If it's Tuesday, I must be the 'relevant parent'

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Tools for navigating life in Silicon Valley: Manage time by "chunking," avoid "drag units" at all costs, and if you've got children, make a point of remembering if you are today's "relevant parent."

Translation: Life in the technology fast lane requires doing more in compressed blocks of time, avoid people who can become drags on efficiency, and keep track of who is picking up the children from school.

No one said living through a technology revolution was going to be easy. Now, coping measures are reaching a high art here, where the revolution is furthest along.

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Looking on with curiosity is a team of anthropologists who have spent the past two years shadowing a dozen families in Silicon Valley to help describe its emerging culture.

What they found is that, at its most fundamental level, the technology revolution is altering people's sense of time, collapsing boundaries between work and home, saturating children with electronic gadgets, and creating a fair amount of moral uncertainty along the way.

Such trends will probably sound familiar to families in Toledo, Ohio, and Phoenix. Such is the spread of technology and its cultural influences.

Indeed, team leaders Jan English-Lueck and Charles Darrah are fond of saying people in Silicon Valley are probably pretty much like they are everywhere else. Only more so.

"It's not so much that the people in this technology culture are unique," says Ms. English-Lueck of San Jose State University. "They're experiencing many of the same things everyone else is, just to a different magnitude."

The anthropological study of Silicon Valley, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is the first of its kind. And while it will run another five years, a snapshot of early findings was presented earlier this month at the American Anthropological Association.

Speaking of the Silicon Valley subjects, English-Lueck says, "This is clearly a pioneering lifestyle, and people don't have firm moral guideposts."

It's not that technology is creating sweeping concerns about the meaning of life. Rather, it fosters a host of pragmatic questions that, while not new, come with unprecedented force and urgency.

For instance, while households of an earlier era might have been able to keep work-related issues at arm's length from the family, technology has made that impossible. The gadgets themselves keep people constantly connected - both a blessing and a curse, according to the families interviewed. And that is changing norms of behavior. Mom and dad are now apt to have their laptops on at some point between dinner and tucking the children into bed.

Parents here are in such a constant state of connectedness that researchers are concerned about what influence this is having on families in general, and children in particular. And it's not just worry about the time involved, but the impressions children get from observing their parents' relationship with work at close range.

The families of Silicon Valley, says Mr. Darrah, are feeling their way through such questions. Many make conscious decisions to "buffer the core," meaning protect certain family functions at all costs, whether it's pizza and a video on Friday nights or the weekend soccer game.

Another moral dimension of parenting in a fast-paced, wired environment is who, at any time of day, is the "relevant parent."

For many dual-worker families, parental duties are carved up depending on the day of week and time of day. When Dad ends an afternoon meeting, he has to remember whether he is the "relevant parent" that day and must pick up the child. When in doubt, multiple phone calls, voice mails, and e-mails often ensue.

This kind of parsing of responsibility is necessary for many families nowadays, but can create its own moral dilemmas for parents, particularly when mistakes are made. Not to worry, though - an absent parent is usually just a pager beep away.

This constant changing of roles through the day is what the researchers call "chunking" of time. Previously discrete worlds of work and home are constantly overlapping. One-hour business meetings are broken into 15 minute mini-meetings, interrupted by family or personal tasks, and completed on the cellphone driving home or by e-mail after the kids go to bed.

"This culture is teaching us all to do rapid shifting from one social environment to another, almost without thinking. Technology helps make it possible, but it's also very taxing on people," Darrah says.

The picture that emerges of family life in Silicon Valley is like an elaborately choreographed dance, says English-Lueck. Parents stay in touch through the day, thanks to pagers, cellphones, and e-mail, shifting responsibilities and functions regularly, depending on how the day evolves.

Children, based on the 12 families observed, are increasingly a part of this web of responsibilities. In many cases, children take on the role of technology expert in the family and are perplexed by parental attempts to control their use of computers and the Internet. "For kids who have grown up with this stuff, it's like someone trying to control the amount of oxygen in the air," says Darrah.

Despite all the talk of stress and accelerated schedules, the anthropologists say the families for the most part are upbeat. For most, there is a feeling that being in Silicon Valley means have a ringside seat to the future. Even the ones struggling economically say they take pride in the opportunities they are making available to their children.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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