Sunday, June 21, 2015

So Many Screens, So Little Time Together

I have little doubt that my teenage daughter and her friends get tired of their middle-aged mothers waxing poetic about "the good old days." 

Often, our memories aren't even that rose-colored. Much of the time, we're pointing out all the privileges and luxuries that our offspring enjoy that we didn't — or couldn't — way back when.

Invariably, the greatest contrast between the then and the now falls into the category of technology. 

When I was growing up, our family had one television. (In fact, it was a black and white one until my father splurged when I was in the sixth grade and we moved up to color.) Five people, one TV, and just three networks plus PBS and a couple of independent stations — until cable came along which more than doubled our options and gave us what seemed like a magical new one, the commercial-free movies of an early HBO.

Even with all those alternatives, though, the television was a great entertainment unifier. When it came down to it, you had one choice really: watch what everyone else was watching. Or don't watch at all.

(Does anyone remember books? But, I digress.)

Consider the very different situation in our wired household today. We have a much smaller family, but many more screens. We have three televisions, all color (a small one in the kitchen, a medium one tucked into an antique Chinese cabinet in the living room, and the widest widescreen we could fit into a built-in in what we call a family room but what is, in essence, a TV and a couch). And, we have far fewer televisions (per capita or otherwise) than most contemporary families we know.

But, wait. There's more. With apologies to Madonna, we are living in a digital world. So, we need to count the four computers in the house (one each, plus a company-owned laptop that my husband brings back and forth from his office each day). I received an iPad for my fiftieth birthday (the screen of which has since been cracked, and not by me). Plus, we each have an iPhone, which can stream YouTube videos, entire TV episodes and movies too. 

So, measuring by today's more varied options, we have eleven screens for three people. I'm sorry (or maybe proud) to say that no one owns an Apple Watch yet. 

Then again, check with me in a year or so. 

What does all this mean? Well, choice, obviously. We have more than a thousand channels via our cable company, plus time-shifted DVR recordings, on demand options and pay-per-view. Thanks to my brother (who has, for years, been the supplier for our media habits), we have access to Netflix and Amazon Prime, which adds tens or maybe hundreds of thousands more titles to the mix. Our DVD and VHS (yes, VHS) collection would be massive by 1999 standards and is still respectable today.

And so, in addition to a rather mind-numbing number of options, the other byproduct of all this is that there is no reason, pretty much ever, for the whole family to relax together in one room in front of the same screen.

Assuming my husband has no handyman projects, I have no deadlines and the offspring has no homework, you can usually find us in separate rooms, consuming different programs. This leads to peaceful cohabitation perhaps. But not much else. When your show of choice is over, there's no one to compare notes with.

There are a handful of exceptions. (We watched Downton Abbey together — via a boxed set pre-ordered from I highly recommend this route to any other rabid fans. You'll get the final season two full months before the rest of the yanks.) But, in general, in our house and others, television has become a rather private and isolating activity.

Would I rather take a step backward to less choice but more family time?

Yes, yes I would. 

But, don't tell my daughter. 

She doesn't need another confirmation of how out of it I am.

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