Has Technology Been Good For Family Life ?

THE OBSERVER DEBATE: Jim Shelley vs. Peter Stanford

Jim Shelley:

Hello Peter,
Personally I love this kind of (ostensibly illogical if not downright nonsensical) supposition. They make all our lives richer – literally so in our case.
Usually some ‘ground-breaking’ research from the University of Wyoming (or East Sussex) maintaining something like eating bananas increases your chances of getting veruccas.
Two years later, another university (or the same one) announces that actually bananas REDUCE veruccas. Who knew ?! Years on, no one really know if tea or red wine is bad for us or not.
In this case, it’s a survey from the Ofcom which has “revealed” that – contrary to all empirical and in fact factual evidence – families across the land are gathering in the living room again, united by their love of watching television while occupying themselves with their smart phones/tablets/laptops.
Obviously, it sounds ridiculous. Two years ago i-pads and i-phones were the ruination of family life and causing of mass juvenile alienation.
Such claims always need some (surprise) foundation though.
The new technology means fewer and fewer children want (or receive) a TV in their bedroom. SkyPlus and i-player are all very well but some things have to be experienced live.
Come Saturday night, everyone really does gravitate into the living room to watch “Event television”, if only to tweet or text their friends about it. Like it or not, the X Factor really is the superglue holding family life together.

Peter Stanford:
Hello Jim,

There is something deeply cynical about the way this research tries to dress up the fragmentation of family life by technology as the opposite.

All it tells us is that families are sitting in the same room, doing all sorts of different things on their i-phones and i-pads while the TV is on. This may be marginally better than each member sitting in their bedroom glued to their technological devices, but it hardly constitutes a great coming-together of the family unit.

Indeed, the picture the report paints, of dad doing online shopping on his phone, mum listening to a podcast, the kids on social media, or with music piped into their head via an earphone, and all the time the pernicious, manipulative nonsense that is The Voice or The X-Factor blaring out on a 40-inch screen over the fireplace, seems to me a snap-shot of the slow death of the family.

Technology is getting in the way of a shared experience, not facilitating it. How about all doing the same thing at the same time – embracing the collective ? That’s what family life is about for me. And sorry to be sound as old as the hills, but how about muting that cacophony of imported sounds and everyone just talking to each other?

There is – obviously – an argument to say it would be better if the nation’s families sat around discussing Jane Austen.

But sadly, like every generation before us, we’re better off embracing what is already here, if only to avoid a cantankerous Modern Life is Rubbish stance.

The same complaints about the demise of civilisation were voiced about the arrival of the steam train, the mini skirt, and email. OK forget email. Bring back letter writing.

Often these protests prove premature, as the current revivals of vinyl over MP3s and printed books over e-books indicate.

I’m an advocate of benevolent dictatorships (in my own house), but your view doesn’t allow much consideration that people want to live this way. Why should we sit experiencing mediocre/awful television, obediently watching the adverts, without doing something else at the same time ?

Doesn’t “all doing the same thing at the same time, embracing the collective” encompass tweeting about The Voice en famille ?

I’d negotiate a no-tweet policy during David Attenborough in return.

At least, if you watch The X-Factor with your kids you CAN talk about it with them. Then you can tell them they wouldn’t know decent music if they heard it afterwards.

I’m with you on familial negotiation, but technology makes that tougher, especially when my kids’ generation is so much more adept at it than mine.
We negotiate a compromise and then I struggle to monitor it because they know my skills don’t match theirs. When I was a teenager, there was one phone in the draughty hall of the family home, so my parents could eavesdrop on my plans and conversations.
Now with smart phones, mine could be planning a rave in the back garden while I was out on my allotment, and I’d be none the wiser.
And you are making my point for me with your reference to Jane Austen. What the ready availability of technology in the hands of every member of the family means is that the age-old clash of cultures between parents and offspring is now being played out in ever more extreme ways – it’s Jane Austen or The Voice, no need to compromise and find a middle-ground with a shared dose of The White Queen.

Let’s try to leave Jane Austen out of this. She was crap on The X-Factor anyway.
It’s surely the worst kind of snobbery to assume that, just because teenagers enjoy terrible television like The X-Factor, they are incapable of reading a book. Even if it’s true.
The only way forward is to embrace the technology/ accept defeat. Otherwise, such a polarized view of parents vs. kids means paranoia will set in.
Teenagers have always operated covertly and gone to parties behind their parents’ backs. You could just as easily argue that Skype or Face Time INCREASE your ability to communicate/check up on them.
Teenagers have always hated talking to/phoning their parents, regardless of whether it was via an i-phone or a telephone in the hall.
If you see them and today’s technology as a lost cause, you are surely more likely to lose them to the modern world and a life wearing headphones.
If I were you, I’d get your kids to show you what they’re into and why, and then have a go at it. Before you know it you’ll be watching The Voice and tweeting like the best of us. Maybe that’s what you’re afraid of.
(Happy face.)

I’ve two series of The Voice under my belt, and am all for a mixed bag of culture, but the mixing doesn’t have to be everything simultaneously. That’s a race to the bottom.
What family life seems to me to be about – in the midst of all the things that we do separately – is finding times, places and ways in which we can share doing something together, and being together.
I’m just not convinced that the various impacts of technology on this constant and age-old search are, on balance, beneficial. So big yes to Skype – I do embrace the new, but accept that I’ll always be playing catch-up in comparison to my kids – but I just don’t buy this idealised picture Ofcom presents of a “happy” family, all in one room, in the shadow of a giant TV, but busy into their own worlds, with their own gadgets, supposedly interacting with each other when in fact they have a foot (or ear/eye) somewhere else. It feels like a commercial for Apple.