The Virtual Home

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin
 

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The family is the mainspring of support of every kind. It mobilizes psychological resources and alleviates emotional burdens. It allows for the sharing of tasks, provides material goods together with cognitive training. It is the prime socialization agent and encourages the absorption of information, most of it useful and adaptive.

This division of labour between parents and children is vital both to development and to proper adaptation. The child must feel, in a functional family, that he can share his experiences without being defensive and that the feedback that he is likely to receive will be open and unbiased. The only "bias" acceptable (because it is consistent with constant outside feedback) is the set of beliefs, values and goals that is internalized via imitation and unconscious identification. So, the family is the first and the most important source of identity and of emotional support. It is a greenhouse wherein a child feels loved, accepted and secure - the prerequisites for the development of personal resources. On the material level, the family should provide the basic necessities (and, preferably, beyond), physical care and protection and refuge and shelter during crises.

Elsewhere, we have discussed the role of the mother (The Primary Object). The father's part is mostly neglected, even in professional literature. However, recent research demonstrates his importance to the orderly and healthy development of the child.

He participates in the day to day care, is an intellectual catalyst, who encourages the child to develop his interests and to satisfy his curiosity through the manipulation of various instruments and games. He is a source of authority and discipline, a boundary setter, enforcing and encouraging positive behaviours and eliminating negative ones. He also provides emotional support and economic security, thus stabilizing the family unit. Finally, he is the prime source of masculine orientation and identification to the male child - and gives warmth and love as a male to his daughter, without exceeding the socially permissible limits.

These traditional roles of the family are being eroded from both the inside and the outside. The proper functioning of the classical family was determined, to a large extent, by the geographical proximity of its members. They all huddled together in the "family unit" an identifiable volume of physical space, distinct and different to other units. The daily friction and interaction between the members of the family moulded them, influenced their patterns of behaviour and their reactive patterns and determined how successful their adaptation to life would be.

With the introduction of modern, fast transportation and telecommunications, it was no longer possible to confine the members of the family to the household, to the village, or even to the neighbourhood. The industrial revolution splintered the classical family and scattered its members. Still, the result was not the disappearance of the family but the formation of the nuclear families: leaner and meaner units of production. The extended family (three or four generations) spread its wings over a much bigger volume of physical space but in principle, remained almost intact. Grandma and grandpa would live in one city with a few of the younger or less successful aunts and uncles. Their other daughters or sons would be married and moved to live either in another part of the same city, or in another geographical location (even in another continent). But the physical contact was maintained by more or less frequent visits, reunions and meetings on opportune or critical occasions.

However, a series of developments in the second half of our century threatens to disconnect the family from its physical dimension. We are in the process of experimenting with the family of the future: the virtual family. This is a family devoid of any spatial (geographical) or temporal identity. Its members do not necessarily share the same genetic heritage (the same blood lineage). It is bound mainly by communication, rather than by interests. Its domicile is cyberspace, its residence in the realm of the symbolic.

It all started with the "Home Away from Home" business concept. Multinational brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonalds fostered familiarity where previously there was none. Needless to say that the etymological closeness between "family" and "familiar" is no accident. The estrangement felt by foreigners in a foreign place was, thus, alleviated, as the world was fast becoming mono-cultural. The "Family of Man" and the "Global Village" are here to replace the nuclear family and the physical, historic, village. This trend of making the world a thoroughly familiar place through the formation and dissemination of global brands came on top of earlier trends of urbanization and industrialization. These earlier trends pulverized the structure of the family, by placing it under enormous pressures and by relegating most of its functions to outside agencies. Education was taken over by schools, health by (national or private) health plans, entertainment by television, interpersonal communication by telephony and computers, socialization by the mass media and the school system and so on. Devoid of its traditional functions, subject to torsion and other elastic forces the family was torn apart and gradually stripped of its meaning. The main functions left to the family unit were the provision of the comfort of familiarity (shelter) and serving as a physical venue for leisure activities. It was the former role that was attacked by the global brands.

The latter function fell prey to the advance of the internet and digital and wireless telecommunications. Whereas the hallmark of the classical family was that it had clear spatial and temporal coordinates the virtual family has none. Its members can (and often do) live in different continents. They communicate by digital means. They have electronic mail (rather than the physical post office box). They have a "HOME page". They have a "webSITE". In other words, they have the virtual equivalents of geographical reality, a "VIRTUAL reality" or "virtual existence". In the not so distant future, people will visit each other electronically and sophisticated cameras will allow them to do so in three-dimensional format. Voicemail and videomail messages will be left in electronic "boxes" to be retrieved at the convenience of the recipient. The temporal dimension, which was hitherto indispensable in human interactions is becoming unnecessary. Meetings in person will be made redundant with the advent of video-conferencing.

The family will not remain unaffected. A clear distinction will emerge between the biological family and the virtual family. A person will be born into the first but will regard this fact as accidental. Blood relations will count less than virtual relations. Individual growth will involve the formation of a virtual family, as well as a biological one (=getting married and having children). People will feel equally at ease anywhere in the world for two reasons:

a. There will be no appreciable or discernible difference between geographical locations. Separate will no longer mean disparate. A McDonald's and a Coca-Cola and a Hollywood produced movie will be available everywhere and always. So will the internet treasures of knowledge and entertainment.

b. The interaction plane with the outside world will be minimized. People will conduct their lives more and more indoors. They will communicate with others (their biological original family included) via telecommunications devices and the internet. They will spend most of their time, work and create in the cyber-world. Their true (really, only) home will be their website. Their only reliably permanent address will be their e-mail address. Their enduring friendships will be with co-chatters. They will work from home, flexibly and independently of others. They will customize their cultural selections, using 500 channel televisions based on video on demand technology. Hermetic and mutually exclusive universes will be the end result of this process. People will be linked by very few common experiences within the framework of virtual communities. They will carry their world with them as they move about. The miniaturization of storage devices will permit them to carry whole libraries of data and entertainment in their suitcase or backpack.

It is true that all these predictions are extrapolations of trends, which are in their embryonic stages and are limited to affluent, English-speaking, societies in the West. But the trends are clear and they mean ever-increasing differentiation, isolation and individuation. This is the last assault, which the family will not survive. Already most households consist of "irregular" families (single parents, same sex, etc.). The rise of the virtual family will sweep these transitory forms aside.

(See also: "Internet - A Medium or a Message?")
 
 


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