The 1950s living room is often used to represent a golden age of the family; gathered around one TV set, marvelling at the newness of the technology and having relationally connective conversation. This is clearly a very rose-tinted view of any 1950s home as our age-old relational dysfunctions were no doubt as present then as now. None the less, photos like the one above are used to represent a nostalgic longing for a return to that era. Families today are far more mobile and less frequently gathered in the same room at the same time.
This morning OFCOM released new figures about the use of technology in the home. You can read the full report here. I did an interview this morning on BBC London, discussing my take on the stats. A spokeswoman from OFCOM stated that:
“The living room is making a come-back: families are coming together like in 1950 when the TV first took off”.
They base this statement on their new survey, the results of which show that:
1. We are more likely to have just one TV set in our home today, located in the living room. This is up from 35% in 2002 to 41% today. 91% of UK adults watch this living room TV set at least once a week.
2. Less children and teens have a TV set in their bedroom: 69% in 2007 and down to 52% today. So the family are viewing the TV together in one room today more so than in 2007.
OFCOM argued that technology is ‘bringing families together’. While this may be physically true, others of their stats demonstrate that mentally and emotionally it’s not necessarily the case.
// Financial Expectations
I argued this morning on BBC London that OFCOM’s new trend of watching a shared TV in one room will probably be a brief phenomenon. It appears to be far more related to expectations around the size and ability of TV sets, rather than about families wanting to watch as a group. I’m not saying this is a good thing; I’m simply pointing to the trends of consumerism in society. In an ideal world families would want to spend time together, but we live in a very fragmented culture.
As OFCOM said: “we’re now watching on much bigger, better television sets”. Back when it was statistically more common for kids and teens to have TV sets in their own rooms, they were typically small and cheap. Today we have grown accustomed to the giant cinema style sets – glossy flat-screens that take up 40 inches or more. Kids are becoming used to this epic viewing experience and so the draw of watching a tiny, boxy TV in their room is understandably waning. As OFCOM’s stats say, TVs measuring 43 inches or above have risen in sales by a vast amount: just 4.3% in 2012 versus 15.8% today.
When Christmas or birthdays roll around, kids are keener to ask for a smartphone or a tablet as these enable them to communicate with their peers and are items they want to be seen with outside of the home. Most families can’t afford these, let alone a big TV for their child’s bedroom, but with cheaper smartphone and budget tariffs on the market, they seem to be an increasingly popular present for kids. As a result, many homes just have one shared TV.
I think that as the price of cinema-style TVs drops, we’ll see big TVs throughout people’s homes and thus a radical step away from OFCOM’s claim that we are returning to gathering around a single set. So the trend will be short-lived.
My current PhD research is focused on ‘the ethics of the Internet’. One of my favourite academics on this subject is the MIT Professor Sherry Turkle. She describes our gadget-filled society as being “alone together”. This seems very relevant to OFCOM’s claim of a ‘new 1950s living room’; just because we are gathered in the same small area doesn’t mean we are actually connecting relationally with one another. So to say technology is ‘bringing the family together’ is true in a physical sense, yet misleading on a metaphysical level.
OFCOM’s stats prove this: as we sit around the same single TV 53% of adults are multi-tasking on another digital device. This takes two forms: “media meshing” (which involves texting, tweeting or surfing related to the content we are viewing on the TV) and “media stacking” (which involves doing things on a gadget that are unrelated to the TV we are watching). We may be bodily present, but 53% are also mentally engaged elsewhere.
However, in the era before smartphones and tablets we were not necessarily any more uni-directionally focused. These habits can’t be blamed on our gadgets. For a 1950s family, sitting in the same room would not necessitate being mentally present; kids playing with toys, adults reading newspapers, or people simply being lost in their own internal thoughts are all comparable to tapping away on an iPhone.
// Redefining Attention
On a much deeper level, we may need to redefine what we mean by ‘fully present’ or the definition of the terms ‘attention’ and ‘distraction’; these concepts may be evolving as our brains adapt to the digital age and our language needs to keep up with it or we will be making judgements based on an out dated frame of reference.
Sherry Turkle’s “alone together” concept is a strong one. We see it a lot in digital culture; families gathered around a restaurant table, but each on their gadgets rather than talking to each other. However, it can’t all be viewed negatively – we may just need to redefine what ‘attention’ looks like in the twenty-first century.
It’s possible that our attention faculties are ‘plastic’ and are adapting to this new technology in positive ways. Far from being a distraction these devices may be enabling us to think faster and multi-directionally. Cory Doctorow argues that using these devices as an “outboard brain” means we free up more cognitive space for other activities, as computers now remember the mundane details like phone numbers and scheduling for us. Wired Magazine’s Clive Thompson calls it “the perfect recall of silicon memory” – it gives us greater storage space.
Neuroscientist Paul Howard-Jones gave a fascinating RSA lecture on this, arguing that our brains always grow and morph as a result of new technologies and that Google is not “making us stupid” as Nicholas Carr argues in is best-seller The Shallows. Rather, we are developing as a result of it.
So it might not be as simple as saying that multi-tasking on gadgets while watching TV makes us less relationally present; perhaps we are simply evolving new levels of presence and attention. After all, we know that we only use a fraction of our true brain capacity. Maybe in the future (and Moore’s Law could support this concept), humans will be able to give the potency of our current ‘full attention’ to many things at one as our neurological development increases in response to our technology.
// Models of learning
So our new gadgets we hold may not be distracting us; rather they may be retraining our brains to be more capable and more conscious. It seems comparable to the familiar model of involved learning; we learn more when we listen and write notes than when we just listen. We learn even more effectively when we (a) listen (b) write notes and (c) teach the material to others.
There may be a comparison with multi-tasking on gadgets; watching something on TV, tweeting about it, honing our views and explaining them online and offline, could create a greater absorption of content. Many people are ‘kinesthetic learners’; retaining information more effectively when it’s accompanied by physical actions. Such learners may be helped by using a tablet in addition to just listening.
These may seem overly educational models to draw from if we are talking about light-hearted content like Eurovision! But at the same time, we are likely to take in any content more deeply if we are discussing it and analysing it in online conversations, whether its Eurovision, a film or a documentary. We may be more present rather than less.
// Family time and gadgets
OFCOM’s stats show that currently families are watching a shared TV together more than they used to. Even though the trend is for this room to be “alone together” it’s still encouraging that families are physically present during their leisure time. It provides an opportunity for households to try and deepen their relationships if desired. [When I use the term family I simply mean household; so whoever lives under your roof, whatever form that unit takes].
One popular practice among families is enforcing a ‘digital detox’ where for an evening or a week the whole family are told to give up their gadgets in order to ‘grow closer to one another’. While I understand the sentiment, I’m not a fan of this kind of on/off binary. I think we need to harness the positive power that digital technology can offer.
Why not sit as a household, watch a TV show and engage as a group in “media meshing”; all using your devices to discuss the same topic while also chatting about it within the room. Sure, there’s probably a place for putting the gadgets down, but they are not inherently ‘bad’ for your family relationships if you utilise them to bring you closer.
This limited moment in time where households are gathered around one shared TV more than in the past few years might be a window of opportunity to talk more and build relationships. Gadgets can be a great part of that rather than being seen as the enemy. Technology is not a foe unless you let it become one; it’s quite easily a friend if used well.
[If you'd like to read more on these topics, I'd recommend Distraction by Mark Curtis and the RSA lecture by Howard-Jones (available online if you Google it). It's also worth reading Nicholas Carr's The Shallows as a pointer on how scaremongering about Internet addiction is being promulgated.]
Over to you:
Do you think we are more connected today as a result of technology, or less?
Does digital technology help your household connect, or seem to fragment your relationships?
I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.