imagine some details will have a familiar ring to them.

John is a middle-aged product development manager at a high tech company in Silicon Valley. He bemoans the fact that he no longer has the kind of personnel support he had even 10 years ago. While he shares an administrative assistant with several other managers, he is now expected to handle his own communications, create his own presentations and manage his own time and financial budget. After all, he now has a PC to improve his productivity, and interactive on-line calenders to manage his time. The nature of his work means that he is in constant contact with engineers, the general managers above him, and his counterparts in different sites in his international company. He has more contact, and more in common, with his counterpart in Taiwan than the person in the next cubicle.
He tries very hard not to take too much work home with him, preferring to work late on site, but the international nature of his work means he is on the phone at midnight and at dawn. He is grateful for
E-mail and voice mail since they can fit his schedule. Realistically, he thinks about work problems constantly, in his garden, and in his car. He talks about his work all the time with his wife and volunteers to install network servers at his daughter's school on Net Day.

Meanwhile, his administrative assistant, Sharon, complains that her work load is overwhelming, even to the point where she is expected to move furniture and take out trash. She is expected to learn new programs and upgrades on her own time. Both John and
Sharon now take work and worry home. Sharon checks her E-mail and voice mail in the predawn hours before her children wake to prepare for any tasks that may need to be addressed immediately. She carries a pager and a cell phone so that she can stay in contact with her teenaged children after they come home from school. All of them feel much safer for the presence of these devices. They can now stay out longer and be more independent since they are "in contact." The only time they have been physically together in several weeks is for the anthropologist's visit to their home for an interview.

This vignette is drawn from a host of interviews and observations done over the past seven years in a series of studies dubbed "the Silicon Valley Cultures Project." I have been part of a team of anthropologists, along with Charles Darrah and James
M. Freeman, that have been studying technology and community in
Silicon Valley. While the larger issues addressed by my colleagues here today also interest us, our particular emphasis has been on the study of technology in daily life. We have treated Silicon Valley as a laboratory for technological saturation, where talk about technology surfaces easily at work, at home and in the community and can be therefore captured by eager social scientists. Silicon Valley is also a place with a well defined regional identity, in which discussions of reinventing community are common fare. We have sampled the intersection of technology and community in a variety of ways. In
1995 we worked with the Institute for the Future who combined a large scale statistical survey with an intensive ethnographic study of
"infomated households." These are households with a critical mass of at least five information devices, including some combination of
VCRs, CDs, laser discs, fax machines, answering machines, voice mail services, computers, and cellular phones. How did these devices enter and flow through peoples lives? What impact did they have? This study highlighted an unexpected connection. Infomated households revolved around work, both paid work and an endless series of tasks that formed a greater environment of work ranging from gainful work to voluntary activities and "working on ones family." This project led to 450 detailed interviews with people on work/home/community interface in
Silicon Valley, soon to be partially funded by the National Science
Foundation. We entered a variety of work spaces, at "work" and at home to view how people managed the intersection between these domains. Meanwhile, we also conducted related studies, collected hundreds of stories on how people decided to purchase devices and how they managed interactions across different cultures and generations.
We also interviewed more than fifty community leaders about their visions of the future of community in the Silicon Valley region.
Finally, using this research as a base, we are about to launch an intensive observation-based study of families and work in Silicon
Valley sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, investigating even more deeply the issues highlighted here today.

Please note that I am not separating information technologies from the institutions that act as conduits for the entrance of those devices into the home. Technology is not context free. Devices brought home from work organizations and schools are accompanied by styles of use and assumed purposes that follow that fax or that
Mac into the household. As the boundaries and distinctions blur, we abandoned the idea of sharply separating the domains but instead we traced the flow of technology through peoples lives. It is in the context of this research that I comment on family, community and technology. Technology and Family

As mentioned earlier, one of the most strikingly obvious impacts of information technology is the shift in the work-home relationship. We encountered people that said they never took work home, yet the computer had its own room and engineering magazines littered every flat surface. We had to question our assumption that we knew what "work" was. Work was not a single coherent entity, but a collection of different things. People talked of their
"work" -- ongoing career preparation, finances, parenting. But they distinguished that from their "work-work," that is, paid work for a particular organization. A large proportion of supposedly free time was spent thinking about "work-work" while in the shower, eating, or driving. As is discussed elsewhere in this seminar, information technologies have been instrumental in redefining the scope of work.

We asked people what made them a family? Repeatedly the answer was "we do things together." To these interviewees, the family is not a natural unit that simply exists, but one defined by action.
Families watch TV, camp, travel, eat and talk together. The devices that facilitate that action or talk -- phones, networked computers, pagers, answering machines -- take on a serious purpose for these people. Paging your children to let them know you are concerned that they arrived home safely from school demonstrates parental responsibility. Sharing an evening of movies or technology talk provides an opportunity for doing something together.

The interactions between information saturated work and networked families are governed by complex rules. As one interviewee noted: At the time, there was a lot of hard copy paperwork at my job.
I thought it would be real convenient to have a fax modem. . . I also hoped that the computer would save me time, and get me ahead at work.
I mean, I don't work at home because it is so great. I would rather do other things. But I saw, or hoped, that working at home would allow me to get even more done and give me an advantage at work. And then I thought that if I need an occasional afternoon off, it would be okay because I would be ahead. Of course, that was naive. Everybody works at home and now it is a standard. Working at home doesn't let me get ahead, it stops me from falling behind.

The colonization of home time by work is only the most obvious impact. As we talked to people at work and home we discovered that only certain kinds of work come home. Because the information saturated work environment is infinitely interruptible, activities that require concentration -- especially writing, reading and reflecting -- get shipped home where it is vainly hoped that uninterrupted time can be cultivated. People respond to this relocation in a variety of ways. Some have clearly scheduled
"Mommy is working now" times. Others try to manage post bedtime shifts. Many resist, trying to create boundaries by manipulating the technologies. The interactions can be subtle. For example, a highly placed city official tries to separate work and home by creating a barrier of physical distance, a common strategy. She commutes several hours a day to be able to maintain an affordable, distinct home life.
During that commute she uses her cell phone to begin and end her management day. Her action has led to a "voice mail organization" at city hall in which E-mail contact is reduced. While this is convenient for her, it limits the telecommuting strategies other people in the organization might have used to manage their work-home juggling. Her family driven choices ripple through the organization and back into her colleagues' family lives.

The penetration of work uses of information technology into the home leads to an access dilemma. "I want instant access to you but I want to minimize your access to me." This strategy increasingly leads to the use of home as an environment in which interruptions can be carefully managed, even between family members. Note the tone in this comment, "I get stressed when David doesn't have his (cell) phone on. You know, we have them for a reason, and I'll be trying to call him and I find out that he has the damn thing turned off." Often even non-use of devices is carefully managed -- by turning off the phone, avoiding using cell phones in the car, or checking for E-mail or voice mail at only certain hours.

Changes in work relations and management styles have also altered the way families talk about themselves. Families increasingly view themselves as management problems to be solved, just as they would be at work, with technology. Pagers, cell phones and answering machines, and now palm pilots, are used in tandem to coordinate complex household schedules. Work, school and recreational activities demand transportation, sequencing and division of labor. One software engineer, turned at-home mom, remarked that she was now prepared to go into project management after a few years of managing two small children and an occasionally telecommuting spouse. She had each day carefully orchestrated. She had her days at the cooperative day care center in which she coordinated the daily treats and food lessons with diverse other mothers using databases of recipes. Armed with databases of parenting articles, she acted as informal expert among her peers. Christena Nippert-Eng noted in her book on Home and Work, that people used their calenders as a way of marking the home/work domains. My interviewees now talk of using their upgraded palm pilots to fully integrate home/work divisions of labor -- beaming their spousal schedules to each other. The perceived safety net of technology also allows planning to become ever more "just-in-time."
Message machines and pagers allow plans to be created, shifted and coordinated in the space of a single afternoon.

The families we studied use information technologies to "work" on themselves. They use the telecommunications devices to coordinate activities ranging from after school baseball to weddings. They create networks of connectedness by making and sending videotapes and E-mailing distant relatives. Family histories are recorded and distributed. Cell phones and pagers create a sense of street safety, although realistically most of our interviewees actually used them more often for traffic management than emergency pleas for help. One woman used the LCD information on her husband's pager to discover an infidelity that led to a sudden restructuring of the family. These uses are not trivial, but ones that shape people's social reality.

Information technologies simultaneously perpetuate and alter family roles. Not too surprisingly some gender stereotypes were invoked as family members adopted "expert roles" within the households we studied. "Techno-experts," often associated with high technology work, were most often 30-49 year old men who could talk about technology with great facility. In contrast, their spouses, who often deemed themselves inexpert, were interested in the using, not discussing, the technology. Note the following exchange:

It's always the same pattern. Colleen would ask me a question, `How do I do something?' . . . Something that is really difficult for someone who really understands computers to talk about without giving some background. . . But she goes into the mode.
`Just tell me what I need to know to get through this in the next ten minutes.' (Colleen responds)`I'll say just tell me what to do.'
Then he says,'(she lowers her voice) `Well, you have to understand blah, blah, blah."' As another woman put it, "It is a man thing.
Women just let men do it." However, in that supposedly "inexpert" role these people, mostly women, do manage to interconnect various telecommunications devices into a network of practical connectivity.

People also use technology to subvert old roles. One septuagenarian viewed her skill with multiple programs and Internet environments as a sign that she was "empowered" and distinct from more
Luddite age-mates. Another aging mother found her role as family center being eroded by her children's constant E-mail contact. She was now superfluous as the siblings talked directly to each other and not through her. With information devices distant kin can interact more often than immediate family. Parental and gender roles can be both controlled and challenged using the devices. Rules are created to control family roles: "You must wear your pager," "You must carry your cell phone,""You must not use the computer during dinner."
These rules are subject to resistance. Exploring the nature of that defiance would reveal much about the workings of family and
technology.…...

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