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Community and family life in the digital age
In the developing world, ICT has begun to move into community life. In Pakistan the Virtual University’s first degree offering was a computer science course, in Vietnam over 70 percent of the universities are connected to the Internet, and in Macau almost all educational institutions enjoy subsidised Internet access. Telehealth is an area of emerging importance, and Fiji’s School of Medicine is coordinating a pilot project offering remote medical specialist support to medical facilities on other Pacific islands. In Pondicherry, south India, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation uses information from a US Navy website to produce loudspeaker broadcasts for local fishing communities advising them of weather conditions. We can only imagine the lives that could have been saved if similar information from earthquake-monitoring agencies had formed part of an early warning system around the Indian Ocean.
Turning from the national and regional to the local, and to the home, there are few families and communities that take lightly the decision to invest in digital equipment. Computers are expensive items, and they require skills to operate them. ICT constitutes a social statement about a family’s or a community’s priorities.
In communities with generally limited access, the computer has shown the potential to act as a magnet for people outside the immediate family. A household that has a functioning computer becomes an information node for a wide circle of family, friends and neighbours. To some extent, this may be one of the motivations for investing in a computer: it can build the status of the owners besides benefiting their entire social network.
In communities that are new to ICT, every computer that functions in the way people expect it to becomes an advertisement for ICT and IT skills. As people approach friends who have access to the computer to help type a letter or a job application, they see the advantages of computer ownership. As children come home with tales of the benefits enjoyed by classmates who have a computer at home, parents become concerned that a lack of computer access may translate into a comparative disadvantage. Further, people become more confident about using a computer when they see their neighbours using it.
The domestication of ICT
When we talk about the domestication of a technology, we consider the ways in which families and households take a technology into the home. Domestication assumes that there is an environment that supports the technology’s use: an adequate power supply, a reasonably dust-free atmosphere, dry conditions and so on. It also recognises that a family who adopts a technology such as the Internet has to make space for the technology both in their physical environment and in their social and emotional environments.
The incorporation of the technology occurs when the family integrates the use of that technology into their rhythms of daily life. A habit of morning or afternoon technology use would indicate incorporation. Finally, the family converts the technology into a social currency when they talk about it with people outside the household or offer outsiders a chance to use the technology (Silverstone et al., 1992).
The computer as a doorway to the information economy – and a source of family tension
For some families, the computer is a doorway to the information economy, and an opportunity to future-proof their children through preparing them for the modern work life. However, while the parents invest in a computer to help their children in their education and their future employment prospects, children may distress their parents by choosing to use the computer for other purposes as well as (or instead of) the intended activities. The computer can become an object of contest between the parents, whose resources may have funded the purchase for educational purposes, and the child/adolescent, who sees it as a games machine (Marshall, 1997).
Whereas families are often gathered together around a television set in shared family space, introducing a computer to the household may mean finding a space separate from the domestic buzz where the computer can be used for education and work. This can introduce tension since the computer user is temporarily removed from the hub of the family circle and because a number of family members might wish to use the computer: for work, schoolwork, entertainment and other purposes. Thus, the benefits of computers may be compromised by the potential of introducing conflict into family life and also interrupting the pattern of the family getting together at certain times in the day.
All these different tensions are intensified when a computer is connected to the Internet. For a start, cost rises. Whereas a computer is a capital expense, requiring only periodic expense thereafter (on software, electricity, technical support, etc.), an Internet service involves a recurring expense. Along with the concerns about what adolescents might be doing when they should be doing their schoolwork come concerns about the cost of music downloads, videos and other items. This usage can also exceed the contracted download capacity, with cost implications (or with the result that it prevents or slows down Internet use by other members of the family).
Dial-up Internet connections frequently mean that the family telephone cannot be used. In countries where there is widespread use of mobile phones, this may not be a big problem. However, land-line telephones tend to be the only numbers available to strangers, because they are listed in telephone directories, and they tend to be cheaper than mobile phones. Thus, the introduction of the Internet can have the paradoxical effect of making the household as a whole less accessible while making the person online better connected. In comparing and contrasting the television in family life with the online computer, David Holmes (1997) sees broadcasting as representing a community of consumption and the Internet as representing a community of interactivity
Interactivity means that ever more important jobs can be carried out at home on the computer. Parents can use the computer for teleworking, accessing government services, carrying out banking, and other purposes, while children can research their assignments online and all family members can use email. The result is increased demand and also increased tension. When equally important jobs to be done on the computer are prioritised – paid work over a study assignment, for example – tempers can fray and family members begin staying up late at night, or waking much earlier in the morning, to gain access to the Internet. In these circumstances, the family privilege given to, say, male work over female work, or adult priorities over children’s priorities, may become more visible and can lead to conflict.
Illegitimate uses of the computer may cause even greater worry when online access is added to the equation. Of great concern is the possibility that family members are hacking into networks, accessing pornography and cybersex, gambling online, engaging in day trading of shares or home equity, revealing personal information to child predators, breaking laws, or visiting hate sites that expose them to extreme political or revolutionary views. Further, a small number of people can find the Internet addictive. They can become compulsive about playing web-based chess, for example. Online multi-player games, chatrooms, fanfiction and weblogging can all exercise an addictive pull on some people at some times, causing stress for them and their families. Kimberley Young (1998) approached Internet addiction as if it shared addictive characteristics with gambling, studying users who felt in control of their Internet habits and those who did not. This kind of research has spurred the development of a number of online self-help and other-help resources such as the Center for Online Addiction (http://www.netaddiction.com).
For wealthy families in countries where there is ready and affordable broadband access, one solution to the problem of competition within the family for Internet connectivity is to install a wireless broadband system.16 Assuming that all family members have the use of their own computers, this means that the entire family can be online at the same time. While the supervision problem is more difficult to resolve in this scenario, the stress of establishing which user has priority is removed. At the same time, (typically) the household land-line telephone is freed up once more and the potential exists for the family to gather again around the kitchen table or in the family room (even if they are all glued to their computer screens). Some countries, such as Bangladesh, are experimenting with community-level wireless points, which would allow families within range of those nodes to experiment with interactive, but untethered, Internet services. This strategy has obvious advantages for communities that have not yet been cabled.
Perceptions of the household’s private sphere
The distinction between “approved” and “subversive” uses of the Internet plays out in different ways in different communities. In Singapore, for example, there is an acknowledged hierarchy of heavier versus weaker regulation in different social spheres. According to Ang and Yeo (1998), these heavier/weaker dyads operate in home/business, children/adults and public/private. Heavier regulation in the home, rather than in business, differs from the expected priority of many Western countries. This ordering of heavier/ weaker regulation for home/business takes into account Singapore’s emphasis upon its export economy and recognises that a competitive business strategy might involve businesses operating under a more lenient regulatory regime (for the export market) than is applied to domestic consumption. “Information for the home is considered less critical so censorship of such information is deemed to have less deleterious effect,” Ang and Yeo explain.
This contrasts with the situation in many states in Australia, for example, where it may be legal to watch some classes of pornography in the home, even though it would be illegal to have the same movies for hire or sale in shops. The view is that it is inappropriate to have such material on display or available in public places (shops, video libraries, etc.) where teenagers could access it, but that adults are able to make their own decisions about what to watch in their own homes. The effect of this approach is to create a demand for mail-order X-rated pornographic videos.
Online material deemed inappropriate or offensive that is held on Australian servers can be reported to the Australian Broadcasting Authority (ABA),17 which may require the material to be removed. Reports on the ABA website (http:// www.aba.gov.au), however, make it clear that the problem material that it has investigated is only occasionally located on servers in Australia. No country has jurisdiction over the Internet servers operating in another country’s territory. In some ways, each country operates in the global environment a little like the household does in the social environment. While it is possible to have some say over what the Internet is used for within their own borders, in each case the issue of appropriate/inappropriate content moves beyond the control of the household/country once the boundary is crossed.
The digital divide
Lack of access to the online digital world is not just about the unavailability of the right technology. Fear of the computer crashing, of viruses, of drafts being sent as finished copy, of privacy violation, of undemocratic law enforcement, of unwanted downloads and of unexpected expenses – all these elements have an impact on whether the user feels “at home” online. Confidence, competence and strong motivation are often required to overcome barriers to Internet usage. These traits are usually linked to the educational level, occupation, socioeconomic status, main language spoken at home and other factors. The effect of differential access therefore makes worse the circumstances of people who may already be disadvantaged.
The telecentre, cyber café, online library and other public access facilities set out to offer ways to bridge this divide between the computer haves and have-nots. In addition to the technology, such facilities may also provide education and support for Internet newcomers. Sometimes new users can gain digital confidence through friends and family, and this is an important role played by people who are “early adopters” of computers in social groups where there is little access or exposure to ICT. Trevor Barr (2000, p. 233) links the future success of new ICT to “how the organisations that offer those services understand the behavioural practices and needs of consumers and citizens. The real question for our communication future is not what the technologies are going to be like, but what we are going to be like” (italics in original). That includes whether we will be sharing technology more fairly.
However, not all people want to become computer-savvy. Some do not value Internet technology, for example, because it holds no perceived relevance or interest for them. The consumer behaviour theory of value and lifestyle segmentation suggests that these people may be fulfilled, or “content”, rather than inadequate consumers. “Consumers and citizens do not walk around with holes in their lives waiting for broadband services to arrive,” argued David Sless (1994, p. 6) a decade ago, going on to point out that “many today work far more hours than their parents did and develop ways of avoiding extra information services, not acquiring new ones”.
For those who do want better access to ICT, improved communication for some goes hand in hand with an increase in communication barriers for others, since communication brings together some people at the expense of separating those who are not connected. As the prosperous world becomes more intensively networked, so the divide between the information rich and information poor becomes deeper (Green, 2002). As people become more used to sending email, they may forget to contact the people who can only be reached by post. In Brunei, for example, the weight of postal mail dropped by 39 percent between 1993 and 2001 as a result of the rise of email.
Gender and generation
In the early to mid-1990s, there was considerable concern that cyberspace was becoming a male-dominated environment, and one that was specifically hostile to women. This hostility was evident in various ways, and it can still be experienced on occasions (such as the potentially distressing and threatening spamming which pushes pornographic products). In the early stages of the Internet’s development, men were found to greatly outnumber women in the online population. The imbalance reflected differences in both access and motivation. In the Western world, this disparity began to narrow towards the end of the 1990s, when the Internet emerged as a mass medium, and at around 1999 the number of male and female English-language users of the Internet came into equilibrium. However, this has happened more slowly elsewhere with an apparent gender imbalance in Internet use persisting in some countries (such as Japan) well past the turn of the millennium. Moreover, equal proportions of users do not mean that women and men use the Internet for the same purposes, or in the same ways.
While it is difficult to be dogmatic about gendered differences, some generalities are emerging from research and the literature. Socially approved uses of the Internet – work, education, research, maintaining and building family networks – are all claimed by both genders with men more likely to claim work as a reason for investing in digital technology and women more likely to see family and friendship networks as critical. However, when we look at “problem” Internet use, we see a starker gender divide. Here we are not commenting upon where the differences between the genders arise – whether they are genetic, social or cultural – but that there is a tendency for men to use the Internet in some ways and for women in other ways.
When we talk about Internet use that may cause problems for individuals, their families or their communities, we tend to see men accessing the Internet for gambling, pornography, violent content and/or compulsive games. In contrast, women are more likely to find their Internet compulsions played out in online chat, cyber romance and fanfiction. These addictions can cause problems with sharing the Internet with other household members, with the cost of Internet connections, and with bills – especially for extensive time online or for expensive activities such as gambling or porn. However, many of these problems are often short term, and most people return to their usual daily life after a few weeks or months when the Internet craze subsides.
We discussed earlier how households can see their priorities clarified when they examine competing claims for access to a scarce resource, such as the computer or the Internet. If the father’s needs always win (above, say, the mother’s need to complete a research assignment or children’s need to do their homework), then we can see the household value system in operation. This is particularly the case if the father’s use is linked to leisure and the mother’s or children’s use is linked to education or work, since this clearly establishes that the priority is given to the father because he is viewed as the head of the household, rather than because the work he is to do is the most important. It is still the case, however, in most societies that the adult male is the major breadwinner and has the final say in the purchase and use of a technology such as the Internet. This sense of ownership also confuses the picture.
Women have traditionally been more likely to volunteer for unpaid work and provide support networks that sustain their communities. It has been suggested that these roles fit in well with the rearing of young children and this is why women are more likely than men to spend their time in local grassroots community activities. The Internet offers new tools for community maintenance and building, but these tools can only be used to support the disadvantaged if the women themselves are allowed access to the technology and are given the opportunities to develop the skills and confidence to use these resources.