The struggling Chinese immigrants I met during my anthropological fieldwork are remarkably active online, and most own computers and have DSL/cable, even though they are often very poor. In interviews, they told me they are buying computers for their children’s education and to Skype with relatives, and for personal entertainment. Since the jobs they hold — in the kitchen of Chinese restaurants, as housekeepers, and other low-wage service positions — do not generally involve any computer use, their computer ends up being a hub for family social networking as well as for gaming, watching downloaded Chinese movies, and listening to Chinese music. Their transnational relationships with relatives have a fresh and personal immediacy because of their regular VoIP conversations, made easier now that economic development in China ensures that more and more people there have computers as well. Because the younger generation here often speak but do not read Chinese, while the older generation may not know how to use the keyboard to type Chinese, their computer connections with family in China can veer by necessity more toward oral conversation than to typed out messages. Multiple generations on each end hover around the computer during the call.
I bring this up because I am thinking a lot lately about communication styles, what we find satisfying and what we find alienating. I have been teaching online for CUNY for five years now, in an asynchronous environment on that course management system. I miss just talking, and so I was glad when a student taking my class from South America wanted to Skype with me for office hours. Most of my students just email me when they have questions beyond the scope of what we’re covering on the course site. They tend to lead very busy and far-flung lives, which is why they’re finishing their degrees online, and I don’t think they necessarily miss the human connection as much as I do.
I thought this ‘satisfying vs. alienating’ dichotomy I’m feeling was about text-based communication versus oral communication, whether by phone or Skype or in person…or that maybe it was about real-time versus asynchronous communication. But I’m realizing it is something else, something about personal communication, addressed to me, from someone who sees and understands me, someone who knows my name. Sherry Turkle’s recent book Alone Together (see also her recent New York Times opinion piece) deals with just this issue — how we’re ‘communicating’ more but experiencing it all as rather lonely. This is exacerbated by the fact that many of us are always connected to work, with smart phones telling us at all hours that there is work to do. [The people I interviewed in Brooklyn's Chinatown do not have this intrusive link to the workplace...although they are more likely to actually be at work, six or seven days a week.]
Last week I celebrated my birthday, and I received a birthday card in the mail, from Guess Who? My mother! To get it to me, she had to go to the store and buy a card, get out her reading glasses, find my address in her book, write it out, look for a stamp, and walk to the mailbox. Maybe I’m sentimental about this Ancient Ritual, but I think there is something special about getting snail mail addressed to me from someone who cares enough to plan ahead. I recently defended my dissertation, and was surprised, and charmed, to receive several congratulatory cards in the mail from different people in my life: a friend who had her small children sign it, too; my cute chiropractor; the staff where I teach; a friend who made a card and decorated it with glitter and a piece of my favorite chocolate. I don’t think it is only because they were mailed with stamps that they seem special, either, since I also found it heartwarming to get lots of Likes and Comments on my Facebook status update about this, as well as many texts and a few phone calls.
How could I routinely get 100 emails a day and many texts and still feel an unsatisfied social impulse? As Turkle’s book expresses it:
My own study of the networked life left me thinking about intimacy — about being with people in person, hearing their voices, and seeing their faces, trying to know their hearts.
I don’t know about you, but I think it is good to sometimes be radical, pick up the phone, and call somebody. Mail them a card with your children’s doodles…even go so far as to meet up in person, and give each other undivided attention. After a day spent feverishly responding to all the incoming messages and work-related demands on my time, if feels good to be part of a communication that’s truly personal.