“Send Me a Letter”: Mothers, Daughters, and Technology
MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle is not yet a grandmother, but she raises important questions about how we best stay “in touch” nowadays, preserve our memories of one another, and communicate with the next generation. In her important, eye-opening book, Alone Together: Why We Expect More From Technology and Less From Each Other, Turkle looks at how technology is transforming our relationships. She is not yet a grandmother, but in this excerpt from her book (abridged and adapted for Mother U), she experiences that first mother/daughter role shift as Rebecca leaves home for the first time. She wonders how our always-on and always-connected culture will shape her relationship with her daughter. These are questions we should all ponder.
I return from Dublin to Boston in September 2009. I have brought my daughter Rebecca to Ireland and helped her to set up her dorm room for a gap year before starting college in New England…. I have downloaded Skype and am ready for its unforgiving stare. Yet, even on my first day home, I feel nostalgic. I sit in my basement surrounded by musty boxes, looking for the letters that my mother and I exchanged during my first year in college, the first time I lived away from home. The telephone was expensive. She wrote twice a week. I wrote once a week. I remember our letters as long, emotional, and filled with conflict. We were separating, finding our way toward something new. Forty years later, I find the letters and feel as though I hold her heart in my hands.
As the days pass, I am in regular contact with my daughter on Skype and by text. As though under some generational tutelage, I feel constrained to be charming and brief in our breezy, information-filled encounters. Once, while texting, I am overtaken by a predictable moment in which I experience my mortality. In forty years, what will Rebecca know of her mother’s heart as she found her way toward something new?
Now, holding my mother’s letters, it is hard to read their brightness and their longing. She wrote them when she was dying and didn’t want me to know. Her letters, coded, carried the weight of future letters that would never be written. And once a week, I wrote her a letter, telling my mother what I wanted her to know of my life. In discretion, there were significant omissions. But I shared a lot. She was my touchstone, and I wanted her to understand me. My letters tried to create the space for this conversation.
My daughter’s texts and Skype presence leave no space of this kind. Is this breeziness about our relationship, or is it about our media?…
When my daughter and I have our first conversation on Skype (Dublin/Boston),… I tell Rebecca I’m writing about the possibility of being able to archive everything we do. I ask her if she would like to have a record of all of her communications during her time in Dublin: e-mails, texts, instant messages, Facebook communications, calls, conversations, searches, pictures of everyone she has met and all the traveling she has done. She thinks about it. After a silence, she finally says, “Well, that’s a little pack ratty, creepy.” When people are pack rats, the volume of things tends to mean that equal weight is given to every person, conversation, and change of venue. More appealing to her are human acts of remembrance that filter and exclude, that put events into shifting camps of meaning—a scrapbook, a journal. And perhaps, at eighteen, she senses that, for her, archiving might get in the way of living. To live most fully, perhaps we need at least the fiction that we are not archiving. For surely, in the archived life, we begin to live for the record, for how we shall be seen.
As Rebecca and I talk about what has weight for her in her year abroad, I tell her that, prompted by her absence, I have been looking over my freshman-year correspondence with my mother. I ask my daughter if she would like to write me a letter. Since she already sends me regular text messages and we’re now on Skype talking about what shoes she should wear to the “Back to the Future” Ball at her Dublin College, she has a genuine moment of puzzlement and says, “I don’t know what my subject could be.” I appreciate that with the amount of communication we have, it could well seem that all topics have been exhausted. Nevertheless, I say something like, “You could write about your thoughts about being in Ireland, how you feel about it. Things that would mean special things to me.” Over time, over distance, through the fish bowl of Skype, Rebecca stares at me from her dorm room and repeats, “Maybe if I could find a subject.”
As I talk to Rebecca about the pleasures of my correspondence with my mother, she comments sensibly, “So send me a letter.” And so I have.
Excerpted from Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, copyright 2011 Sherry Turkle. Published by Basic Books. All rights reserved.