The Electronic Baby

Paper delivered in Vienna
and Stockhholm

There is a challenge hidden in the publicity, excitement and enthusiasm that is created when the technological geniuses give birth to an even better computer, an even faster communication system, or an even smaller machine to fit into the living room. The challenge is whether or not the integrity of the home can be maintained. The electronic baby is born, and in many cases it has been brought home. Can it be incorporated in a way that will enrich us all or will it demand, in the way that babies often do, 100% attention.

It has been recognised over the past thirty years or so that people cope better with change if they are prepared for it. Couples seek out childbirth classes when they are pregnant, but how many seek help for the birth and integration into the home of the electronic baby? However, some couples are seeking help for problems that stem from the more flexible ways of working that are now possible because of new technology. As more women are working, as less and less security is possible in the work place, as greater and greater demands are made from those in work, the stress of the information society is being seen reflected in peoples' relationships.

The rapid and relentless move into the technological age has helped to create a fantasy of a society where anything is possible. Theoretically, we can work anywhere and have access to information from all over the world. Fueling the belief that anything is possible a whole universe can be created of whatever we desire. A universe called virtual reality, seducing the computer operator into believing that it is an actual reality. For some who are robust enough to embrace the challenge of the information society this is an exhilarating time. The sky is the limit, but where will the boundaries be in this world of limitless possibilities, and who will draw them?

Teleworking, or working at home, is being seen by many as an economically and environmentally sound thing to do. A new way of working allowing for more freedom and more flexibility. This must be true. Since the industrial revolution men have left home early in the morning returning often eight or nine hours later; neither he nor his family have given a passing thought to what the other has been doing all day. During the past fifteen years or so, it has become common-place for women also to leave the house in order to work. The home has become a place where people have gathered after the days work has been done. But with the move to working from home all this is changing.

This paper explores why this quiet revolution needs to be taken seriously from the psychological point of view. Working at home is not a new innovation; fifty years ago many people worked at home: Doctors, Dentists, Farmers, Solicitors and others, and today many writers and academics work at home. However, with the introduction of technology, subtle but important differences arise.

The teleworker works not only at home, but also from home. For example, John works from home. Mary works at home, there is a difference. Clients come to see Mary, and she offers them her skills as a Chiropodist in her small consulting room in the garden. When her day is over, or when she has a short break during the day, she walks over to the house and leaves her workplace behind. Of course she is sometimes preoccupied with thoughts about a client, but mostly she is able to contain her work to the consulting room. It is, however, different for John who teleworks. He is able to relate through the various technological appliances to the whole world. Although physically at home, the teleworker's attention could be anywhere.

Wired to a network that spans the world, ideas and thoughts are transmitted at the speed of light, responses cascade from the fax machine and flit across the computer screen. The telephone no longer has to be left in the office in order to make a coffee; it can be carried conveniently in the pocket so that no calls need go unanswered. No one has to know that you need to eat, drink, or defecate. Time is no longer a barrier to communication. Always ready to receive, the faithful fax will spew out it's messages at any time during day or night. The answering machine will record the messages from different time zones allowing you to reply whilst the rest of the country sleeps. E-mail collects the messages which wait reproachfully for acknowledgment. There is no longer for the Teleworker such a thing as a natural break. In this exciting world we now inhabit, there is a catch. When do we say, "enough is enough," how do we say, "I'm off duty?"

Home means different things to different people, but whatever the culture, there is a shared belief about homes and families. These beliefs may differ from country to country, but we do all have expectations of partners and children. Many of these expectations are unspoken - even unconscious. For the most part it has been assumed that whatever the difficulties encountered when working from home, there will be no emotional or domestic difficulties. The human element is taken for granted and yet when the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations made a Pan-European study of the possibility of working from home (Holti - Tavistock Publications, 1988) Dr. Richard Holti wrote that "the only obstacle to working from home would be the Psychological one."

The work-place is an institution, but so is the home an institution. Each has its own rules and values both spoken and unspoken. Some of these rules and values are common to us all, but many are unique to a particular office or factory or home. Most workplaces will take care to inform its new employees of its culture, and what isn't formally stated will become quickly apparent when some mistake or other is made. i.e. it might be quite all right in some offices to make private phone calls; in another, it may be stated clearly that speaking to friends on the telephone is out of the question. Having worked in the same place for some time, it will become clear how much leeway can be taken. The culture will gradually be made known. It may not be obvious how the culture developed, but the "how" of it is not terribly important unless a sociological study is being carried out. The employee is there to fit into an existing organisation. The ambition to change it may come later, but unless the remit is to examine the organisation in order to do that, initially at least, he or she will abide by the rules.

Yet when the workplace is the home, when the distance in question is from the office not from the family, who is to fit in with whom? After all, home is also an institution. It also has its spoken and unspoken rules. It also has a culture. However, it is doubtful that there are any written memos to spell these rules out. It is unlikely that anyone has an understanding of the history of the culture. There will, however, be an unspoken or unconscious expectation that however large the initial disruption, the home will be able to accommodate and absorb the intrusion and change.

This quiet revolution has been led by technology and business. The Economics of Teleworking (Noel Hodson, 1993) is full of hard facts. There are statistics to call on and Balance Sheets to back-up findings. But when thinking about the affects on the family and relationships there are no hard facts, no statistics to measure the emotional impact of the home becoming the work place. Never-the-less, there is a need to analyse the emotional Balance Sheet, and a necessity for all those concerned in instituting this fundamental change to pay as much attention to the psychological needs as to the business and technological needs.

The following two cases illustrate some of the difficulties that can happen when it is taken for granted that home will absorb these new working habits without any preparation at all.

The Fax at Midnight

  For some time Robert and Susan had been arguing about everything. They realised that life had become more stressful since Robert had decided to work from home, but were bewildered as they had both made the decision to take up his company's offer of the opportunity to Telework. Robert's company was relocating its workforce from the centre of London to an area about a hundred miles away and some of the employees had been given the choice to move with the company or to work from home. Robert and Susan felt flattered to be given this choice and felt that if Robert worked from home it would give them more flexibility.

They couldn't understand what had gone wrong, it seemed as if there was no emotional space for them to think about what might be the problem, and they also felt humiliated that they weren't coping. The company had made no provision for any domestic problems to be aired; there was a computer helpline in case any of the machines Robert had come home armed with went wrong, and an arrangement had been made for him, and others in the same position, to spend a day a month in the central office so that he didn't feel isolated from the company, but it hadn't, so it seemed, crossed anyone's mind that there would be problems at home. This belief reflected Robert and Susan's conviction that as a happy couple and secure family they could only benefit from spending more time together.

The incident that convinced Robert and Susan that they needed help happened at midnight. Robert had converted the loft space over the garage to an office which was reached from the landing. The company had equipped it with a photocopier, a separate telephone line, and a fax machine. The situation that brought them to counselling was that Robert had wandered into his office on his way to bed. There was a fax in the machine from America, and within seconds he was absorbed in it. Susan who was waiting in the bedroom suddenly realised that Robert wasn't in the bathroom and that he was in fact involved with work. She became absolutely furious, they had a terrible fight and unable to resolve it they decided to seek help.

What emerged from their first interview was that they  were having to deal with a major life change. The structure and routine of their lives had been completely changed, but there were no guidelines; worse than that no one believed, not even them, that they  were having to deal with anything difficult at all. When it was suggested that perhaps they were both finding their new way of life a strain, there was an audible sigh of relief.

Robert was an only child, born to an elderly couple he learnt when he was very young to be independent and self-sufficient, and was happy to spend time on his own. In fact Robert's parents had taken little interest in his school work or career, and were more likely to criticise than admire his work.

Susan came from a very different family. Her parents had a farm. Susan was the eldest of four children. All the children were expected to help on the farm and work together to make it a success. Her father was very definitely the head of the family and commanded respect and some fear from the children, but the over all picture of her family was of a large noisy busy group of people all working together.

The different experiences that Susan and Robert had when growing up meant that they both had had very different expectations of what it would be like when Robert came home to work. It became clear that they each hoped for different things when they decided to accept the offer Robert's company had made. Susan had a picture in her mind of the sort of family she grew up in. With Robert, in the house all day, it would be, she hoped, like the noisy busy family of her childhood. Robert on the other hand expected quite the opposite. He saw himself working quietly in his office left alone to get on with his work in the way he had done when he was living with his parents.

Susan and Robert became disappointed. When Susan made efforts to create the situation she had dreamed of, and tried to include Robert in family life or join in with what he was doing Robert, reminded of his critical mother, became even more determined to keep his work away from the family. When Robert became angry and remote it reminded Susan of the worst aspects of her authoritarian Father.

Once Susan and Robert realised that they were each trying to recreate old patterns of living, they were less angry with each other and could begin to think of ways in which they could create a shared pattern, so that Robert's new way of working could really benefit them all.

The Human Baby

The second case is a young couple who sought help after their Doctor recognised Jane's symptoms of not sleeping or eating properly and constant irritability as stress. As these symptoms stemmed from the time Jane began working from home it was decided that both she and here husband needed help with dealing with their new situation.

Jane and Phillip had been very excited when Jane managed to negotiate with her employers to take up her job as a designer for them again, but to do most of the work from home. They had a child of two and a half and had really missed Jane's income over the past three years. The spoken hopes of Jane and Phillip were that they would be able to manage to combine two things. To provide the sort of childhood for their daughter that both of them had enjoyed, a warm family home with a mother who was always there, whilst they both continued their careers which they loved. They thought carefully about how they would manage. Phillip's job would allow him some flexibility. Jane's mother was willing to help, and they felt that if they had an au- pair and all pulled together things would probably work out well.

Within a month it felt as if something was wrong. Jane was exhausted; she felt as if she wasn't doing anything adequately. Although she was working from morning until night, she felt guilty both about her job and her daughter. Phillip and her mother were both doing their best to help, but her daughter wasn't; she clearly hadn't been involved at the planning stage of this new development in her family, and she wasn't about to be cooperative. She couldn't understand why if her mother was in the house she didn't come to her when she cried. The au-pair did her best, but she wasn't the real thing. Jane found it very difficult to ignore Jo's cries when she was just a room away. She also found it impossible to have a coffee break without fulfilling some domestic need at the same time, such as filling or emptying the washing machine, or cheering up the au-pair, or making up for the time she wasn't with Jo by reading her a quick story. This of course meant that her own work got pushed into the evenings and she was often to be found at her desk late at night. She was doing two jobs for the price of one.

Once again, both Phillip and Jane were relieved when they defined the problem. They both realised that until Jo went to school it was going to be really hard work to manage the sort of home life they both wanted for themselves and their daughter, but felt it was worth trying to resolve the problems in order to avoid an all day nursery for Jo. "It would all be so simple," they said, "if there had been the same advancements in human babies as there had been Technical babies," but it seemed the human model hadn't made any advances at all. They needed as much attention as they ever had done. 

Jane's problem was helped by structuring a timetable. She goes to here office early in the morning while Phillip gets Jo up, dresses her and gives her breakfast. He then leaves for his office mid-morning and Jane allows herself to spend most of the day "at home." She works again for three hours in the evening when Jo is in bed. The au-pair and her mother are necessary backups, and bridge the gaps, but they don't have to be alternative parents. This isn't a perfect solution to Jane and Phillip's problem, but they feel that it is good enough for the time being.

These two cases highlight many of the issues that need to be explored when someone is considering working at or from home.

Territorial Rights

When the home is invaded by the wage earner, how is the invasion of time and space negotiated? In the first case, neither Robert, Susan, nor Robert's employer had thought it necessary to take into account the impact on the home of Robert going home to work. The territory which for years had been Susan's by day now had to be shared between them. Susan wanted Robert to share the space, but she wanted him to share the space her way. Robert did not think it was necessary to take Susan's needs into account. He moved in, defined his territory, didn't want it invaded, and got very cross when he was reminded that he was now at home.


When there is an office to go to the boundaries are defined automatically, the telephone calls and the fax's are confined to the desk. There is some advantage to the commute in that work problems are left behind, and home can offer a welcome relief and fresh perspective on the day's events. When the boundaries are not automatic, a new and deliberate protocol must be negotiated with all concerned. The fax at midnight was an intrusion into a space and a breaking of a boundary that would have been unthinkable a few years ago. It's like having your boss in the bedroom. Absolutely terrible for the Libido.

Are Electronic Babies more Advanced than Human Babies?

When Phillip and Jane joked about the electronic baby being more advanced then their daughter, they had identified one of the difficulties that we are all having to deal with, as this technological revolution drives us all on. Technology made it possible for Jane to work at home and be near her daughter, she didn't have to make the choice she would have done ten years ago between staying at home or going out to work, but she needed to be made aware that it was very difficult for Jo to have a mother visible but unavailable. This isn't only the case for babies; many husbands and wives reflect on their disappointment when the person returning home to work seemed as remote as they were when they worked away from home.

Communicating with the Family and the World

This paper began with a challenge to this new way of working. Can working from home be a new way of working or is it going to be an old way of working in a different place and with new technology? Will the home and workplace be able to be integrated or will one try to dominate the other? There is little use in being able to communicate with the World if we cannot hear what those nearest to us are saying. In order for this aspect of the quiet revolution to gain the attention it deserves, these questions need to be asked and taken into consideration. Traditionally the home has been expected to contain all the stresses and strains that life has to offer. It is expected that it will accommodate the different demands that society imposes on it in each generation. But home is only as robust and flexible as the people in it can allow it to be.

The Electronic baby is born. We need to pay it attention and to find a way of saying "no" occasionally to the greater and greater possibilities it offers us. We need to help it to find its place in the family. If we don't, it will, like neglected babies do, dominate our lives.