Effects of Technology and Family and Community

The message below was sent by Phil Agre to his mailing list called "red rock
eater".  -- Joseph

Resent-Date: Thu, 9 Jul 1998 15:37:21 -0700 (PDT)
From: Phil Agre (pagre@weber.ucsd.edu)
To: rre@weber.ucsd.edu
Subject: Technology and Social Change: The Effects on Family and Community
Reply-To: rre-maintainers@weber.ucsd.edu

This message was forwarded through the Red Rock Eater News Service (RRE).
Send any replies to the original author, listed in the From: field below.
You are welcome to send the message along to others but please do not use
the "redirect" command.  For information on RRE, including instructions
for (un)subscribing, send an empty message to  rre-help@weber.ucsd.edu

Date: Wed, 08 Jul 1998 15:12:08 -0700
From: Jan English-Lueck (jenglish@email.sjsu.edu)

Technology and Social Change: The Effects on Family and Community

COSSA Congressional Seminar
June 19, 1998
Dr. J.A. English-Lueck
Associate Professor of Anthropology
San Jose State University


        My section of this seminar, the effects of technology on
family and community, can only be understood in the details of daily
life.  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 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

        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 and Community

        The high technology industry has also added a global dimension
to the workings of community. In the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries the Central Californian economy revolved around fruit
orchards, worked by an immigrant population that hailed from Portugal,
Italy, Japan, China and Western Europe.  Contemporary Silicon Valley
high tech employs a culturally diverse work force.  For example at Sun
Microsystems a single thirty-five person work team might be comprised
of engineers from Bangladesh, Canada, China, Ethiopia, India, Iran,
Japan, Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Vietnam and the United States.
This region has a complex pattern of immigration, spanning the last
century, made more intricate by the influx of "new immigrants,"
largely Asian, educated and functionally transnational.  This makes
any discussion of technology and family, or technology and community
more complex.  People from around the world are bringing different
ideas of what constitutes family, work, and community.  Devices do
different things to different types of families.  In our ethnographic
study of Infomated household the same devices might have strikingly
different impacts in different types of families.  Common use of VCRs,
karaoke systems and telecommunications devices pulled together already
close Vietnamese families while allowing other kinds of families
to fly farther and farther apart.  In one Hispanic family each new
information technology was placed in a carefully orchestrated system
of devices that encouraged tightly-knit extended family and community
interactions.  The same devices -- camcorders, computers, home
entertainment systems -- fragmented other families into smaller and
smaller interest groups.  In one Chinese family, an adult son was
brought into parental orbit in order to teach his mother new computer
skills.  In another family, those same computer skills might place the
adult child firmly in a corporate world beyond the reach of family as
his life is consumed by work.  The role of culturally generated family
obligations and expectations on differential device uses begs to be

        Just as technology has changed the way people talk about
family issues, technology saturation has also influenced the way
Silicon Valley folk talk about their community.  Joint Venture
Silicon Valley, a community partnership between government and
business responded to the early nineties' recession by proposing
that the region boldly "reinvent" itself.  Using the language of
engineering, entrepreneurship and design, community issues -- such
as housing, transportation, education and recreation -- are recast
as "value-added" factors to be used to recruit new businesses and
workers.  These instrumental features can be improved, preferably by
adding more technology.

        One of the most striking examples of this perspective came
from the Smart Valley Initiative within Joint Ventures.  Smart
Valley is an organization that began during the economic downturn of
1992, implementing, in the words of a Smart Valley Board member, "a
high-speed, fully capable, broad band infrastructure -- so every home,
every office will have access to high speed communications."  Another
engineer member added "that the industry that was responsible for
creating this technology felt they had a responsibility to get our
local society to use it more effectively."  This group has transformed
marketing into a mission, using the language of a social movement.
Articulating the mission an interviewee said:

        We want to facilitate the construction of a pervasive,
high speed communications system and information services that will
benefit all sectors of the community -- education, health care, local
government, business and the home.  The infrastructure we implement
will help transform the way we work, live and learn.  Smart Valley
formally dissolved this year after having accomplished their major
goals.  These included supporting several initiatives promoting
community use of technology.  For example, the Smart Valley
Telecommuting Project sought to enhance the capacity of companies to
support their employees who work at least partially in their homes.
Their rationale was simple:

        With Silicon Valley businesses seeking innovative ways to
maintain their competitive edge, recruit and retain key individuals
and enhance the quality of life for all their employees, solutions
such as telecommuting takes on a much greater role than that of a
"nice concept." The Smart Valley Telecommuting initiative is moving
telecommuting from this "concept" to a recognized business strategy
that provides benefits to Valley businesses, their employees, [and]
to the region as a whole.

        Another initiative, the Smart Valley Schools Internet project,
created a series of Net Days in which volunteer expertise was coupled
with corporate donations to link K-12 schools to the Internet, thereby
enhancing what was widely considered by interviewees to be a pitiful
state in education.  In their own words, the networking of schools
would "integrate technology as a tool to enhance the learning process
and in the process teach students to live and work productively with
technology.  The efficient utilization of information technology
will help our schools and students achieve world-class education
standards."  These approaches have in common a particular assumption,
that technology will solve problems in such a way that the both
industry and community can benefit.

        Silicon Valley is reviving an old notion, reinventing the
company town.  The classic portraits of a company town describe
a single company, maybe a mining or logging company, often
geographically isolated, that owns the land, housing, service
facilities, and public utilities and dominates the business life of
the community even though other private enterprises may exist. Company
towns are administered communities, not exclusively representative of
the residents' interests, but the company's need to succeed in a given
industry.  Joint Venture Silicon Valley has successfully redefined the
concept of a company town.  Using lobbying, government partnerships
and "innovative initiatives," companies have reached out to redesign
the governance, schools, utilities and even health care facilities of
the community to make it "a better place for business."

Assumptions revisited

        In the process of doing these projects we often stumbled over
assumptions we discovered to be misleading.  These premises often go
unquestioned, because they reflect the everyday way we think about
technology and family, but they keep us from gaining important
insights into the interplay of technology, family and community.

        First, we discovered that people don't just own or use
individual devices, but ecosystems of technologies at home.  Pagers,
faxes, cell phones, telephone answering systems and computers are
used together to serve the goals of individuals and families.  Second,
family use of technology is not trivial, but underpins important
cultural work done by families.  Families frame playing computer games
as gaining "computer literacy" and providing a common activity for
"being a family."  Third, contrary to prevailing mythology, especially
common in Silicon Valley, families and communities are not transformed
into wholly new things by technologies.  Instead the technologies
allow families to put old behaviors and relations into new contexts.
The old family game of control and resistence to control is being
played out on E-mail, but the game remains.  Fourth, technology does
not just play a economic role in defining families and communities,
but also a metaphorical, symbolic one.  As information technology
allows households and communities to become places of production, it
also changes the way such social institutions think of themselves.
Families and communities, like upgraded software can be "refreshed" or
"reinvented."  Families can then become a kind of product.  Finally,
the pivotal assumption that work is done at a workplace and family
life is lived at home is much too simplistic.  Many forces, not
the least of which is the technical ability to work from home, have
blurred the domains. If time at the workplace does not really reflect
the time spent working, how does that effect family leaves or the
length of a work week?

        The forces that shape community and family include many
factors, not just information technologies.  Yet we need to know how
the many devices entering people's lives are actually used by real
people.  They are creating culture as they make decisions about what
constitutes work, family and community.  I am part of the culture,
as you may well be.  You have been given a handout, an inventory of
digital devices that we use when making observations about household
technology.  Feel free to take the inventory home and consider how
you use the technologies.  What roles do these devices play in your
own life?  How do they sustain or change your relationships?  How
will the sum of these small impacts change the way we live?  It is not
homework, you need not return the inventory to me, but use it as our
interviewee do, to reflect on the changes we rarely question.

To CSE 268D homepage
Maintained by Joseph Goguen
Last modified 8 October 1998