“Reach out and touch someone.”
AT&T’s tagline in the 1980s struck a chord with viewers. It was a bit of marketing genius to portray the phone as more than a mere utility. The ads imagined the phone as a conduit that could send and receive love. Thirty years later, video calls with FaceTime have made the long distance experience even more intimate. And yet it feels less so. Why?
For starters, there is an awkwardness when talking to a video screen. When telephone conversations were only voices, we often busied ourselves with other things while talking. I can remember my mom doodling at the kitchen table during long conversations with Aunt Dellie. There is a comfort in knowing that the other person can’t see you. It allows you to be yourself, more vulnerable.
Another reason for the loss of intimacy is that the novelty has worn off. Talking to someone half a world away has become as easy as talking to someone next door. The internet flattens our experience by presenting the entire world on a screen. Google Earth lets us see the rest of the world in tremendous detail. Street views of places we will likely never see in person make the foreign more common, the mysterious more mundane.
How do we recover some of the vulnerability and some of the mystery of human communication?
When my family moved from Pennsylvania to Idaho, we left all of our relatives behind. My mother didn’t want to run up long distance telephone bills so she recorded herself and me and my sister on cassette tapes and mailed them to my grandparents. Everyday accounts of going to the grocery store or the doctor became immortalized on tapes that were sent 2,000 miles away. Then we would wait, often for weeks, for a response from Granny and Pap-pap.
Those tapes were conversations in slow motion. They were words carefully chosen, recorded, packaged, and sent out of love. To listen to those tapes today, decades later, is an exercise in nostalgia. The simplest bits of news have become intimate windows into our family’s past. When I listen to the tapes now, my deceased grandparents are made present again as if they were in the room. Hearing the warmth in their voices spurs a rush of memories and affection.
Maybe God had something similar in mind when He sent the Word-made-flesh to His loved ones. He certainly makes Himself present to us in the faithfully recorded words of Scripture; the faithfully recorded prayers of the Mass and our Catholic tradition; and in the person of the priest on the altar who speaks the same words that our Savior spoke, faithfully recorded. All of those recordings were done out of love, not just for those in the past but for all of us, for all time.
It is often said that our digital world has minimized real presence. Our virtual experiences have become substitutes for truly being there, whether “there” is a foreign country or our grandparents’ living room. I am thankful that my mom thought to record our voices so that our family could remain connected. She came up with a clever way for us to be present to one another — not just across space, but across time.
The internet is nothing if not a tremendous memory device. For better or worse, we are all participating in the recording of human experience at a scale the world has never seen. We are part of a slow-motion conversation with the future, with our future selves who will look back on volumes of social media posts and news and wonder how much of it was done out of love.
It’s when we remember who we are and where we came from — by revisiting our memories — that our identity becomes more clear.