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California and the West

Computer Culture Breeds Ambivalence

Families: Some parents in the Silicon Valley struggle to set boundaries on their children's gadget use while acknowledging the importance of high-tech literacy.


PALO ALTO — Hal Jerman places himself at just about dead-center of today's technology-driven Silicon Valley society. He's neither a zealot nor a Luddite.

The 47-year-old software engineer with the salt-and-pepper beard has been involved in five Internet start-ups. Yet he disdains Palm Pilots, cell phones, laptops--even the ubiquitous pager.

Life in the eye of the computer tornado, he says, can be deceptively simple.

"I believe only the fringe minority of this valley allows technology to drive their lives," he said Saturday as he browsed the aisles of his neighborhood Fry's Electronics store. "Some people can't live without their Palm Pilots, but for many of the rest of us, they're an unnecessary annoyance. That can be said of a lot of things around here."

That kind of ambivalence was on the mind of many residents Saturday in the wake of a detailed study released Thursday by a team of San Jose State University anthropologists determined to chronicle technology's sweeping effects on Silicon Valley culture.

Spending thousands of hours interviewing and tailing 14 middle-class families, the researchers found that the ever-present technology has shaped not only people's work, but their home lives as well.

The researchers described a world in which some of their subjects--ever hungry to consume the newest gadgets that technology has to offer--preferred to spend a Saturday at a place like Fry's rather than a family-oriented destination such as the zoo. People told of choosing friends and spouses with their career in mind. And yet, at home, they talked about struggling with the need to set boundaries on high-tech's tentacles--often controlling the hours their children use the computer and setting "no e-mail" times during the dinner hour.

Two aisles over in Fry's on Saturday, Monica Alderette, a 32-year-old software saleswoman, was torn between buying her nephew a new computer or a robot. "In Silicon Valley, there is this voracious appetite for the new stuff, and not just among the kids," she said.

"Technology is life here. We seek it out. We embrace it. In some places, technology is moving too fast, but in the Silicon Valley it's not moving fast enough for most people. I'm already worrying that my kids won't get on the computer science bandwagon at school, and I haven't even had them yet."

The computer, she says, has altered the area's social landscape. "Friends will say to me 'Hey, your niece was online last night. We talked. She's a nice kid.' To me, that's so amazing. People don't say their hellos on the street anymore like they do in most of America. Here they do it online."

But some at Fry's said they feel the need to control the way technology invades their homes and touches their children.

"It's like parents elsewhere are grappling with television--many of my friends here are trying to decide how much computer time is bad for their children," said Glenn Stewart, a designer of telecommunications testing systems and the father of a 15-year-old son.

"We're concerned about who he talks to online, who his virtual friends are. We don't know what's appropriate, and we're struggling with that."

Stewart personifies another quality the San Jose State researchers found in their subjects: an emotional, near-religious zeal for their work. Many relish the sense that they're improving the world and that their work may one day help solve society's deepest problems.

"I believe that--it's why I came here 21 years ago," Stewart said as he shopped for a decidedly low-tech book light for an upcoming camping trip. "This is the mecca of evolving high technologies. It's the place to be."

Jamie Alexander said he shares Stewart's concern about the high-tech culture's effect on children. Alexander, who works in the stock investment business, said he sees technology's powerful effect on his family, right down to his 4-year-old daughter, Marielle.

"Already, she's saying, 'I want my dot-com,' " he said. "It's cute, but it's also kind of scary. She can't even read yet. I've told her that she can have her computer only after she has learned all her ABCs and knows all the numbers up to 20. And I can see her mind working. She wants that computer."

While he chooses not to dabble in any high-tech toys, Hal Jerman admits that he encourages his own daughter to take the plunge.

"My daughter has used a computer since she was 3 years old," he says. "The marriage of kids and computers is taken for granted around here. I don't know of any 3- or 4-year-old who doesn't have some kind of drawing program. We're raising the next generation of computer visionaries."

Over in the store's software aisle, Steve Apple said he reluctantly agrees with that notion.

Apple works in the publishing industry--a world apart from the high-tech rank and file. Far from being transfixed by computers, he feels like he's a nonbeliever in a community where others follow the required religion with a missionary's sense of passion.

But he knows he can't let that bias affect his 11-year-old son, Jeremy. So he encourages him to stay abreast of his peers in their zest for the computer life. "I know," he says, "that he'll be at a disadvantage if we don't."

And the irony isn't lost upon Apple that in much of the Silicon Valley and elsewhere, his last name has become synonymous with the high-tech world.

"Yeah," says the 39-year-old Palo Alto resident. "I used to tell people my last name was Apple, like the fruit. But around here, I say, 'Apple, you know, like the computer.' "

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