From the Boidem - 
an occasional column on computers and information technologies in everyday life

October 23, 1997*Part of the Family?

We occasionally visit with a friend and teacher of Tzippi's whose husband, until a few months ago a computer ingenue but swiftly learning to hold his own with talk of RAM, ROM, disk capacity, and things similar, invariably asks me "don't you just love computers?". I work with computers every day and (I have to admit it) more or less every night as well, and I'm also fascinated with, and captivated by, these machines and what they're capable of. But my answer is almost always the same: No, I don't love computers; I use them to accomplish the tasks I need them to accomplish, try not to become emotional over their specs and abilities, and hope that I can maintain a balance between my using them and their taking over my life.

So I guess that I have to admit that although I don't love computers, I'm also not able to live without them. My daily life has become entangled fully with computers in general, and with computer mediated communication in particular, and (how could it not be?) I've become very dependent on them.

That means, of course, that I have numerous phone numbers and addresses on the computer which I can't access any other way, and various documents that are saved on the hard disk (and of course backed-up on floppy) of which I'm in almost constant need. But I'm referring to a different sort of dependance here. Not to the dependence that results from having my documents digital and available only via the computer, but the depedence of how my daily life is conducted. I've grown so accustomed to the computer that it's become part of the family. Thus, when the cartoon below reached me, I thought that it was me talking.

But just what part of the family does the computer play? It's not one of the kids, and it doesn't make demands and then sit and cry until those demands are met. Happily it also doesn't have to be looked after, clothed and fed and tucked into bed at night, though tidying up its various folders and throwing out unneeded documents every so often (Pesach and Rosh HaShannah?) doesn't hurt.

It doesn't join us at the table for meals, though Hila still doesn't do this either. If Hila isn't sleeping during a meal, then she'll either be playing on her blanket or reclining on a baby chair looking at us (usually with a longing look which suggests that she'd like to get her hands on real food). But just as from where she's positioned Hila is a part of every meal (if in no other way than that we try to finish eating before she wakes up), the computer, in its corner, is also a part of those meals. Some families eat with the television on, even though they're not watching it. We tend to leave the computer running. But even when it's off, we're very aware that it's there.

So even though all it really does is sit there, even sitting silently it commands a presence.

More than anything else, it determines the flow of my evenings. After the boys are finally in bed and quiet after their stories (and who knows, maybe even on the way to falling asleep), it's time for Hila to have her bath and bottle, and I turn on the computer and download mail while she's bathing. With the immense amount of mail that arrives almost every day because of the numerous mailing lists I'm subscribed to, the bath and downloading finish at about the same time, and I sit down to check the mail and various other computer related tasks while Tzippi puts Hila to bed.

Over numerous months this became a well defined schedule... until it changed drastically when I closed my home e-mail account (that's a topic unto itself which is related to the demise of an on-line community which should be the topic of a future column). Until this schedule changed drastically, I have to admit that I was hardly aware of how addicted I'd become to it.

First, as noted, I closed my home e-mail account. It was pretty much cold turkey. One day one hundred messages arrive, the next, there's nothing there, or more accurately no access to them, and they simply float off somewhere, lost in cyberspace. I'm not sure what was harder to get used to: not having quantities of mail coming into the house, or suddenly discovering that I had about an hour and a half "free". What do you do in an hour and a half that suddenly presents itself to you? Read a book? Watch television? Go to sleep early? Play computer games? Hey, maybe even devote a bit more time to working on your thesis! The possibilities weren't exactly limitless, but there were a number of them.

And then, a few weeks later, still without an e-mail account at home (and actually starting to get used to it), the screen on the computer died, and even writing a letter with a word processor, or finding files that I'd like to work with someplace else, became impossible, and we essentially became a computerless family. And in the words of Joni Mitchell (though of course in an entirely different context) "don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone". But this time the tables were turned. It seemed more like "take a parking lot and put up paradise". Certainly there were numerous tasks to be accomplished that didn't get attended to properly because I didn't have a computer at home, and this generated more than a bit of tension related to school and work, but on the whole much more tension was released than generated. So although "paradise" is an exaggeration, not being able to perform certain tasks very significantly changed the way our household operates, and on the whole it was for the better.

Our computer is essentially the tool of my profession, as Tzippi's horns are of hers. She occasionally lets the boys blow into the horn, but certainly doesn't let them hold it themselves. But the comparison stops there, basically as a result of that favorite theory of computers in education people, the theory of open tools. The horn can play any sort of music, but ultimately it's all only music. The computer, on the other hand, can fulfill a myriad of functions. So while I may want to finish writing a paper, Tzippi may want to prepare a score, and the boys certainly would like to play a game, and though the computer is good at multitasking, it doesn't let all of these be done by all of us at the same time. Though it may not be exactly the "center of conflict" like in the comic below, if the computer is on when everyone else is awake, I'm rarely the person sitting in front of it.

So much in the same way that Eitan will play with Hila, he and Nadav will play with the computer - sometimes a bit too roughly, often arguing over whose turn it is, but almost always with real concern and affection. And almost in the same way that I have to constantly remind them to be gentle with their sister, I have to tell Nadav not to click on every icon in sight, moving my files in unpredictable directions which ultimately puts me in need of a good deal of time to search for them.

As a parent I've become attuned to the signs that my kids make in order to let me know that something is amiss. I read the changes in their behavior that tell me they need something. The computer is much more a silent partner in our family. At present it still hasn't learned to make signs that make me aware of its needs (if it has them). But even though it's silent, it holds its own. It let's us know that it's there.

That's it for this edition. Reactions and suggestions can be sent to:

Jay Hurvitz

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