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 independent thought.

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 for.

To  be certain, the world is at once, safer and more dangerous, as a result of technological advances.

So, do we think about the pros and cons of new technology?  Are we able to resist its lure?
Do you like to watch television, keep up with your friends on Facebook or Twitter? Do you eat food, drive a car, or use a credit card? Getting off the grid and hiding our behavior is probably going to be impossible.

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 Earth.

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.

This brings 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 

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?

Anyway, 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 was Edison's 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:

  1. The Stereotype must be useful to the Economy. The image has to be useful in selling products. Advertisers use pretty girls to sell impractical cars because it works. The idea is "if you have this car, eventually it will come with its own girl".  Now their are some girls who will hop in a cool car regardless of the driver, but most girls probably would not, and most assuredly, most girls would not sprawl themselves suggestively over the hood of some guys car.

  2. It must contain just the smallest bit of truth, however slight. The images often border on, if not represent, racism (that of the Italian mafia family or the Middle Eastern terrorist cell).  It is a common device in advertising to misrepresent the importance of a fact that is really not that important, like this: There is absolutely no chemical difference between regular store brand aspirin and brand name aspirin based pain relievers (Anacin, Bayer). This does not stop advertisers from loudly proclaiming that "laboratory tests prove no product, available without a prescription, works faster" than theirs does. That's because all the products are exactly the same. If they can have a pretty girl holding the container of pain reliever, so much the better.
In other words, we take what we are given by a socialization agents, and we, ourselves, make something out of it, much the way you have done with your essay questions so far! In the case of advertising, the intent is to get us to be unhappy without possessing the product advertised.

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.

More than one cultural analyst has referred to television as American Culture.

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.

The images 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

conflict 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 sexy.

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.

Before Marriage:
Men are physically strong, serious and have a "big picture" world view. They are illusive, brave, and heroic. Lois Lane is always attempting to maneuver Superman into romantic situations only to have to rely on his superior mental and physical powers to rescue her from the jaws of certain demise. The furthest thing from his mind is settling down with one of his sweeties.

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!

After Marriage:
Men are balding, fat, befuddled, and prone to falling asleep if not constantly stimulated with the puzzling antics of wife and children. They are emasculated, a little stupid, and selfishly panicked about the loss of their youth.   

Women are is the "real bosses" of the household, long suffering, worried, intellectually superior to the husband.

Sex Role Stereotypes of Children in Media:
Boys are tough, mean, inquisitive, always getting into trouble (or embarrassing parents) - dirt is magnetically attracted to them. They are loud and self-absorbed demons. 

Girls are sugar and spice, spunky, have feelings that are easily hurt, always clean (and irritated when smudged by boys).

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:
The fifties marked the first decade of electronically portrayed families in which family life was either pathological, comedic, or socially perverse. In the beginning of television, there are three modes of story production in television.

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 beyond.
The Abridged Family Form (missing a member) was a little ahead of its time, since single parent families were still in a minority. The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Nanny and the Professor, My Three Sons, Bonanza, and A Family Affair were a form of programming that continued through the seventies and eighties. Interestingly - in virtually all of these 1960s t.v. shows, it was the mother that was always "abridged", leaving the Hapless, though wise, father to raise his children either single handedly or with the help of a hired mother figure. In every case, the mother had died mysteriously (leaving several episodes devoted to heart to heart father-child conversations). This is a particularly touching strategy, given the cultural view on maternal deprivation. I always thought it was amazing that Ben Cartwright had such rotten luck in choosing these unhealthy accident prone women.

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.
The 1960s also brought social issues to television light, partly because of the upheaval of the times. All in the Family dealt comedically with issues such as racism, sexism, sex itself, bigotry and prejudice, and life in a working class, two generation family. Spinning off from this was The Jeffersons, which was a depiction of black family life among the nouveau riche noir. George Jefferson was touchy about getting the respect a man of his means deserved, their friends (the high rise universe) were an interracial couple, and a homosexual bachelor ambassador to the U.N. Good Times placed the black family back in poverty - showing strong family values in a drug free environment. Later, The Cosby Show and Family Ties offer the same middle class family values as the earlier productions of the 1950s with contemporary themes. And there are others. The point is that the media presents us with false pictures of life, no matter how silly or funny they appear, that let us get our hopes up. At the very least, these television productions do not enlighten, nor do they provide us with truths.

It may just be my imagination, but movies are getting dumber. In the 1940s , family life was always portrayed as a serious, important factor in life -- It's a Wonderful Life and Father of the Bride. In the 1950s, The Defiant Ones and To Kill a Mockingbird brilliantly took on the issues of racism, with the subject tangentially treated in the 1940s in such movies as Inherit the Wind. These were exceptional movies that made a point and made me feel good. They told me something can be done about the sorry state of affairs in which we live.

Of course, there were also the silly ones like, Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman, The Creature from the Black Lagoon, and The Blob

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 suits Kramer vs. Kramer, working mothers & house hubbies in Mr. Mom.

Perhaps the best story-put-to-film about (my opinion) the institution of the black family was Sounder (with a bow to the television drama The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman).

My list of Great Recent Movies About Families would have to include:

So What Does All This Mean, if anything?

One thing that our theories may agree upon is that media presentation of the family, gender roles, levels of violence in our society, and the cultural view of sexuality, impacts on the health and welfare of developing children, as well as whole families.

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.