My immediate family is very much what I would call a “digital family”. We each have at least one computer, cell phone, digital music player, etc. There’s lots of electronics in our houses, from TVs to networking equipment. Additionally, each one of us uses email, instant messaging, and the web on a daily basis. My extended family is much less a digital family, rarely using email and counting the TV as their most prominent digital device. When I went home for Christmas, it occurred to me that being a digital family is definitely the way to be. I compared my immediate family and my extended family in a very common setting – the living room – to reach my conclusion. I’m going to share my observations here using the living room as my lab, but rest assured, the same principles can be applied to any environment, which is why I refer to a “digital family” and not a “digital household”. The point is the digital family embraces technology.
First, let’s describe the living room. You might think it’s silly to suggest that an entire family can spend some time together in their living room given that everyone these days is so busy. And normally I’d agree, but the holidays afford a little more time, so I was able to make some observations. What happens in a living room (or family room if that’s more to your liking)? Usually there’s TV, maybe you chat amongst yourselves, there might be some food, and in the digital family at least, there’s at least one computer. In the case of my family this past holiday, there was usually three and sometimes four computers – my parents each have a laptop, I had my tablet, and my brother occasionally brought his laptop upstairs. Also important is that the computers are all connected to the Internet wirelessly.
So let’s describe a typical scenario:
The family is sitting down watching television together. Doesn’t really matter what program is on, just that they are all watching. A familiar face comes on the screen, and someone in the living room wonders who it is. The other family members don’t know, but maybe they recognize the face too.
What happens in a non-digital family? The family all agrees that they recognize the face, but with no way to find out who it is, nothing further is said. The face remains nameless. What about in the digital family? Someone picks up the laptop, heads to IMDB and looks up the show the family is watching. A few seconds later, the family is able to put a name to the familiar face.
If you think that’s a silly example, think again. I was watching TV with my grandparents one time in their living room when just this scenario happened. My grandfather recognized the face, but with no way to find out who it was, the conversation just stopped. Over the holidays the same thing happened with my digital family – my Dad recognized someone. This time we were able to look up the show using one of our laptops, and my Dad realized that the person he recognized was Robin Tunney from the popular show Prison Break. Later that night we decided to watch Vertical Limit, a movie from 2000 that Ms. Tunney co-starred in.
Think about that for a minute, think about how powerful that is! There’s lots of research to suggest that actually going through the process of doing something helps you learn it – my Dad probably won’t forget her name again. We already owned Vertical Limit on DVD, but imagine we hadn’t? We might have decided to purchase it right then and there. The possibilities are endless.
The digital family immediately impacts the world.
Here’s another example. My brother received March of the Penguins on DVD for Christmas, so one night we decided to watch it. The movie was very well done, and very interesting, but the most fascinating part to me was what happened after we watched it. The movie focuses on Emperor Penguins, so we discussed what other penguins also made the march, and how long they lived, and various other questions. We decided to watch another movie though, so nobody picked up the laptop. The next morning my Mom had been searching the Internet and found the answers to all of our questions. What might normally have been unanswered or forgotton questions became information we all learned.
The digital family actively learns together.
These are just two examples of the power of the digital family, and there are many more. I haven’t lived with my parents for almost eight years now, and yet I talk to them every day using instant messaging. Where many families might drift apart, we’ve used the technology available to remain close and up-to-date on each other’s lives (true the phone would work, but that is disruptive and very expensive by comparison). Many people cite our society’s growing reliance on digital devices as a negative thing, but I feel it’s entirely the opposite, and I think the digital family is a great way to illustrate why. Certainly if one person is completely digital but the rest of the family is not, there might be difficulties, but when the entire family is a digital family, there’s lots of benefits.
So here’s my theory in an nutshell:
The digital family embraces technology in all its forms and utilizes it to the fullest extent. As a result, the digital family is stronger, better educated, and has a greater impact on the world around them.
I’m probably not the first person to come up with such a concept, but I think it’s pretty powerful nonetheless. You might have heard of something called the “digital lifestyle”, but very often I find it focuses on the individual instead of the family. Bill Gates’ recent keynote at CES 2006 definitely mentioned some family aspects, but mostly it focused on the individual. And even more often I find that for the individual to follow the digital lifestyle, their entire family needs to be a digital family. So often there are demonstrations of keeping an eye on your kids, or handling your family’s medical information, but those things all require a digital family, not a digital individual, which is why I think the digital family concept is potentially more powerful.
I’m glad my family is a digital family – imagine if every family was!