Even with video platforms like Skype and FaceTime, sometimes her picture on the screen just isn't enough.
Written by Michael Thomsen (@mike_thomsen)
It's getting easier to stay in touch with loved ones because it's getting harder to stay together.
There is a screen capture on my laptop that I keep, taken close to Valentine's Day last year. I have looked at it maybe three times since it was taken, a blurry fullscreen video chat, the face of a woman I used to date filling the center, her eyes looking away in a quick moment of thought before continuing on with some story she was telling me. And there I am in the left corner, a small inset thumbnail, my face worn out from too much work and not enough sleep, gaunt from skipping meals, deep wrinkle lines set around either side of my mouth, and my eyes sadder than I remember feeling at the time, glassy and deep-set, trying to lift my defeated pile of a face into a smile.
It was a miracle in its way, seeing each other and talking while thousands of miles apart, all of the moving parts connecting us, from the massive bundles of fiber carrying our signals beneath the streets, to the coordinated energy shooting through our separate processors, the millions of pixels lighting up in concert—all abstracted by the simple shells of our computers and their dumb finger-sized buttons. It's hard not to feel ambivalence toward such technological wonders, because the delight they provide seems only to draw us deeper into lives born out under irresolvably ambivalent circumstances. Every celebratory moment gives evidence of the conditions which are not celebratory, every optimistic proclamation of hope admits there is some malcontent against which hope must be set.
All of your Skype calls and gchats and Facebook catching up allows us to revive and rekindle these relationships, while normalizing the fact that all of our loves are mostly not present.
Video chat exists because we live in a world where it is needed, a welcome tool to cope with the modern inevitability of leaving almost everyone you will ever have loved in some distant city: Your best friend from kindergarten, your favorite high school teacher, your first kiss, your brother or sister, parents, the co-workers you grew to depend on, an ex, or all of them. Our tools for staying in touch have multiplied alongside the expectation that most of your cherished relationships will have to depend on a phone, or a computer, a web camera, or Twitter fragments. Which is not to say that these technologies are bad—we are always being derailed by arguments over what is good and bad—but that the good they offer is frequently a dim replacement for something brighter and freer, more complex and less mediated, something lacking an "end call" button, something that asks more of us than a simple reply.
Technology has always worked this way. When not explicitly tied to productivity, technology has been guided by a desire to capture things out of time. Wall paintings, sculpture, photography, printed language, phonographic record, telecommunications—all are small gestures of rebellion against time and circumstance, acknowledgements of impermanence. Our technological implements remind us that the experience itself was not enough, but needs capturing and perpetual refreshing in some medium or another, we can never be done contemplating its meaning, returning to its fragments, or adding new ones to the old.
Today, the mysticism inside our technologies is not about passing commemoration of ourselves into the future, but about constantly reminding ourselves that our lives have meanings that depend on loving relationships, intimates whose dislocation we must accept as our lot in modern life. All of your Skype calls and gchats and Facebook catching up allows us to revive and rekindle these relationships, while normalizing the fact that all of our loves are mostly not present. The video chats are nice, and more than nice, happily distracting from the fact that we live in a world where staying in love is not just a universal ideal, but a fight against some overarching force that says love will be a less and less frequent part of one's life, and the channels through which it is expressed narrower and narrower. And from those sweet and infrequent crossings, the only thing we can take is a picture of the screen, proof of what was there, a reminder of what went away.