Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Computer-mediated Christmas

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.


Elizabeth said...

Thanks, Adam, for this really interesting reflection on technology and what we gain and lose by it. I, too, am very aware of the effects of being far away from my loved ones, having four different places I call "home" across the United States.

It seems to me that technology helps me keep up my twenty-something, plugged-in best of all worlds. I can travel, be independent and "do what I want" while maintaining my important relationships more easily via the Internet and mobile phones. Talking to Amber on the webcam isn't the same as talking to her across the table at Perkins, or emailing my sweetie across the country isn't the same as walking down the street holding hands, but I probably wouldn't have very close relationships with either of them if we weren't able to communicate as easily as we do with technology.

It seems like technology allows people shaped by Western, American culture two of our most important ideals: to travel and manifest our destiny in far-away places; and to keep close to the people we choose to love. Whether this is good, bad, or somewhere in between is something we'll find out later, perhaps.

Anyhow, thanks for sharing a little bit about what you're working on! It sure got me thinking.

teresa said...

"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 too, have been thinking about this in the last few years. Globalization is amazing and terrifying. I DO, at times, feel 'spread thin' as I attempt to convey loving thoughts to people all around this globe, even as I also participate in my local community. Am I fully present to the place in which I live? How could I be, when my mother, boyfriend, best friends all live in other places?

Yes, certainly, 'the ties that bind' have been weakened by our tendency to travel. Even as I love, I do not know my loved ones as thoroughly as I might. But perhaps I know and love myself a little more because I've challenged myself to live 'alone' for a while in this big scary world.

E, Amber, I love you. Here, today.