A family of four is having dinner in a restaurant. The parents are middle-aged, their daughter in her early teens, her brother about eight. There is little conversation at the table: a word or two here and there, an occasional short sentence, a grunt, a snort. They seldom make eye contact; each of them is focused on his or her IPhone. It’s a scene right out of a subway car at rush hour. But the four are not strangers, not commuters hidden behind newspapers. They are a family, parents and children, each in a separate world, the world of the electronic gadget in his or her hand.
In his apartment at the retirement community, a man with too little to do fires up his computer. Among his e-mails are three from his daughter, who lives on the other side of the country. The first is a video of his three-month-old granddaughter lying on the bed, smiling the world’s most beautiful smile. The second e-mail is a video of the man’s two-year-old grandson looking out the kitchen door and calling the chickens.
“Here, chicken,” he says. “Here, chicken.”
He stares through the screen for a moment then turns and runs toward the unseen woman with the electronic gadget in her hand.
“Mama, chickens. Mama, chickens,” he says.
The third e-mail is another video. His granddaughter is lying on the floor, laughing and excitedly shaking her little arms and legs. Her brother enters the picture. He has a blanket, which he carefully puts over her legs and stomach before bending down to gently kiss her on the forehead.
Later, the phone rings. Does the man want to Skype while the kids eat lunch? Of course he does. For a half hour, he watches his grandchildren be children. And before the Skyping ends, he hears his grandson say, “Hi, Grandpa.”
Strange, isn’t it? The technology that seems to destroy the intimacy of a family crowded into a restaurant booth somehow makes a grandpa feel so close to his grandchildren two thousand miles away. How does it do that?