Saturday, January 8, 2011

Hospitality in the Digital Age

   I decided to go “home” for Christmas even though I don’t like Christmas.  Of all the hospitality issues that I pondered discussing here—my sister’s irritation with her husband (the “ghost host,”), unofficially co-hosting a dinner in someone else’s kitchen, and more—I decided to address texting during our “circle of death” multi-family gatherings.  Let me go on record as confessing that I am no Luddite.  I’m obsessed with my smart phone, laptop, Ipod, blogs, podcasts, apps, Kindle, etc.  However, I just couldn't condone couch-texting while visiting family members whom you haven’t seen in months.  That was a week ago.

Last night, during a lull in my email searching, listening to a French jazz Pandora station, I relayed my revulsion for this rudeness to my husband who patiently listened, waited for my arms-akimbo tone of voice to relax, and remarked that I do the same thing.  Rifling through my well-seasoned repertoire of spouse retorts, I demanded one example.  He gave it to me.  Time and place.  He recalled what he was communicating, or trying to, and how I was searching my Droid 2 Global phone.  What else could I do but admit that I had been rude.  If you know anything about marriage, you’ll know that this only kindled his dispute.  He continued.  “I don’t get it. You hate it when your students…You hate it when your sister…When your mother…”  I forget the rest of his litany, but I assure you that 1) I was listening and 2) he was eloquent.

OK, OK.  I was wrong.  I was rude.  I was inhospitable.  I admitted it.  Let it go, I insisted. 

Unfortunately, I had missed his real point.  More than breaching some hospitality code or violating some ethic, I had hurt his feelings. My actions had said to him, “You are not as important as some random piece of information that might possibly emerge from my search.”  (BTW, do you know the difference between a web browser and an search engine?  Do you know what the “fi” in “Wi-fi” stands for?  I do!)

For Christmas, my step-daughter gave me William Powers's Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age.* I was puzzled.  But she explained, "You love Hamlet and you love technology."  After reading the first 50 pages, I’m not sure that her choice was so innocent.  By that point, I realized that the author, no Luddite himself, is pleading with me to pay attention to the gaps between our tech connections.  “Gaps,” remember that concept.  Here’s the story he tells at the beginning of the book: 

While driving to see his mother, Powers calls to tell her that (as usual) he’s going to be late.  He mashes one button, which triggers his mom’s photo to appear, and the call goes through.  It’s a short call but accomplishes the notification he desires.  Thereafter, as he drives on, he muses about his mother—what he thinks of her, how he feels about her, what they've done together, and how much he’s looking forward to their upcoming dinner. 

Powers explains the significance of his illustration:  “The total number of mobile phones in the world went from about 500 million at the beginning of this century to approaching 5 billion today.  But there’s a missing piece: the real magic of these tools, the catalyst that transforms them from utilitarian devices into instruments of creativity, depth, and transcendence, likes in the gap that occurred between my phone call to Mom and the powerful experience that followed.  That gap was the linchpin, the catalyst.  It allowed me to take a run-of-the-mill outward experience and go onward.  It’s the same for every kind of digital task.  If you pile them on so fast that screen life becomes a blur and there are no gaps in your connectedness, you never get to that place where the most valuable benefits are.  We’re eliminating the gaps, when we should be creating them.” 31

How does his advice apply to my Christmas scenario?  Powers has me wondering that if we truly struggle to converse with each other, given the difference in our lives and values, maybe one tech connect could serve as a catalyst for a conversation starter.  But just one.  Perhaps, someone could check the NPR news stories of the day or another’s face book page, stop with that search, and inject that information into the conversation. Does that sound like a practical philosophy for "building a good life in the digital age?"  

Let's move downstairs to where the guys are watching that once-in-a-lifetime football game and erupting with elations and condemnations like the audience of an auto de fe.  I could argue that watching the game and talking about it was the perfect screen-to-gap combination that Powers espouses.  In that case, my brother-in-law—whom my sister branded “the ghost host” because he did not greet guests at the door and faithfully refill drinks—afforded his guests true hospitality.  He made them feel welcome, comfortable, and taken care of.  Moreover, he modeled that olde hospitality adage that a host needs to enjoy his own party if he wants his guests to have a good time.  It seems that there's something to be learned from his less-is-more approach to hospitality. 

To recap…Maybe creating the gaps within tech connects--discussing a search or responding to a football play--can foster meaningful interactions.  Perhaps people who attend to the gaps (instead of the screens) are our new practical hosts in the expanding digital age. I’m not sure, but I'm willing to consider that.  

What I am sure of is that there’s no excuse for privileging my Smart Phone over my husband’s conversation.  Bad, bad hospitality maven.  

* I discuss Hamlet's Blackberry  in more detail in

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"One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well." - from A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf