Begin Call

‘Only connect!’ beseeched E.M. Forster. Could Mr Forster have envisaged a world in which one person connected with another, thousands of miles away, through free video and voice calls, instant messages and file sharing, via a computer and broadband internet connection and a company called Skype? Humans are now so freely connected through computers as to cause consternation to governments like those of Russia and China.

Skype is on a mission to ‘enable the world’s conversations,’ says its President, Josh Silverman. ‘Allowing the world to communicate for free empowers and links people and communities everywhere,’ he believes. The etymology of the word ‘conversation’ is ‘act of living with’, or ‘to live with, keep company with’. But does Skype improve or impair that capacity for good human connection? How are conversations and thus relationships and identities changing in the age of Skype, as so many of us now have online presences?

Stemming from a wider curiosity (which has been encouraged by Skype and new technology), I want to connect with those far from me, researching for long-lost relatives, scattered family overseas, and friends and strangers, too. I want to learn more about how they might pass each day; their ideas about the world; the texture not only of their voices but of their lives. Indeed, I want to get back to the etymological root meaning of that word, conversation. The fundamental impossibility of being in two places at once has driven me to communicate virtually, and now to delve beneath the hype about Skype. Only connect, I think, as I begin Skyping. Far from being alone in my internet stirrings, there are currently 12, 868, 311 people online at the same time as me. There we have it – the breathing human and the virtual, in two places at once.

It is 1:03 a.m. in Sydney and the middle of the afternoon here in England. A white tick against a green background tells me that I am connected. I am ‘keeping company’ with those also bearing this status. ‘This is the best time to be using Skype, as I get to chat to people overseas,’ explains a long-lost Australian acquaintance, whom I’ll call ‘Ash’. Hearing his voice with all its quirks of accent elevates the communication from the brief exchange of written instant messages. The novelty is also in being able to see the person in glorious three-dimensionality, as well as hear their voices. I can see in the background the place where they live; the colours of the walls and pictures which adorn it – a glimpse of their context. For this is all we get in the virtual world: glimpses. I can see the expression on the face as they are talking and am more carefully attuned to it. As I listen to a tale of heartbreak unfold, hearing how Ash was cheated on by a girlfriend, I watch his face as it shows anger, upset, resignation, pensiveness, hurt, humour, a spectrum of human emotion passing over it in the space of just over an hour, as swift as an interplay of clouds passing through the sky, now overcast, now bright. Skype exhibits how much of communication is non-verbal (although the visual and phonic are allowed, touch and smell are of course still excluded). This becomes important with rather monosyllabic acquaintances, or those who have greater facility with the spoken than written word.

To what extent are these exchanges close to ‘living with’ (that etymological root of conversation) or actually a form of detachment; a pseudo-version of ‘to live with/keep company with’ and thus an inadequate substitute for the real thing? The performativity of the experience is in some respects akin to watching real-life television; an unfolding soap opera in which the players are not fictional. However, this is no television programme. At times, I am spooked by the experience. The connection is patchy and Ash’s blurred face breaks, as if it is a scifi movie and the pixels are about to disperse. His mouth cracks open and then the screen freezes, with an elongated black hole where his mouth should be. The frozen moment.

The screen freeze-frames a particular expression, that of the jilted lover, etching into the mind a mood that, were Ash in my presence, I may not even have noticed. Thus is the paradox of Skype; being at once removed and yet brought closer to seeing and comprehending through these strange glitches and hiatuses, the mobility of the human face and emotion it carries. As he scratches his head, the screen suddenly stops, leaving his image there, hand raised aloft – pensiveness freeze-framed. I have learnt about his life; work, love, education. There has been more knowledge exchanged in this conversation than in the previous twenty-something years of our lives.

But these glitches can also be just that – frustrating ruptures in the flow of conversation, breaking the illusion of closeness. Skype freezes at a crucial moment in the plot story of fraught romance. As he is explaining the complexities of his love triangle, the screen suddenly plunges into silence and blacks out. ‘Hello,’ I bellow, wondering whose side this mishap is on. The sound begins again but he is now caught up in the flow of the story and already sailed on, sketching characters and incidents, so I must pause him and tell him to rewind, go back to the moment when. . .

It is not only across oceans that Skype connects, but with people in the next room, as I discovered through an excited ten year old, who ushers me next door, eager to experiment with talking virtually. But it’s another patchy connection and when I re-enter the room, I hear my voice on the sound system as a tinny droning and my body is elongated. The experience is uncanny. It is the eerie sense of viewing a thing both alive yet not alive; or stepping into a fun-house hall of mirrors; the self distorted. The inherent comedy of the situation is appreciated by children: as the webcam works for a few moments, the key instinct is to exaggerate what is already distorted – to pull funny faces. The webcam has been recording and has forever captured the hyperbolic sticking out of tongues, rolling eyes and clownish grins.

The new generation is learning the language of these communications even in childhood and are taught of the dangers of allowing the private and public realms to overlap, the need for online protection. The way we adjust Privacy settings, allowing only a portion of our private world to be viewed, can also be a reflection of personality and identity: the sensible; the paranoid; the open and closed mentality; the small and wide social circle. Should I be myself or assume a cyber identity? This latter choice is not applicable to video chatting on Skype, of course. There is no hiding one’s true appearance behind a cartoon sketch or image of a politician or popstar (there is, of course, the option of putting a paper bag over one’s head during the video conversation if one does not wish to be seen, or just utilizing Skype as a telephone rather than as a video-cam). There remain manifold dangers of identity confusion, with multiple people of the same name, and no need to upload a photograph – as I discovered when searching for a long lost cousin in India. I am excited by the prospect of having found him, but how can I verify that I have the right ‘Sanjeev’? Via instant message (he doesn’t have webcam), I ask questions about mutual family and for his nickname. He cannot answer. He replies. ‘If that is your wish, then I am. I am whoever you want me to be.’ Cyberspace indeed offers a frightening capacity to be whoever we want to be.

Reciprocity can be difficult to read in the complex tangle of human relationships: was a glance a sign to proceed or retreat? Is the relationship now defunct? But there are many tools that more ostensibly exhibit reciprocity – or unreciprocity – on multimedia functions; being followed on Twitter and yet not following back, for example, or using ‘Limited Profile’ on Facebook, or ‘Blocking’ people.

The implications for the democratization of communication are clear in the very way that Skype is being censored by those opposing democracy. Reuters recently reported that Russia’s most powerful big business lobby has declared Skype a threat to national security and is working to regulate it. In October 2008, news broke that China has been monitoring and censoring politically sensitive words sent over Skype. Skype is free to those with broadband connection, enabling instantaneous communication between remote regions. But that other kind of ‘free’, the freedom of the written and spoken word, of the press, is a key limitation for non-democracies, thus Skype and services like it are being targeted for a clamp-down.

But is technology anthropologist Stefana Broadbent right to suggest, as she did in July this year, that a ‘democratization of intimacy’ has occurred? She also pointed out the eroded compartmentalization of work and family life. Skype has indeed woven multi-faceted, overlapping functions for itself. Whilst it is light entertainment for some, where funny faces might be pulled, for others it is a life-line and even a method of parenting.

Non-verbal communication becomes even more paramount when communicating with a child, for whom concentration spans are short and gestures and tactility are foremost. With high divorce rates and globalization, there is a new generation of ‘Skype Daddies’ and Skype children, who will know their parents primarily through their presence in their computer screen. Not for these children the touch of the human body – instead these Skype kids must learn a new kind of affection, dispensed virtually. Affection must be wired into the consciousness in new ways, not by touch, but by the intonation of voice, the observation of a kindly expression.

There is no denying that despite bringing me closer to some people, there is still the sense of a chasm, a loneliness leaking through these online messages, a heightened sense of the person being there and yet not there, a ghostly absent presence. Being in two places at once has been achieved – but at a non-monetary cost. Still, Skype is liberating me in my quest to connect with family and people I might not otherwise ever meet. Through Skype, I am cementing broken connections. I hear stories of how, in the time since our last being in touch, one has had a brain operation; another, a car crash; for another, life is ‘hard but good’. Online as I type is an old travelling companion in Ireland; a lost university acquaintance; and a relative in a village in Berbice, Guyana. It is sunset there, he tells me via instant message, and he is closing up his gas station for the day. ‘Only connect!’ remains an important philosophy, and we must keep learning how to do so in ever more effective ways…

But wait, excuse me for a moment, for as I type, somebody is calling me. Our words are connected across oceans as we swap tales of life in London and Berbice. Then the screen flickers and our voices vanish.


Image by Travis Isaacs

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