Editor's note: In 2009, The Open University and BBC Four took a typical family back in time - and then back to the present - to explore how the rapid changes in technology changed the ways we live, and the ways we interact. Elizabeth Silva shares some of the things we learned from the Electric Dreams project.
In everyday life we do not realise that our ways of being in the world and relating to each other have a lot to do with the technologies we live with. Often it is only when disruptions occur because something fails to work properly, that we notice that we cannot do things in the ways we are used to. We so take for granted that our companions of the material world are part of our existence that we cease to see their operations once the novelty of their introduction into our lives wears out.
This is why Electric Dreams is so exciting. Going through three decades of technological innovation, the volunteer family experience, for a whole month, every single day as if it were one different year – starting in 1970 and finishing at the turn of the millennium. Through this fictional time frame social change is created via the introduction of new technologies into the home.
Whether the programmes remind us, if we are old enough, of how things used to be, or teach us about how they used to be, the engagement with the information of contexts of historical change is rich and powerful for a reflection about the connections between ways of living and technological change. A couple of issues appear relevant for our reflection about these connections:
Limits of the power of technology
It is true that machines make us do things. We could say that they have power over the users demanding that they behave in appropriate ways. In the programmes we see some struggles to make equipment operational, particularly in the 1980s when the filmed users appear not to know how to deal with the novelty of electronics. An interesting illustration of machines’ demands is the 1990s scene of the father complaining that newer kitchen equipment, supposedly designed to facilitate work, made him do more washing up because the family used more cooking utensils, and the machines had intricate parts that all had to be kept in good order.
However, if machines place demands on users, we have to remember that it is humans who design the machines and that designers have certain conceptions of users in mind when they create technologies. When we say, as we see often times in the films, that technology makes children, or adults, un-communicative, we have to ask if we are not attributing too great power to technology. Do technologies indeed impose that much on human behaviour? Do individuals need to spend time on their own because technologies exist that are portable and enjoyable to use on an individual basis? How is social life affected by these developments and how are these technological developments affected by social life?
Gender and technology
In a day in the fictional 1992, one of the children of 2009 says, "I’ll kick the bloody phone." In this revisited past, in order to "page", it was necessary, as demanded by the technology, to use a pay phone. The child was too young and well off to know how to use a pay phone, and he was impatient rather than destructive. His sisters, shopping in a different venue, also had to "page". They smoothly and patiently mastered both the pay phone and pager, and here, at least, the evidence of the films suggests boys and girls experience technology differently.
The mother of the family was a reluctant user of technology, concerned that it would negatively impact on the personal relationships between the children and their parents. Her partner, however, was a technophile, embracing novelty eagerly. Of course, this is not how all women and men relate to technologies. But it appears that technological developments for household needs have lagged behind in waves of technological changes. It is important to ask how technologies have responded to the needs of women to run their homes and care for their families. Equally it is important to note how much technological innovation efforts have been directed to, or appropriated for, the leisure and pleasures of men.
The episodes in the programmes present slices of real life, and of real people. This offers only partial knowledge to the audience. Moreover, the films are a media construction and we can only see fragments of what people and relationships are like. How typical are the Electric Dreams family? Certainly not everyone reacts in the same way, nor do all women resist technological innovation. As much as gender appears linked to particular sorts of behaviour in the films, so do class and economic power, and we are reminded that the things the family lives with through the three fictional decades places them at the very avant garde of technological change.
The Electric Dreams experiment led to important reflections and actual changes in the lives of the family. They realised that it was not because they had individualized machines that they were pulled out of being together in their home.