Grandma + Skype

Sunday, November 27, 2011

So here’s something interesting.

I spend my Thanksgivings out in Pennsylvania with my 94-year-old grandmother (my mom’s mom, the PA Dutch former kindergarten teacher). For various reasons, including that I have a tiny extended family none of whom live particularly close to one another, it’s usually just her and I for this particular holiday. My parents stick in Texas. We usually do the obligatory “Happy Thanksgiving” call with them, which is fine.

This year I decided to try something a bit different. I had my laptop handy (natch), and since my parents had recently discovered the brave new world of video calling with Skype, I figured I’d see what happened when I cranked up Skype and stuck my grandmother in front of it to talk with the family.

My grandmother is, I should note, mostly deaf. And blind to a certain degree. Speaking with her is a relatively slow and deliberate process of picking simple sentences and enunciating them clearly a couple times until she gets what you’re saying. The blindness I’m not as clear about, but she claims that faces are mostly blurry — although she apparently reads lips to a certain degree to help with the hearing issue. And she’s hit and miss being able to see what’s happening when she watches TV. (Hits: Horse racing and sports when the teams are wearing distinctive enough colors. Misses: Anything with text on the screen or that changes too quickly, as far as I can tell — although she has a standard-def TV set which can’t possibly be helping.)

Anyway: Skype was a hit. She claimed to be able to see my parents quite clearly on my 15” MacBook Pro screen and I could tell she had a very easy time hearing them — a definite surprise considering the relatively weak quality of the laptop’s speakers. But they held their conversation and then did the sort of usual first time Skype user tricks of aiming the laptop camera at different things and showing off the cat.

Now. For me — and for you — this is nothing new. In fact, it’s easy to slip into a weird sort of elitist “oh, crap — the family found Skype” thing, as if (as with e-mail and online chat) this going to lead to some increased level of annoyance as the noobs start using these things all wrong. And Skype itself as both a (former) company and as a software service has all this baggage attached to it, and blah blah blah.

But grandmother’s mind was blown.

Which expressed itself in a couple of ways:

1) The degree of connection it gave her with my parents amazed her. She was right there. They were right here. She could see their house. My mom could comment on her turkey sweater. Grandma even said at one point, “You could just put a bunch of these around the table to have everyone over for dinner.” This sounds simplistic, but grandma does not do much brainstorming about technological innovations in her day-to-day. And she had a little melancholic emotional moment when we shut down the chat, like she had been dropped back into the real world where the family was actually a couple thousand miles away in Texas and not just sitting across the table.

2) After the Skype call she asked me all about what just happened. Again: Grandma decided a while back that she Just Doesn’t Understand Computers, so this was a rather rare occurrence, having to get into explaining how, exactly, we just did this rather futuristic thing on her dining room table. I did my best, but we’re talking about someone with an extremely low level of technological literacy.

She clearly wanted something like this, so one question was: “How much does a device like this cost?” “Well, it’s a piece of software that runs on my computer. This is the same computer I use for work and other stuff.” Confusion. She doesn’t seem to understand the distinction between a computer as a piece of hardware and application software that runs on the computer. She thinks in terms of unified devices. Like the telephone, TV set, or dishwasher. “So the software and that call were free,” I continued. Again, confusion. “And do the neighbors use something like this?” “Yeah, probably.” Anyway: This sort of conversation continued.

It’s nice to occasionally be reminded that we’re living in a bizarre future, and that it’s pretty cool. I do things regularly that feel so pedestrian — and yet would shock someone just ten or twenty years ago. Remember those AT&T “You Will” ads from the mid-90s? Go back and watch them. Video calls? On-demand movies? Checking e-mail on the beach? Sci-fi concepts. Now imagine you were born before radio became a thing.

(As a quick aside: I have a feeling that text messages seem like some kind of psychic connection from my grandmother’s vantage. Like, we’re taking a walk and I blurt out, “Oh, Christin’s having burgers with her dad in Florida.” But she didn’t see me check my phone or anything (remember, hard of sight). I don’t know exactly how she envisions I got that transmitted nugget of info, but (to wear out a term) let’s go with “magic.”)

(Another quick aside: I suspect my mom will get around to reading this post to her. It’s happened before. Surely grandma has no concept of a “blog,” as she doesn’t use the web. So he may not realize that damned near anyone on this planet can read what I write here instantly, just a second after I publish it. Obvious to you and I. But not necessarily to her. And quite amazing, again, once you kind of step back and appreciate the technology. Even though Twitter was totally down for, like, fifteen minutes the other day and it totally sucked why can’t they get their act together the internet is so fucking stupid.)

So, yeah. Not sure how much grandma actually understood about how the tech worked. But clearly the call was a huge success, so I started considering how to get grandma access to Skype more regularly. My thought: Get grandma an iMac with Apple Remote Desktop. Set it up. She literally never has to touch the thing — I just get into her computer remotely and bring up Skype. We may instead use an old laptop, which she’d have to at least touch to open the lid, but would otherwise work the same. We’re considering getting her a new flat-screen TV, and some of those have apps (including Skype). But I just don’t trust the user experience and there’s almost no way (I think) the grandma would be able to navigate any kind of menus or whatever to make it work. But. After a couple years of trying to get her to agree to let us buy her a new, nice flat-screen TV — I think she finally acquiesced. And my theory is that she saw things well on my laptop screen and the whole experience of “living in the future” kid of jostled her a bit. Maybe the new things do work a bit nicer than the older things.

And so on.

PS. And only very obliquely related: I eventually have to write up at least a little something about my other teaching experiences this autumn. I’ve been teaching a web programming class at ITP (NYU) and co-teaching with Bob Giraldi a more conceptual class over at SVA called “The Interactive Idea.” And they’re not exactly the same as the above, obviously, but I have sort of similarly been forced to retrace my own steps a bit and break down what I know about technology into digestible chunks for my students and it’s a pretty revealing experience, for sure.