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At Home With Computers

Author: Elaine Lally
Publisher: Oxford, UK: Berg Publishers, 2002
Review Published: August 2003

 REVIEW 1: Deborah J. Smith

I own a PDA and a home computer. I also purchase paper calendars every year to manage a household with only three persons.

Do you know what I want? I want to come home with my PDA, slide it into a wall cradle, press a button and watch as it synches with a flat-panel display on the wall that automatically enters appointments for each of us where we can see them at the touch of a button. I donít want my data on the computer in the guest room -- I need it here in the kitchen, where each member goes at least twice a day. A huge change from writing appointments on a wall calendar, this is computer technology I could use.

Elaine Lallyís At Home with Computers examines how a technological object, the personal computer, comes to be part of the home space of the average person. With constructs like homemaking, ownership, and gendered construction of the self vis-ŗ-vis the computer, the author, the Assistant Director of the Centre for Cultural Research at the University of Western Sydney, looks at the relationship of household members to their PC. The book is an outgrowth of her doctoral research.

At Home with Computers is the result of a study done by the author with 95 individuals in 31 households across western Sydney, Australia. Initial interviews by the author were done in 1996, with informal follow-up interviews later. Lallyís study sample, while not including any persons with institutional connections like those in religious life, nevertheless represents a truly eclectic range of what we mean by "family" and "household."

Commercial advertising initially attempted to shape the home computer into a domestic appliance similar to a vacuum cleaner, or to make "cyberspace . . . just another place in your family room" (63). The economic investment in a computer, however, coupled with the "stress and anxiety which may be experienced by consumers who are exploring such unfamiliar territory" (65) often led to the home PC becoming a less integrated appliance, since it required special skills, time to learn them, and equitable distribution among household members. Unlike a handheld mixer, the home PC required a place of its own and generated housekeeping chores such as backing up, defragging, and organizing folders on the hard drive for those family members who are computer literate.

In Chapter Four, "Acquiring a Handle On the Future," Lally explores the notion that a home PC was often purchased to give the participant and his/her family a step into the future, especially if there were children in the home, where knowing computer skills was seen to be an educational asset. Some purchased a computer to sharpen their own awareness and ease with technology. As a result, the majority of home computer usage by the people in the book revolved around using computers for childrenís schoolwork or bringing work home to word process, develop spreadsheets, or consolidate with financial tracking software.

In the chapters "The Relationship of Ownership" and "Negotiations of Ownership," Lally makes the case that an expensive object like the PC can have multiple meanings for a household and results in various processes of acquisition, location, objectification, and access to the machine. These processes depend on how the purchaser views the importance of technology, the computer skills in the household, and what purpose the home computer will ultimately serve. While parents are often gatekeepers for computer access in the home, for example, these same adults also describe their fascination (or fear) in getting a computer. Often engaging the adults for long hours using software applications, a home PC effectively blurs the boundaries between running a household and professional office functions, e.g. the "home office." Computer use also brought into focus how time could be seen as useful, wasted, important -- or used for play and relaxation, as shown in Chapter Six, "Temporal Rhythms of the Computerized Home."

Lally notes in Chapters 7-9 that a computerís arrival in a household, even if it belongs to a single member, engenders new consideration of domestic concerns. When is the computer left on? Where does it reside in the home? Who has primary usage rights? Even without cyberspace access, participants often spent hours on their computers without consciousness of time passing. While this temporal hiatus for users did not remain constant over time, it did make other household members very aware that there was a new object in the milieu, one that now demanded time and space of its own -- much like the real-life relationships between family members. Responsibility for the computer and how household members view their time must be renegotiated.

As a rule, the study's participants engaged more with software applications and games than cyberspace. Games were a major use of computer time in these households, with both children and adults sometimes splitting spare time between the computer and a dedicated games machine (such as Nintendo or Sega) within the same residence at the same time.

For the subjects in At Home with Computers, unless the user was highly motivated or working in the computer industry, there was scarce mention of "surfing the Net" as we know it in 2003. Even though the Internet is given consideration by the author in Chapter 5, "Computing in the Domestic Pattern of Life," in western Sydney households at the time of the survey, the Internet was just beginning its saturation into everyday media:
    In 1996 and 1997, a transformation took place in the way the Internet was represented and understood by consumers, with the widespread appearance of URLs . . . in billboard advertisement . . . and an advertisement for the film Independence Day. . . These developments were important in naturalizing the Internet into the cultural landscape. (4)
There is some use of email reported, but at the time the survey was conducted, the notion of cyberspace as venue for building virtual communities and relationships across time and space, rather than accessing information, is largely unacknowledged. More than a few participants used computers to support schoolwork with word processing, online encyclopedias, or searches, but nowhere in the book is there any direct mention of distance education delivered on the Internet, which may not have been part of 1996 life for western Sydney. For this reason, an interesting follow-up study might be to examine if cyberspace (email, chat, the Internet, online education, etc.) has permeated similar households, further changing their relationships with virtual others since 1996.

As a sociological examination of object relations and home computer use, At Home with Computers thoroughly explores its chosen area and clearly delineates theories around objectification, domestication, and similar constructs that we use to "own" computers and integrate them into our homes.

While the author provides a brief summary at the end of the text about the study, including nine pages describing the participant households and an extensive Bibliography, there is no indication of what questions were asked during the interviews. The Manfredottis, a "case study" family from the Introduction, are the participants we come to know best. All remaining subjects are embedded in the context of theory. The reader feels like they are at a cocktail party, able to get acquainted with participants only little by little in overheard conversation. A fuller explanation of how the study was conducted, placed in the beginning when other study members are quoted, and a direct reference to the Appendix where the participant groups are described, would have resolved this problem.

Within the iterative discourse of our relationship to technology, computers often shape us as much, if not more, than we shape them. The beige box with a monitor allows access to many things, fascinating some of us enough to pass hours in what seems like minutes. But even as it facilitates accurate document processing and faster data management in the ordinary household, the PC demands that the essence of domestic reality change to accommodate this extension of human praxis. And in changing our realities, the computer changes us -- even when we think we are at home with our computers.

Deborah J. Smith:
Deborah J. Smith, Ed.D., is Area Coordinator for Community & Human Services, Center for Distance Learning, Empire State College, Saratoga Springs, NY. Dr. Smithís research interests include human perception and interaction with computer technology across the lifespan, virtual community in distance education, and online safety issues, as well as the evolving role of the Internet in daily life. A writer in her local area, her work has been aired on NorthEast Public Radioís National Productions, published locally, and featured on Internet Tourist Portal for the city of Rome, Italy.  <Deborah.Smith@esc.edu>

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