Sunday, December 18, 2011

Nostalgia, technology and Christmas

It's almost Christmas, and time for nostalgia. Everywhere people try to find or create the most authentic Christmas spirit; scents, lights, colours and decorations as "real" and "original" as possible. Here in the little Danish apartment we have been experimenting with the Danish version of "real", and we think we will make it. Testing the traditional Christmas duck some weeks ago, our neighbours commented it smelled like Christmas. That, to me, was success, even if our guest at the time was not happy about the sauce. It was not like his grandmother makes it...

And so, nostalgia creeps into everything, and reading Sherry Turkle's Alone Together, the chapter on nostalgia, put it firmly on the map. After all, I am now old enough that my memories of the past and the nostalgia surrounding it no longer match.

In Turkle's book youths long for a past when they would write and receive letters, and hold long phone conversations. They romanticise the letters, the sense of personal connection that the hand-written note held. What they know very little about is the treshold for writing and sending a letter. The physical process combined with the cost made letters rare even back then.

I used to be a prolific writer, and had pen-friends around the planet - there were international pen-pal agencies, where youths would be sent a number of addresses to write to. If you did not get a response, you could get a new pen-friend: not getting responses was part of the expectation. Getting a response was rare, the rule was nothing would come out of it. Being an active writer I was an anamoly among my peers, several of my friends who signed up and received addresses and letters never followed through - just like the people we wrote to. Receiving a letter means you have to write a letter: put effort and energy into it. The other person doesn't smoothly integrate into your regular communication habits. Yes, receiving a hand-written letter is an event, and sending it is an act of personalised effort, but this effort wasn't such a common way of staying connected as the nostalgia of youth indicates.

The other aspect of nostalgia in Turkle's book is her own nostalgia for her past, the letters between mother and daughter, with a comparison to what she experiences as depersonalised Skype or IM communication. She describes how mothers dress up and put on make-up before skyping their daughters, staging the communication, and how she misses that deep connection she used to have with her mother, expressed in snail-mail.

Again, I suspect this is a case of wishing for something other than a communication method. I miss my mother, but I do not miss the effort of communicating with her when I moved away to study at the University of Bergen. She rarely wrote letters, and if I wrote her, she'd comment on it in the next phone-call, rather than respond in writing. The calls were few and far-between, and even if I do feel a certain nostalgia about the beautiful phone center in the middle of Bergen, I do not miss the disconnected and guilt-ridden conversations between me and my parents: my father always very to-the-point, giving a short list of events since the last call and asking a few questions, mainly focused on what I wanted with the call, my mother not much more forthcoming.

To me, the skype and chat sessions with my own daughter are both a lot warmer and a lot more naturally integrated in my everyday life. Since we both work at universities where we spend a lot of our time on computers, we are never more than a few keystrokes apart. We lurk in the background of each others' everyday life in a way my parents and older sisters never did. My younger sister, however, shares much of the same qualities of presence in our communication: No painful, duty-ridden phone-calls, but easy messages for private matters and mutual comments on what parts of the daily life we choose to share online.

As for the Skype sessions with my children, they are a delight. It normally happens when both they and we have time, or we want to show each other something. We carry the wireless lap-tops through the rooms, showing each others everything from where the cat sleeps to the new curtains or where our partners work. We just chat and hang out for hours, keeping the connection open while we do other things; we discuss cooking and share experiences, or worry about research issues or health. I would never exchange those easy, personal and close sessions for a letter, no matter how well written. I want to hear and see them laugh, hear the partners banter from the side, have my husband move in and take over when he is too eager, running off with the whole machine to see or show something else. I suspect that when the time comes, I will be nostalgic about these sessions, talking about how much closer we were, how much love we shared through the often delayed images with the horrible feedback from built-in speakers and microphones. It will never be better than the real thing, being with them, face to face, but it's lightyears better than a scheduled half-hour on the phone.

Of course, my experiences and my lack of nostalgia about analogue communication isn't important, it's the young people's sense of being disconnected through technology that is important. But in these days of Christmas, it is however quite amusing to see how extensively nostalgia distorts the past.

One of the most popular pre-Christmas shows on Norwegian television is Jul i Skomakergata - "Christmas on Cobbler Road." It was sent for the first time in 1979, which was the middle of my last year in high-school. Even then it was nostalgic: An old-fashioned cobbler, of which there were very few left, in a peaceful stret where it always snowed and where colourful characters would drop by to have a chat with the cobbler over a cup of coffee or gløgg. Non-alcoholic, of course, since this was Norwegian children's television. Jens Petrus, the main character, would banter with Tøflus, the doll made from a slipper, talking about the importance of sharing with those less fortunate, showing little film clips several of which were about human rights, and in general talk about the important topics for christmas: love and good will towards all men. It's no wonder it's popular, because it is warm, friendly, generous, and the host was one of Norway's best loved actors. It was, however, even in 1979 considered extremely romantic and nostalgic, depicting a time lost forever with values we could only try to aspire to.

Imagine my amazement when I heard a radio-debate about this show in 2011, where adults claimed, straightfaced, that it had been created in a time when things moved slower, when we were less materialistic, when love of our neighbours was more important than it is today. What has happened? Are all who remember the late seventies and eighties braindead? (Actually, considering the popularity of recreational drugs, disco and shoulderpads that's likely.) In Norway, this was the time when people finally had enough money to start buying brand-name clothing. Cobblers were out of fashion, because shoes were made to be used and thrown out, repairing and hand-making was for arts and crafts freaks and really old-fashioned poor people, and the banking crisis due to over-consumption was right around the corner. It was the peak of the waste culture, when "green" was only a colour, and Norway loved America due to the wealth and surplus of the American life-style. And still people manage to claim it was a less materialistic time? If somebody in -79 had tried to give away a goat in Africa for Christmas, they would have been considered cheap and outside of the all-important exchange of material goods, cut off from the chain of reciprocity for ever.

For the record, I still think Jul i Skomakergata is good children's television, and I think NRK should definitely air it once in a while, to delight new viewers and, particularly, their nostalgic parents. It's about the ideal of Christmas. Also, I think young people should write each other and their parents paper letters, take time to call or go visit friends, and hang out face to face.

What I don't want is for people to feel they have missed out because they are alive now, and not then. I think Sherry Turkle should write her daughter and send her physical letters, for her daughter to find and read in 30 years, but remember that even back then, given the technology, not all mothers and daughters would have stayed in touch through Skype or IM. And it's almost easier to get things repaired or recycled today than it was 30 years ago. Go green, and use your local cobbler!

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