Thursday, April 14, 2005

[HCI] Families and Work: An Ethnography of Dual Career Families

http://www2.sjsu.edu/depts/anthropology/svcp/SVCPslnr.html

Reading Darrah et al's work on Dual Career families in Silicon Valley is the most fun I've had in a while. Their observations and insights are amazing and are also things that all of us can relate to.

On Chunking Activities...

[A] father explained that he had been unable to locate his daughter at a friend's house since he was not the "relevant parent" for that relationship. Parental obligations for those relationships had been decomposed and sassigned to each parent, which worked until he found himself thrust into an unfamiliar situation.


On Planning and Improvisation...

Planning often began in the families with face-to-face discussions, accompanied by formal record keeping via Palm Pilots, daily planners, charts, lists and Post-Its.

...

Roy Scott, for example, stated that his family had consciously rejected planning and instead took life one day at a time. However, this was possible only because he and his wife had created an infrastructure to absorb improvisation: relatively predictable work hours and an accomodating nanny.

...

The practice of planning also assumes perfect information and an unbounded rationality that is impossible to exercise. Plans seldom unfolded exactly as anticipated and being in contact allowed adaptation to changing realities. Even if plans did unfold as desired, the family members we observed feared that something might go wrong so they maintained contact just to be safe. For their part, families that relied on improvisation did so using predictable building blocks. They implicitly knew who could do what when, and their days were far more predictable than improvisation connotes.

...

The dream of a completely seamless communication system in which someone could instantaneously reach anyone else was ironically as powerful the desire to limit one’s accessibility to others.


On Infrastructure Building...

For one family, hourly emails or phone calls between parents defined acceptable contact, while in another it was the daily phone call between 1 and 2 p.m. that sufficed: plans were reviewed, changes noted and negotiated, and preparations for the evening were made. The exigencies of contact also had profound implications for “accessibility.” The very proliferation of communications devices made contact so easy that many people devised strategies to restrict their own accessibility to others while simultaneously seeking to maximize their ability to reach people. Thus, maintaining contact was embedded in larger systems of channels and buffers that were generally created for the conflicting goals of being in contact while not being contacted.



On Daily Logistics...

Plans seldom worked out exactly as intended, and fears of retrieving a sick child from school or the fear of forgetting a child somewhere were ubiquitous. Logistics, too, involved considerable analysis and they raised important questions.


On The Crowded Life...

But the result we saw in the lives of the families is less that life speeds up than that it becomes possible to take on more and more responsibilities. Whether it is being “empowered” as a consumer to make more decisions about long distance carriers or as a worker to prepare reports without secretarial help, the people we observed were busy performing activities not contemplated even a decade before. Ironically, even nominally labor saving services could make demands on time.

Mr. Carlsberg, for example, commented that with every purchase came a probability that he would be on a customer service or technical assistance line within a few months. Speed and efficiency might be the popular rhetoric, but crowding and making do all too often describe the reality.



On The Managed Life...
This part is really funny, especially since I could easily imagine doing the same with my family.


This report has already described some imports from the workplace to the home, such as Mrs. Mendoza-Jones’ creation of a family mission statement. Her husband used the protocol he had learned to organize fire-fighting efforts to coordinate his home remodeling projects. In another family, a Gantt Chart was used to coordinate preparation of the Thanksgiving dinner. Other imports from work can be difficult to explicate, as when family members use such techniques as conflict resolution to defuse arguments. Still others can be quite explicit, as when the technical assistant from Mr. Flaherty’s office selected and set up the Palm Pilot he used to keep track of work and family obligations.


On Purchasing Services...

Families made numerous decisions about which activities they would perform and which they would export or “outsource” to various providers. Eating meals at restaurants or “cooking” by picking up a roasted chicken at the supermarket deli on the way home are familiar examples. Hiring gardeners, housekeepers, mechanics, and nannies are nothing new, but somewhat more exotic services are increasingly used. Internet grocery delivery, taxi services that specialize in the timely delivery of children at activities, and even personal assistants who purchase gifts and entertain visiting relatives indicate the range of activities that can be outsourced.

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