is there a child in the house?

published in Distans, Stockholm, Sweden. October 1995.

Sadly there are no longer any children in our house, and quite apart from the daily pleasure (mostly) of having them around they are sorely missed for some very important contributions they made to the smooth running of daily life. eg. A small child could be guaranteed to be able to break into the house when we had lost the keys, by being able to squeeze through the tiniest window that had been left open, they could usually be relied upon to pick up and carry outside the frog/bird/ or spider that had found it's way into the house, and of course they provided the perfect excuse to leave the boring supper party, "We are so sorry, but we have to take the baby sitter home." The other vital function they performed was to understand, seemingly without any effort at all, the working of any new technological piece of equipment which found its way into the home. When we had a VCR delivered to us quite recently, we had to call upon my twelve year old God son to show us how to use it.

Children now seem to be born with an extra gene, a gene which appears to have a direct link to the computer keyboard and screen. They have no fear or sense of dread as they approach the new computer, in fact it is as if they and the computer become one. A symbiotic relationship and deeply satisfying, it leads me to wonder about the nature of that relationship, and the difference, if there is any, between the children of the 1990's who have grown up in a world of screens and keyboards, and the "computer buffs" of my generation who have fallen in love with the computer and embraced it and all its works whole-heartedly.

Let me give an example of what I might call the love affair with the computer. Many middle aged men, and a few women, are enthusiasts for advanced communications in the way I imagine the first motor car owners were enthusiastic about motoring. New technology and the access it gives to the “information super highway” is opening up limitless possibilities and they are as keen to explore it as Henry Ford and his followers must have been to explore the new routes the automobile could travel. Many of these converts to the information society are as fascinated by the complexities of the computer as the earliest motorists were by their "horseless carriages." The marvel was not in getting from A to B, but in how it was being done. For those of us still enthralled by technology, it is not necessarily the final result of the work that we do with our computers that excites us, but the miraculous fact that we can do it at all.

The younger generation however takes for granted the genius that has allowed this technology to be common-place in their schools and homes; whilst their fathers and mothers marvel at the "process" that enables them to create documents in a tenth of the time it would have taken them ten years ago, children treat the machines with a casualness that is breath-taking. It's there for them to work with, play with, or to express their creativity with. To do with as they wish.

Will the relationship to the computer isolate or join us to society? I think it is a large question to which we can only begin to speculate. If we add to the question, "is there a child in the house," the question "is there a computer, or two in the house," we could then posit a third question. "Who does the child relate best or most often to, the computer or the family?" Does the computer create a channel through which the different generations can communicate, or is the technology creating a wide generational divide?

I suspect that those families who have respect and love for each other and many interests will use the acquisition of advanced communications to enrich their lives, and those troubled families who find relating difficult will use the same equipment to defend themselves against the need to grapple with the difficult business of relating to each other. I imagine the rest of us will find something familiar in both of the above family pictures. We all know how comforting it is to blot out the troubles of the world by switching on the screen, be it television or computer, and how tempting it is to send off a troublesome child to watch something on the television or to play a video game. But when that troublesome child deftly unscrambles the incomprehensible computer programme for his parents or grandparents, there is great pride and pleasure in acknowledging the accomplishments of your child, as well as savouring as an adult a rare moment of being looked after oneself.

Advanced Communications is opening up many possibilities, not least of which is an opportunity for different generations to have more access to each other in an interdependent way. Too often we have a picture of each member of the family isolated in his or her room, plugged in to whatever appliance comes to hand. It is not uncommon in England for each member of the family to have his or her own television set (in order to avoid the arguments about who wants to watch what). Interactive TV should send a frisson of anxiety through our systems. Let us encourage our friends and relations to interact with us about the television programme or computer programme or latest knowledge gained from the information super highway. Relating to a screen is not the same as relating to a person no matter how sophisticated the information on that screen is. It isn't much fun interacting with something that doesn't answer back, come to think of it, it isn't as much fun without a child in the house.

© Pauline Hodson