Family watching television Copyrighted image Credit: Jupiter Images

Modern technology certainly changes the way families interact, but does it really damage or fragment family life as many people fear?

Not necessarily, says academic consultant Elizabeth Silva, who advised the programme makers on the social aspects of the project. A professor in Sociology at the OU, Dr Silva argues it is wrong to assume technology erodes the quality of family life.

“We can talk about changes in the way people relate to each other,” she says. “But people still ‘do’ family quite intensively. For instance mobile phones have had the potential of increasing connections between individuals which offsets this fragmentation.”

In fact, although new household technologies are often seen as driving families’ lifestyle choices, it can work the opposite way.

“There’s the idea that technology impacts upon the family and the family suffers. My take is quite different,” she explains.

“Technological change happens because people’s lives change. And it is individuals’ choices of how to live that creates processes of innovation as well.

“The family has a role like any other, like the economy or like technology itself in changing the world. The imagination is important in driving the things technologists want to find for our daily lives. People desire to see nature as it is, so colour television comes about.”

In another case, the increase in working mothers resulting from the women’s liberation movement helped create a market for laboursaving kitchen hardware.

“The time that women have to shop every day for food is no longer available so there is a need to have a freezer for food storage,” says Dr Silva. “The need to cook that food more easily and quickly, means you have developments in cooking technology like the microwave oven. The microwave oven already existed because it was developed for the navy during WW2 but it wasn’t launched for domestic use until the early 1980s.

“Technologies for housework were as important as those for work itself,” she says, “So washing machines, freezers and microwaves are terribly important. Electric Dreams is fascinating because it makes us think ‘What would life be like if we didn’t have a freezer or microwave oven?’”

Technological changes in the kitchen have played a vital but perhaps underrated role in the dynamics of family behaviour, creating a new social focus in the home away from the traditional living room.

“The kitchen, which was once a small, secluded space, becomes more integrated into the layout throughout the three decades. Walls are dropped, appliances themselves become disguised. These processes do not just conceal the housework but the housework itself becomes less demanding because you have prepared foods available and the technologies that can deal with them. And you have new agents – men, teenagers and women who don’t know how to cook – able to deal with these processes and cook. So the kitchen itself becomes a place of increased sociability.

“You can feed the family in a more flexible manner. Individuals can do it and expertise is no longer needed. That increases flexibility and the fragmentation of family practices. But that doesn’t mean that family practices are not important – it’s just a different way of doing things.”

About this article

This article first appeared in the Spring 2009 edition of Ozone, under the title of "Switching off".