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Parenting: Honey, I Wired The Kids

In our digital household -- which has the computing power of a small company -- the kids fight for cell-phone privileges, AOL accounts, and computer upgrades. Thank God my wife is chief information officer.

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We have, in our house, among two working parents, two teens, and an 8-year-old, five computers (both Mac and Windows machines in various stages of obsolescence), four cell phones, seven phone lines, two Palm Pilots, one DSL, two ISP connections, a collection of personal domain names, a CD burner, a scanner, and, subject to much contention, one AOL account.

We function, in other words, near the technology level of an average work group in an information-related business. With various careers at home, different levels of schoolwork, the routing of various social and business contacts, and constant clerical and accounting functions, we do pretty much the same things that a work group does.

But a key difference between us and the work group is that the work group has the support of a variety of systems people, and we do not.

My wife, Alison, is a lawyer, and for a long time I wondered how couples got along in the world without at least one spouse's being able to represent the family in business, administrative, tax, and real-estate matters, not to mention disputes with contractors. But my wife is also a technically adroit person (the most technically adroit in our house), and that seems to me now, modern-world-wise, an even more important skill.

Technology focuses family issues. In the future, therapists might say, "How did you feel about your family's technology?"

How does a family function without its own chief information officer?

Not a week passes without substantial purchasing decisions' having to be made, involving issues of functionality, cost, and supplier.

Not a day passes without maintenance and support obligations, if not outright crises, from hard-drive crashes and data-recovery efforts to Coke in keyboards to Mac-Windows incompatibilities to remote-server breakdowns to local-network failures to the problems of having to print large color documents for school projects (late at night, Alison will take this job to Kinko's). When the DSL service was being installed (a multi-month process) and a technician called from the switching station saying, "Lemme speak to who's handling your telecommunications there," I handed Alison the phone.

And not a moment goes by when we are not altogether dependent on the systems she has put in place -- the networking, the jury-rigging, the vendor relationships. ("Who is responsible for this?" my older daughter screeches.)

Of course, like almost all technologically equipped and enabled people, we (the end users in our house) think of ourselves as technologically deprived. We are most conscious of, and most frustrated by, what we don't have.

We don't have a high-quality color printer; we don't have a high-performance copy machine (you have to make copies through the fax); we don't have a wireless network; we don't have a voice-mail system with individual voice mailboxes; we don't have whatever game it is that anyone wants; we don't even have multiple AOL accounts (while AOL offers multiple screen names, only one screen name can be used at a time).

And there are some of us who have lesser machines than others.

Alison is held almost entirely responsible for not only what doesn't work but what we don't have.

"Well, are we ever going to get it?" my middle daughter asks, with infinite resignation.

"It's so unfair," says my 8-year-old son.

Is there a correlation between a traditional motherhood role and this new job of family CIO?

There is really a lot about maintaining a technology system that has similarities to sewing and washing and ironing and satisfying all the old domestic needs. It can be as thankless and frustrating (try holding on a help line). And certainly it's true that like traditional homemaking, the job of family information maintenance is never done. There might not be anything in our domestic lives that touches us so immediately and hotly as our technology (losing e-mail or network access is as paralyzing as having no phone -- "Why not just resign from the human race?" as the older daughter puts it).

It is not just my wife's technical skill (or patience) that has put her into what, I seem to be arguing, is a new kind of fifties-mom-in-digital-clothing paradigm. Along with the mechanical stuff, there is a kind of Zen thing -- or maternal twist, if you will -- you have to apply to technology, which is to understand that no one individual is ever going to be happy; rather, your job is to keep the system itself happy. In other words, this isn't, anymore, a traditional kind of man's thing, an equipment thing, a gizmo thing, a gee-whiz thing, but, in the network world, a connectedness, a nurturing, emotionally fraught whole-family issue.

Possibly, anyway.


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