The Wired Homestead: A Sourcebook on the Internet and the Family
Editor: Joseph Turow, Andrea Kavanaugh
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003
Review Published: March 2007
Books freeze knowledge into convenient packets. This is, of course, a distortion because what's known is always expanding and evolving. Books about the Internet make this truth more conspicuous because cyberspace changes even faster than what is often called real life. What's new and noteworthy online today is ho-hum and hardly worth a footnote tomorrow.
Still, even in these wired times, a good book, like a good photograph, stops time for an instant so we can examine it more closely. That's what happens in The Wired Homestead, a collection of essays published by MIT in 2003. Like a family album with carefully selected snapshots, The Wired Homestead gives anyone with an interest in how the Internet is changing families a better idea of where we've come from and, just possibly, where we are going.
From the beginning, American parents and the people who study them have had a sense of schizophrenia about the impact of the Internet on children. The editors of The Wired Homestead, Joseph Turow and Andrea L. Kavanaugh, sum up this Jekyll-and-Hyde phenomenon this way: "Your children need the Internet. And, if they go online, be terrified" (11). Anxieties about how the Internet is reshaping families are exacerbated by the pace of change. The online landscape seems to transform itself so rapidly that everyone -- parents, reporters, researchers, policymakers -- feels breathless and behind. How is it possible to gather meaningful facts, draw persuasive conclusions, and develop coherent policy when the subject is constantly shape-shifting?
The Wired Homestead is a good antidote to that kind of hysteria. Subtitled A Sourcebook on the Internet and Family, these essays distill observations from psychologists, communication researchers, computer experts, and social scientists. The result is a collection that helps readers take a deep breath, step back, and consider the bigger picture. This more reflective approach is evident in the introduction of the book which offers a brisk historical tour from Leibniz's theories about binary digits in the 17th century to the passage of the Children's Online Protection and Privacy Act (COPPA) in 1998. The editors contend that the Internet challenges the standard assumption that the family is "the central force for preparing children to live in society" (1) because it makes the boundary between private and public more permeable. Not only can new kinds of information come into the family, often without the knowledge of parents, but children can also share information which once would have been considered private, an issue which has been given new immediacy by social networking sites like MySpace.
The essays in The Wired Homestead are grouped into four sections. The first section of the book, "The New World in Context," lays out the historical context in which Internet research must be conducted. In one especially valuable essay, Ellen Wartella and Byron Reeves review the research on children and media between 1900 and 1960. They find a clear pattern of initial hysteria over how a new form of media will erode family bonds and corrupt young people particularly in relation to violence, sexuality, and stereotyping. Then, over time, the new media is assimilated and actually becomes a source for the family values which are put at risk by the next innovation.
Their point is reinforced in an essay by Elihu Katz entitled "Disintermediating the Parents, What Else is New?" According to Katz, disintermediation is a business term which means reaching "over the heads of intermediaries in order to establish direct relations with some target audience" (44). Although other media have also tried to elude parental authority by appealing directly to children, the Internet has been especially effective by "giving children direct access to information that the parents cannot filter and giving the child expertise overshadowing that of his parents" (50). In other words, the Internet undermines the traditional gatekeeping function of parents, making them understandably anxious because their responsibilities are the same but their influence is diluted.
Two other essays in this section draw parallels between the impact of television on families and the impact of the Internet. Daniel Anderson and Marie Evans voice familiar worries when they extrapolate from research on television and children to speculate that time spent online may provoke aggressive behavior, contribute to childhood obesity, and displace time spent on other activities. More interesting questions are raised by Ellen Seiter who points out that discourse about the Internet frequently includes biases so deep they are never analyzed. She notes, for example, that the massive investment in computer technology is "heavily skewed toward benefiting the white middle class" (111). In the process, television viewing has been "pathologized" even though, in the context of family life, it is cheaper than the Internet, easier to use, frequently educational, and more likely to promote communication among family members.
In the second section of the book, "On Parents and Kids," the editors have collected essays that describe what families are actually doing with the Internet. They rightly point out that the Internet is simply too broad to generalize about its effects on families. Instead, researchers need to analyze exactly how specific people in specific families make use of the Internet before they can draw meaningful conclusions about its impact. Unfortunately, the specificity of these essays makes this section the weakest in the book. The glimpses into family life provided by these essays have been superseded by much more detailed reports about what children are actually doing online. Still, several of the essays in this section have historic value because of the way they describe, often poignantly, the first efforts by families to make sense of this new media. Gitte Stald, in particular, captures the combination of curiousity, puzzlement, and anxiety which accompanied the introduction of the Internet into Danish homes.
Other essays in this section explore larger issues which continue to resonate. Co-editor Turow, for example, analyzes the data from a large study showing that parents and kids have very different ideas about what kind of information should be shared online. His recommendations about family privacy are every bit as pertinent today as they were when the study was done. In another essay, Amy Jordan applies family systems theory to the use of computers at home to decipher the subtle messages about value and use of new media communicated through decisions about where a family computer is placed, who has access, and when the technology can be used.
Essays in the third section of the book, "The Wired Homestead and Online Life," look more closely at the impact of the Internet on family dynamics. Many of these contributions prove to be surprisingly durable and in some cases prophetic. David Frolich, Susan Dray, and Amy Silverman, for example, describe the results of in-home interviews with computer-using families conducted at the end of the last century. Their predictions about hardware miss the mark, but their observations about family interaction seem prescient in the era of cellphones and Ipods: "With distributed access to the PC, or with more personal appliances for each member of the family," they write, "parents will struggle to keep track of what their children are doing with computers in the home" (316).
Another essay, entitled "Internet Paradox Revisited," also seems as relevant today as it was when it was first published in 2002. In this essay, Robert Kraut and several associates analyze data from a follow up to the HomeNet study which originally made headlines by suggesting that Internet use contributed to depression and social isolation. Their conclusion is that the impact of Internet activities on individuals is, to a large extent, determined by their own characteristics. "Among extraverts," they write, "using the Internet was associated with increases in community involvement and self-esteem, and declines in loneliness, negative affect and time pressure; it was associated with the reverse for introverts" (373).
The section concludes with Sherry Turkle's oft-reprinted essay on "Virtuality and its Discontents." Although the MOO Turkle describes has been superseded by other virtual environments, including, most recently, Second Life, her discussion of the risks and rewards of online spaces is, if anything, more pertinent today. Her call for "another way of thinking, one that stresses making the virtual and the real more permeable to each other" (397) deserves ongoing attention. "Virtual personae," she writes, "can be a resource for self-reflection and self-transformation ... the voyager in virtuality can return to the real world better able to understand what about it is arbitrary and can be changed" (397). This hopeful tone permeates the essays not only in this section but in the entire collection. Though the authors concede that The Wired Homestead introduces both risk and stress to traditional families, they are generally optimistic about the ability of families to integrate the Internet into the home in ways that support family life rather than subverting it.
The final section of The Wired Homestead, "The Wired Homestead and Civic Life," projects this optimistic view into the larger community. Here the authors ask how the Internet will change the village that is supposedly required to raise a child. On the one hand, the Internet may supplant the face-to-face interactions which have been at the heart of community life, making it easier to play games, for example, with someone on a different continent than the kid next door. On the other hand, the Internet has the potential to strengthen local communities by promoting communication and facilitating the exchange of information about local matters. In his essay, "Three for Society," Jorge Reina Schement lays out the worries about how the Internet may undermine community by bringing activities which were once public such as banking and shopping into the home. One possible result, Schement suggests, is "rigidity on political positions and less empathy for the other groups that make up one's community" (416), characteristics which do, indeed, seem to be more prevalent in 21st century America.
Three case histories suggest alternatives to Schement's vision. The first by co-editor Kavanaugh describes the impact of a community network developed to serve families in Blacksburg, Virginia. During beta testing, researchers on the project discovered that. although residents were interested in the global reach of the Internet, they were most excited about using online resources to "enhance the town's sense of community" (424). In response, they created a network of websites, bulletin boards and listservs that made it easy for residents to obtain and share information about local businesses, schools, libraries, churches, government agencies and other community organizations. As result, Kavanaugh observes, there was an increase in citizen's online literacy and residents became able to "mobilize resources more quickly and organize collective action more effectively" (434). Another essay by Lodis Rhodes describes the Austin Learning Academy, a small community-based organization which developed a creative response to the so-called digital divide. Instead of thinking of computer competence as a commodity to be sold, ALA staff encouraged clients to think of it as a resource to be shared as they solved community problems. As a result, their clients moved quickly through what Lodis describes as the first two stages of online learning "I can do this" and "Look at this!" to arrive at the creative third stage -- "There ought to be a way!" In a final essay, Keith Hampton and Barry Wellman describe Netville, a Canadian community built so that every house had Internet access. One remarkable series of diagrams shows that the community with universal access had more strong ties, weak ties, and knowing ties than comparable communities without such access. As the authors put it, "Something about being connected to the network contributed to greater social contact" (470).
These three case studies are, perhaps, the most tantalizing part of The Wired Homestead because they suggest that the Internet could be used not only to expand the reach of families but also to solidify their connection to local schools, government, and social organizations. By the end of this section, I found myself longing for the kind of super-local network that would let me learn more about my immediate community and communicate with my geographical neighbors about school levies, road construction, community soccer games, or even where to get the best birthday cake at the last minute.
The Wired Homestead isn't the final word on the Internet and families but it doesn't pretend to be. Editors Turow and Kavanaugh are modest and candid about their goals. They write, "We hope this book will spur people to ask good questions and come up with good answers that, in turn, lead people to ask more good questions" (18). This collection will indeed provoke good questions, but it does more. The authors of these essays provide a baseline analysis that can be a starting point for future research. They also model many of the research approaches most likely to yield insight into the next generation of research into wired families. Finally, like a good photo album, they invite us to pause for a moment and look closely at specific ideas about how families have responded to the rich range of options available online. At times when the blur of 24/7 news about the Internet seems to make any meaningful conclusions irrelevant before they are drawnWired Homestead provides solid ground from which significant research, meaningful policy, and even good parenting practice can grow.
Carolyn Jabs is studying for her MA in practical philosophy at Bowling Green State University. She has written about families and the Internet for the popular press as a Contributing Editor first at Home PC and then at Family PC. She now writes the syndicated column, Growing Up Online, which helps parents guide children so they are as safe, responsible, and ethical online as they are in the real world. <Crjabs@aol.com>
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