As Amber noted in her last post, we experienced a computer-mediated gift opening this year. My folks and my brother Matt were together in Colorado Springs and we communicated via our web cams with voice while we opened presents. It was particularly interesting for me, because my work involves philosophically reflecting on the new media, such as the Internet. Mostly what I do is try to think about how these technologies impact our lives, especially in what sense we could say they improve or diminish the quality of our lives and our relationships.
My first point is more historical than philosophic. Even a few years ago, we wouldn't have had the technology to pull this off. And only fifteen or twenty years ago, we would have only phone, and at that it would have been very expensive (certainly not the 1.5 cents/minute on yahoo). And before that...well letters, I guess. So, I am grateful for the experience and keep in mind the advantages of living in an age where space can be so easily overcome. The Internet definitely makes it easier to stay in touch with family and friends.
Then again, it also encourages people like us to leave our friends and family behind in the first place because we know it will be easier to stay in touch. It also makes me think about a point Thomas Friedman made in an article a while back. Information technologies can keep strong connections alive over long distances, but in so doing they can weaken the formation of ties within local communities. I don't think Amber and I have fallen in that trap, though, because we also visited a Dutch family on that day and had an excellent meal with them. This reminds me that technology leaves at least some room for user discretion.
But maybe the most interesting point is that it just wasn't the same as actually being there. I could see the faces of my family, see their Christmas tree, and even our cats. But the experience of Christmas is not primarily visual, at least not for me. It also includes the tastes and smells of our traditional meal (fondue) and the feel of petting the cats, napping on the couch by the tree, sitting in front of the fire, etc. But more so, what was missing was what I could call the whole "schema" of an embodied being-togetherness. To be with family, unmediated, is to be oriented around the same activities and in the same place. It is to share a common schedule and rhythym. We play cards, watch the football game, do the crossword puzzle together, go out to the mall, and go on a walk around our neighborhood, and go out to dinner and then drive slowly home, taking the long way to look at all the lights on the houses. It is the innumerable strands of a shared schema or orientation that make, for me, an unmediated Christmas superior to the mediated kind.
That said, I agree with Amber that it was good to be here this Chrismas and experience another culture's rhythms at the holiday time. Many thanks to my family for all the gifts and for our experiment in mediating the season. Though much was lost, much was also recovered and came through with bittersweet reassurance in your smiling faces and laughing voices.