Tue, May 03, 2011 - Page 16 News List

Left to our own devices

Smartphones, iPads, laptops and other gadgets have drastically changed how we spend time with loved ones, and some people say it’s a change for the better

By Alex Williams  /  NY Times News Service, New York

Illustration: Taipei Times

It was a vision of family togetherness out of a Norman Rockwell painting, if Rockwell had worked in the era of Wi-Fi. After a taco dinner one Wednesday in March, Dianne Vavra and her family retreated to the living room of their Cape Cod-style house in Huntington, New York, where they curled up on the spacious beige sofa amid hand-stitched quilts as an icy rain pelted the windows.

Vavra, a cosmetics industry executive in Manhattan, looked up from her iPad, where she was catching up on the latest spring looks at Refinery29.com, and noticed that her husband, Michael Combs, was transfixed, streaming the NCAA men’s basketball tournament on his laptop. Their son, Tom, 8, was absorbed by the Wii game Mario Kart on the widescreen television. Their daughter, Eve, 10, was fiddling with a game app called the Love Calculator on an iPod Touch. “The family was in the same room, but not together,” Vavra recalled.

One family. One room. Four screens. Four realities, basically. While it may look like some domestic version of The Matrix — families sharing a common space, but plugged into entirely separate planes of existence through technology — a scene like this has become an increasingly familiar evening ritual. As a result, the living room can often seem less like an oasis for shared activity, even if that just means watching television together, than an entangled intersection of data traffic — everyone huddled in a cyber-cocoon.

Call it what you will, it is a wholly different form of quality time.

The culture of home-based iDistraction has already become a pop-culture trope, and no wonder: Never has there been so much to consume, on so many devices. On a recent episode of ABC’s Modern Family, the character Claire Dunphy explodes when she tries to serve the family breakfast, only to be ignored by a husband adjusting his fantasy baseball roster on his iPad, a son playing video games on his PSP and two daughters e-mailing each other from across the table. “OK, now that’s it, everybody, gadgets down, now!” she declares. “You’re all so involved in your little gizmos, nobody is even talking. Families are supposed to talk!”

Haley, the eldest daughter, writes to her sister, Alex, “Mom’s insane,” as everyone returns to their screens.

Billy Crystal, in an interview with Jon Stewart on The Daily Show, joked that couples these days have no qualms about texting someone else during sex — “Oh, is that you!” “Yes!” “LOL!”


Certainly, people have been hyper-wired as long as there have been laptops, and the tendency became more pronounced with the advent of wireless Internet. Nearly 60 percent of American families with children own two or more computers, and more than 60 percent of those have either a wired or wireless network to connect to the Internet, according to studies by the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project. A third of all Americans log on from home multiple times a day, nearly twice the number that did so in 2004.

On top of that, iPads have inundated homes since they were introduced a year ago, as have fast-downloading smartphones. Media companies are jumping on board to make sure their content is available at any time, on any device. In the last six months, Netflix has added thousands of movies available for instant streaming, via its Watch Instantly option. In March, Time Warner Cable made its entire slate of programming available on an iPad app. Subscribers to MLB.TV can stream major league baseball games any day of the week through a US$14.99 iPhone app. And Amazon recently announced a plan to make e-books from 11,000 public libraries available on its Kindle this year.

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