cleavers13.jpg

If you’re in your mid to late 30s (or beyond) and were born and/or raised in North America, chances are you spent a good portion of your childhood in the Cleaver house. A la Beaver, you would come home from school every day and there would be Mom (even you didn’t think of her as June), waiting eagerly for your return, hoping you didn’t get your head stuck between fence posts, cookies in hand, greeting you at the front door. Once inside you’d find that Dad (no, not Ward) had come home early and was reading the newspaper in the living room. And, yes, he was still wearing his ‘slacks’.

That ‘times have changed’ is as much an acknowledgement of what is continually so as it is of my age (and what was on TV when I was a kid). One thing that’s changed is that fewer, if any, young kids actually watch Leave It To Beaver. I haven’t checked but, if the Hilarious House of Frightenstein is any indication, it must be airing on one of those retro channels. I might say that my own daughter, who spends much of her time growing up in the White House with Corey, at Hannah Montana’s place, and in the Tipton hotel with Zack & Cody, has yet to ‘discover’ the aesthetic pleasure of the black & white era. But the fact is that, unless she becomes something of a semi-academic film buff in her later years, I’m not sure that she or any of her contemporaries ever will. The momentum that pop culture has gathered in the recent years has new content rolling out so quickly that, like VCRs and land lines, I wonder if black & white has an obsolescence associated with it. (That typed as she runs around town with the Mayor collecting goodies in Wii Sims.)

Another thing that’s changed is June and Ward’s space – the house – and their time and place in it and outside of it. Few Junes are at home baking cookies after school. More Wards get RSS. And their kids? That’s where the real change is going down. Or, at least, where it is being most registered.

According to “Changes in American children’s time: 1981 – 1997,” a University of Michigan Institute for Social Research survey from a decade ago, time and place is not what it once was. Among the findings in that 16-year period, the study noted a 33% drop in family dinners, a reduction in kids’ free time by almost 12 hours per week (9 of them being play time which, if you know anything, is more valuable than an entire public school career’s worth of math class), a reduction of 50% in their unstructured outdoor activities (add that the math too), a doubling of structured sports activities to 5.5 hours per week, an increase in non-sporty kids hanging around their siblings’ sidelines, and a 50% increase in homework.

There’s a chance that the homework stat has changed, considering how study after study has shown that its anxiety-inducing effects on young students and their families is totally counterproductive to a positive school experience. Others might have too. I don’t know. I do know that there are similar time & space altering forces at work on the parents of those kids and, for that matter, on working non-parents. Anyone who doubts that based on their own corner-of-the-world experience need only consider the extent to which we, as actors in pop culture, attempt to control that time & space by watching others renovate their homes, design the perfect Greco-Roman bathroom, reorganize their closets, cook the perfect 5-minute meal and, if work happens to cut into the TV schedule of those who still watch it, TiVo it all or rip torrents for the whole week.

To get to my point: the time & space of the home has changed over the years. The first serious ‘modern’ morphing occurred with major labor shifts in the 1850s and, once again, with women entering the WW2 workforce. In each instance there was an historical response to these social changes in household performances of time and space through memory: a boom in photography, a ‘focus’ on youth photography, an interest in lineage, a growing appreciation for the home as a nest, a refuge, a place of identity re-gathering.

My question is, How will digital shifts in recent years transform our sense of the home or household? I’ll frame that in a few of ‘influences’ to consider and hope for comments.

1. Digital photography
Family/travel/etc. photos used to be stored in an heirloom box, a drawer or up on a wall in a frame. Today, most of them are on the family desktop, an iPod etc. ‘Space’ has become more digital. What does this say to how we store memories? The meaning of memory? The spatial anchoring of identity in the past? And the place it occupies in our present life spaces?

2. Web
Photos/postcards/articles/etc. used to be stored next to the prints or in scrapbooks. Now, interests, mementos and memories sit in a folder next to the digi pics. We have access to other people’s interests, mementos and memories through Facebook, MySpace, Flickr, geotagging etc. Is our sense of family growing? Becoming less physically bounded as it did when trains and steam ships empowered us to visit distant relatives? Or is the only thing growing our apetite for vicarious living?

3. Online shopping
Like the photos that generations past used for building cozy nests to raise their chicks in family trees reaching high into a known and secure past, the worms that are being plucked today are not necessarily from dewy lawns flown to but shipped without the need for flight. Like the Web and, to some extent, TV and radio before it, how will having access to more of ‘the world’ transform how we build the household nest in years to come?

Social networks
4. Family trees have been big business for years. Just check the Mormon Church’s website, Henry Louis Gates’ African American lives, and the phenomenon’s first big boom in the Victorian area. Now, are networks are about friends (Facebook), colleagues (LinkedIn) and such. Is inviting those who are far from us into the time & space of our homes (and being invited into theirs) doing something?

In show-dropping the Cleavers and worrying that I may never be able to tell my daughter to stop being such an Eddie Haskel (cause I know she may never get that reference), I guess my one big question is this:

If memory has been what John R. Gillis (in “Our Imagined Families: The Myths and Rituals We Live By”) has called “the dominant muse of our time,” will – and, if so, how and as what – will the digital space usher in as the next dominant muse?

Advertisements