|Family Crisis - Technology and Family Crises
Let's begin our discussion on Technology with a couple of quotes from George Orwell's prescient novel 1984, written in 1948, published a year later.
Even the Catholic Church of the Middle Ages was tolerant by modern standards. Part of the reason for this was that in the past no government had the power to keep its citizens under constant surveillance. The invention of print, however, made it easier to manipulate public opinion, and the film and the radio carried the process further. With the development of television, and the technical advance which made it possible to receive and transmit simultaneously on the same instrument (Telescreens), private life came to an end. pg. 206.
The proles (working class people) live much less complicated, less observed lives. The train Winston takes is full of proles; they are cheerful because of the sunny weather, something unimaginable among Party members. They are more family-oriented, often traveling in a group with everyone from the great-grandmother to the month-old baby. They are also less guarded. The family traveling in Winston's carriage openly admits to him that they are going to the country to see in-laws and to buy butter on the black market. Another example of the concessions made to proles is "Pornosec," the sub-section of the Fiction Department in which Julia once worked. Its nickname is "Muck House." The department produces pornographic booklets in sealed packets with suggestive titles, "to be bought furtively by proletarian youths who were under the impression that they were buying something illegal". pg. 132.
Without putting too fine a
point on the idea here, Orwell was speaking about a
decline, even in his pre-1950 England homeland, of
personal privacy, self-determination, and personal
efficacy. As young people, you make not realize how
powerful Orwell's words - an indictment of what would
become the status quo of modern life - were back then.
In a few paragraphs, he
predicts that modern society would be more cruel and less
interested in the greater social good than the Spanish
Inquisition with its use of incredible torture to weed out
In modern terms, "proles"
would be not just the poor, but the 99% of our society who
remain generally uninterested in fundamentally changing
the course of their lives. Central to the novel is Big
Brother, a general term for total governmental intrusion
into a citizen's daily life, and the main governmental
tool for detecting dissidents was the Telescreen.
Today we have smart phones
that literally keep track of our physical movements,
cookies on our internet workstations, and we have to
purchase anti-virus software to try to protect us from
"Identity Theft". Every email we've ever sent remains on
one computer node server or another. Our movements on the
internet are literally tracked by the electronic
footprints we leave behind. Our physical movements
are surveilled by countless video cameras, hidden
microphones, or computer chips embedded in our cell phones
and cars. We like to think we are private person, but
essentially we have no secrets left to hide, because we
happily gave all of them away.
Then there is the sheer lack
of attention we pay to each other. Susan and I took
one of our adorable grandchildren on a trip to Washington
D.C. and we gave her a digital camera so she could take
all the pictures she wanted. When we got home I downloaded
all of her snapshots, and over half of them were selfies.
On another occasion, we took one of our sons, his wife and
their two children to dinner because we had not seen them
in a while. After taking our seats at the restaurant, I
noticed that all four of them were browsing through their
phones the whole meal. One more: We recently bought a car
that has a nice video/display console smack in the middle
of the dashboard. When you start the car, the whole
digital display lights up with a message NOT to pay any
attention to the digital display while driving, and it has
warning technology that will not allow the car to rear-end
another driver or wander off the road or into the left
hand lane. It also has a GPS function which tracks our
movements and will locate the car if it is stolen.
However, if we want to anonymously skip down, for any
reason, we'll need to take cash and the '55 Chevy.
Perhaps, Orwell missed the
real point of the rapid advances in technology as it
relates to those personal privacy issues. The reason for
the loss of privacy has more to do with marketing and
financial profits of commerce than it does with potential
culpability on our part. Internet search engines
gather information about our web surfing because they want
to know what we're likely to want to buy. And those
little plastic courtesy cards we all carry for the grocery
store. Sure they now know what we buy, just so they'll
have it on the shelf when we visit our local food market,
even though it is a short step from here to having our
grocery list transmitted to our healthcare insurance
company so they can make a case that our diabetes is our
own fault, and not something the HMO needs to help us pay
To be certain, the
world is at once, safer and more dangerous, as a result of
So, do we think about the
pros and cons of new technology? Are we able to
resist its lure?
Now, like many others, I
think technology is good. I find my new MacBook Pro
and the extended reach it has given me advantages in the
way I can do my job, communicate with my friends and
family, and look up neat stuff I always wondered about. In
some ways, I am immediately smarter than I was before I
got it working properly. I use it to write love letters to
my one true love. I use it to email my colleagues, my
friends, and my children, one of whom moved far away. I
like cable television too. There's two public t.v.
stations, the History Channel, Discovery, three 24 hour
news broadcasts. I can keep an eye on popular culture by
channel surfing to MTV and VH1 and even find some programs
"On Demand" so I don't have to wait but a few seconds to
get my Catfish
Vibe on. In our car, I can call someone on my
cell just by touching the steering wheel in the right
place, and my little droid phone has access to to the
global positioning satellites that tells me exactly where
I am in the world and provides me with directions to go
any place I have the means to go (and if I can't actually,
physically go there, I can virtually fly there using Google
However, like any good thing
- technology has to be taken in moderation, something we,
as Americans have a little trouble with. If we aren't
careful, technology will take us over and we'll become
even more dependent on it. And we'd be missing something
important if we forgot that not everyone has access to
technology since it comes with a steep price tag, and the
gap between those who have and use technology and those
who do not is widening with every passing day.
That said, it is incredibly
interesting to realize that the internet holds such
enormous promise to level the power differential between
those who formerly held most of it and those who held the
least. Take an industry as an example - the music
business. Commercial music of the 1940s, when I was born,
was tightly controlled by corporate executives. That is to
say, the type, style, rhythms, available were of
specifically known genres. And it was pretty boring. When
I got my first real record player (the equivalent of your
pod, pad, or player) in 1962, things were still tightly
controlled but with a new musical style emerging - blues
based rock and roll - and all the boring, uninspired
popular music ended as if it all fell into a deep abyss.
Music was more free form, fluid and exciting from 1962
right on up to Disco. This is all from my perspective, you
understand - there still are people who stubbornly refuse
to give up boring music, of course.
up a way for me to move our discussion about how the
American Family came to be the way it is - the way we all
are and now we are likely to change in the future. I
want to do this by way of a discourse on images of the
family from popular culture.
There is a reading entitled "Images
of the Family in the Mass Media: An American
Iconography." (Walstrom, 1979) in Arlene Skolnick's,
The American Family in Popular Culture and Social
Science (as an alternative, see http://teachers.yale.edu/curriculum/search/viewer.php?id=new_haven_90.04.01_u).
In it, the author asserts that images in popular culture reinforce stereotypes and often the manifestation of them. He maintains that this occurs due to a Freudian concept called optical memory-residues--that is, we see things as contrivances and later we internalize them as real. In other words, we use the steady diet of media stereotypes to feed our expectations, in the process creating a shorthand for categorizing events, situations, and types of characters.
In the early days of
television, the classic family show was a 30 minute
broadcast with a typical family that included a
stay-at-home mom, an understanding dad, a teenaged girl
and a bratty know-it-all boy, like the Donna
Reed Show. There were hundreds of t.v. shows like
this over the years. Sometimes the bratty brother would be
replaced by a tomboy sister, the beautiful teen sister
would become an older brother, but the mom and dad were
almost always happy, concerned parents, always
understanding, never a hint of sexuality, mom always busy
making a happy home for her family. These kinds of images
stick with the generation they have in their sites.
As conditions change, the divorce
rate goes up, or society becomes more aware of cultural
diversity, the family changes to fit the times. As
media, the movies are much the same way.
For example, last year I saw this movie. You know the one. A young women finishes college and moves to the big city where she knows a very view people. She is confident and will surely be successful, but something is missing in her life. Then she meets this perfect guy, who seems to really like her, but in the course of their first few meetings he lies about something before he knows she might be "the one". What was the name of that movie?
they continue to fall in love, then one day, she finds out
about the lie and is heart-broken, and cuts the guy off,
refusing to even tell him why. The two of them
continue to try to be happy on their own, but we all know
they have to make up - we want them to make up. She
decides to move away and start over, and just as she's
about to leave, he shows up and does this incredibly
romantic thing - confesses that he'll forever be miserable
if she won't forgive him. Then
they kiss and we all know they'll live
happily ever after.
You get it, right? Movie
makers recreate that story many times a year, using
different settings, different times and places. It's a
formula that always makes money because this story is what
we want to happen
in real life. It comforts us. One of the very first
movies ever made after the invention of motion pictures
The Kiss! Right after The
Great Train Robbery. Hollywood has been making
romantic comedies and Western movies ever since, as part
of the highly successful marketability of the use of stereotypes.
Stereotypes are widely held but oversimplified expectations about a person of a specific type - the grumpy old man, the hypochondriac elderly woman, the renegade police officer who has to break the rules to get the bad guy, and the bad guy!, the inscrutable Asian computer guy, or the ignorant toothless hillbilly. Social scientists generally agree that in order for a stereotype to be kept salient and useful, two conditions must be met:
So how about this. If what we
are given by society is the input, and we want to fix the
problems we see in our culture, all we have to do is change
the input. If we want girls to grow up into
independent, reflective citizens, we have to develop
models to repeatedly show them. If we want boys to grow up
to be thoughtful, courageous, ethical men, ditto. We
have to be careful, and remember what the first computer
programmers used to say, "Garbage in, garbage out!."
Alternatively, given our short time on earth to make a mark, to enjoy what life has to offer, we have to emulate Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof. We have to dance and sing as though life was not as tenuous and unstable as we know it really is.
In some ways, the ideals that
we are given to process as reality are images from the
media which are equivalently as powerful as the sacred
images of other cultures. Despite the actual fact that the
vast majority of Americans are hard working, honest, and
decent, it is no wonder highly successful movies, such as
the Godfather have popularized the inaccurate notion that
Italian American families are tinged with gangster-like
qualities (even though there were probably as many, if not
more, Jewish, or Irish gangsters in the early days of
organized crime). These stories become part of our
culture, and in turn, influence our thinking, and possibly
our behavior. These things together sort of conspire
to influence our future choices.
As the media takes on increasingly more religious and familial functions, the images by which we define reality and live our lives become increasingly controlled by persons other than those in our primary group. While the real heroic people in our lives are probably people we personally know, such as our parents, aunts and uncles, friends, and maybe even a few teachers, big media provides mythical heroes complete with beatific visions of their heroism, replacing those we know. In so doing, the media parodies several aspects of all institutions - imparting basic American values on us all.
are clean and neatly packaged. For example, the Rugged
Individualism of the cowboy, the justice seeking
superhero, the self-reliant underdog fighter are
understood by Americans so as not to
with the cooperative elements of real social life for the
rest of us. Only rarely are males presented as Family Men
in the media unless they are simply functionaries.
while females are, by and large, primarily presented as
most attractive as young, relatively helpless, sexually
desirable adults, and as they age, they become
increasingly domestic, a little more powerful, but less
Such stereotypes stray very far from reality. For example, marriage and family life has consistently been shown to actually increase the social power of the male, to be a more healthy state of being for men than women, and to actually curtail the freedom of women to a much greater extent than it does for men. But we don't get to see those messages so much on television, in the movies, or in the lyrics of popular music. In fact, the messages of media often send exactly the opposite of realityl.
Women are fun loving, "frisky" (a la puppies), demure, innocent, hopeful, and dreamy. They are gullible, and single-minded in their quest for a husband. Or they are Bad Girls, and we all know what happens to bad girls!
Women are is the "real bosses" of the household, long suffering, worried, intellectually superior to the husband.
Sex Role Stereotypes of
Children in Media:
They are angels. Teenaged boys and girls are headed for trouble because of the puberty blues. There are options in media presentation of the genders and family life, as social conditions give rise to social change. Art is supposed to imitate life.
The Impact of Television
in the 1950s:
Dramas were the "highest" form of television story, in which the show tried to imitate some slice of life. Productions of Steinbeck ("Grapes of Wrath") showed the family being torn apart by the depression and the injustice of daily social life. True also for Miller's "Death of a Salesman" (alienation), Williams' "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (sexually perverse), Ibsen's "A Doll's House" (oppressive for women). Only on special occasions, such as around the holidays, do we see a positive view of family life where family life is all that stands between a man's total defeat and a success - such as It's a Wonderful Life. Lesser art forms, such as t.v. Westerns like "Gunsmoke" were devoid of fully developed families, with the exception of the occasional "settler" family caught between frontier lawlessness and justice. Matt, Doc, Festus, Miss Kitty, everyone west of the Appalachians were single and childless.
Second is the Situation Comedy - For adults there was The Honey Mooners, where Ralph and Alice (childless for the sake of lower production costs) constantly fight over money, prestige, and the conjugal upper hand. But they really love each other. Family shows (Make Room for Daddy, Father Knows Best, Dennis The Menace, Bachelor Father (what the author refers to as "abridged families" including "My Mother the Car, Mr. Ed, and My Favorite Martian"). All attempted to show the "lighter side" of family relationships. In all the years of I Love Lucy neither Lucy nor Desi had extramarital affairs. They also slept in twin beds and wore pajamas, which makes one wonder how THEY ever made Babaloo so that Little Ricky could have been conceived in the first place. Lucille Ball's pregnancy was the first to be nationally televised however, credit where credit is due.
Third--The Soaps - found their plot lines in the things that can go wrong in the "relationship" between men and women. Filing for divorce, marriage in name only, unwanted pregnancies, propositions for sex, auto accidents in which one half of the affair is rushing home to his or her lover to say how sorry he/she is for behaving like such a rascal but is knocked into a coma and never says "I love you". Lots of hospital scenes, combining the drama of the operating theater and the smooth operator. Loads of adultery, attempted murder of adulterous would-be and actual spouses, and mental illness.
The 1960s, 1970s and
In the seventies and eighties, we began to see the single parent change gender with One Day at a Time (with a recently divorced mother of two teenaged daughters), The Facts of Life (where the coquettishly pubescent characters were essentially orphaned by their parents to live in a girl's academy), Alice (divorced mother of a teenaged boy which was a comedy scripted from a very serious dramatic screenplay, which was taken from a novel Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.), and most recently Kate and Allie (two divorced women pool their resources and problems to "blend" a family. One is a career woman, the other is domestic. Some critics maintain that such programs are answers to feminist pleas. Certainly all women facing divorce are opting to become the wife and mother of another woman and her children.
It was during the seventies and eighties that the roommate genre was concocted as homosexuality entered the comedy bin. Laverne and Shirley, Three's Company, The Odd Couple, Bosom Buddies, and Perfect Strangers. The idea was to show how much fun it would be for a man to have two or more wiggly female roommates and be wrongly accused of homosexuality, or to observe healthy American males cross dress in the transvestite tradition.
Poverty and Race.
Movies of the 1970s and 80s
effectively dealt with family pathology like Ordinary
People, baby boomers growing up in The
Big Chill, yuppie life in Baby Boom and custody
vs. Kramer, working mothers & house hubbies in Mr.
My list of Great Recent
Movies About Families would have to include:
So What Does All This Mean,
People in our culture are
often short sighted and tend to forget that mass media is
always pushing them to buy products and to have certain
points of view. They (we) forget that mass media is
a science first, and an art second, or alternatively a
business first, and a form of social commentary second.
If we take the benign approach, we tend to view the media as relatively harmless entertainment. It's only a movie or a t.v. show, or a song, after all. If we take the cynical approach, we tend to view all messages sent as clever, almost subliminal, strategies to form our opinions for us.
Obviously the truth lies
somewhere between these absolutes.