söndag 22 december 2013

Communication technologies as an umbilical cord

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We are on vacation and will not come back to Sweden until next summer. My children's initial enthusiasm for moving abroad was lukewarm, especially in the case of my eldest (10 years old). He can appreciated what he will loose while being away from Sweden for half a year (his friends), but he can't appreciated what he can/might/will gain (new experiences, new friends, much better command of the English language). The opinions of my youngest (6 years old) is less relevant - he was easily bribed by promising a visit to Disneyland and other theme parks in Southern California...

I thought leaving Sweden would constitute a clean break between my children and their friends. We have a bunch of e-mail addresses and Skype accounts, but I assumed it would be difficult for them to stay in touch and that contact would quickly taper off as soon as we left Sweden. It turned out I might have been wrong, at least in the case of my eldest.

My eldest is playing a game on the iPad (Clash of Clans) with a built-in chat function and he can chat with a number of his friends through the game. But, just a few days before he left Sweden, he acquired the Kik messenger/social networking iPad app. Kik makes it possible for him to send SMS-like messages to other Kik users. He left Sweden with just a handful of friends in his Kik address book, but that was enough for him to spend literally hours chatting with his friends back home as soon as we landed. And now more friends of his are signing up and he can initiate group discussions with several Kik-friends at the same time too.

I can now foresee a possible future where my son will be in touch with his friends back in Sweden all spring, despite them being 9000 kilometers away from each other. And all of a sudden, something I have only read about in Sherry Turkle's book "Alone Together" is right with us.

Turkle describes how digital and especially mobile technologies "tether" us to others. A 10-year old can suddenly both have more freedom - since his parents can allow him more freedom while safely knowing that he can be reached at all times by cell phone - and at the same time less freedom - since he is under strict orders to always answer his phone and can't carve out even temporary total freedom from parental supervision. The cell phones becomes the primary example of modern panoptical technologies. He is tethered to his parents through his cell phone.

An exchange student can similarly decrease the stress and loneliness of being abroad in a strange country by being in touch with friends and family back home every single day. But these practices might unfortunately also detract from the very experience of being abroad. Turkle writes that "leaving home has always been a way to see one's own culture anew. But what if, tethered, we bring our homes with us?"

Perhaps the exchange student might have been a little bit more daring, or felt a little more pressure to try to find friends locally in a pre-Internet era? Perhaps the experience of having your home with you in your back pocket detracts from the possibility of learning to rely on your inner resources and growing emotionally (i.e. "growing up")? That at least is what Turkle worries about as she compares her own experience of being an exchange student in Paris in hear early twenties with the experiences of her daughter.

This brings me back to my son. My first question is if he will keep in touch with his friends back home during the spring. 9000 kilometers makes little difference in an age of instantaneous communication, but nine time zones makes it difficult to find time slots to communicate in real time except, perhaps, during the weekends. Will he be adamant about staying home on weekend mornings to chat with his friends back home? My second question is what the consequence will be if he does stay in touch with distant friends. Will his stay abroad be (very) different from what it would have been in a pre-Internet era? That's a question that is exceedingly difficult to answer and something to ponder during the following months...
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