Virtual Visiting for the holidays

By : Jim Pinto,
San Diego, CA.

Soon, traditional holiday get-togethers will become virtual visits. Big-screen TVs will be placed right next to the dinner table for all the loved ones to sit down together at the same virtual dinner to eat, drink and be merry. The settings will be virtually the same though the ambience will adapt.

The original version of this article was published in the popular webzine
Check out Spark-oline Spark Online, November 2001

It was also published in The San Diego Mensan, November 2001

The holiday season is just around the corner. But, recent events make the coming holidays totally different. Somehow, the usual holiday spirit seems frivolous and un-necessary. We struggle bravely to defeat the very fear terrorists hope to instill in a free society. But, uneasiness still lurks and cannot simply be turned off.

Rethinking holiday habits

The somber realization that things can never quite be the same stimulates our re-thinking about holiday activities and motivations. What exactly do we do for the holidays?

During late November, the American tradition of Thanksgiving is a time for turkeys, stuffing, pumpkin pie, Indian corn, holiday parades and giant balloons. Following shortly after are celebrations for Christmas, Hanukkah and New Year's Day, plus countless company parties and weddings that are usually scheduled for this season.

Some people go to church, then get together with family and friends to exchange gifts, gather round for a feast, toast each other with wine and drinks, and then stick around the dinner table (in Mexico this is called "sobre-mesa" - over the table) to chat, gossip, squabble, bring up old jokes, stories and memories of past get-togethers. These are the things we do to socialize, stimulate and renew our feelings of friendship, love and togetherness.

Perhaps television has subjugated the art of table talk, because it seems that a migration has occurred to the living room to watch whatever game is being televised, or old movies, or Twilight Zone marathons. Meanwhile, as the after-dinner Drambuies are dribbled out, the older folks doze off into their afternoon siesta on the couch and teenagers buzz off with their friends, to roam the malls and plant seeds for future memories.

Holiday travel?

In the past, friends and family traveled from afar to share the holiday spirit. But, this year, with the terrorist scare and all, one wonders how many people will be traveling by air to participate in a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. There'd be the worry of their flying to arrive, and the equal anxiety about them returning home again safely after the holiday. Is the turkey dinner worth the risk? In my view, inexpensive air travel is no longer an incentive. Friends and family won't fly from afar to fiddle around frivolously. As a technology futurist, perhaps it's my position to provide prognostications on the possibilities.

Virtual visits

Soon, traditional holiday get-togethers will become virtual visits. Big-screen TVs will be placed right next to the dinner table for all the loved ones to sit down together at the same virtual dinner to eat, drink and be merry. They will all have the traditional (but virtual now) sobre-mesa. The settings will be virtually the same though the ambience will adapt.

In the old days, a traditional telephone call to loved ones at holiday time would suffice. Today, expensive and still somewhat erratic and unrealistic video connections limit virtual video conferencing to a scant few minutes at best.

Soon, high-speed web links (via cable-modem or DSL, augmented by broad-band fiber-optic connections allowing full-screen, realistic, real-time video) will be inexpensive enough to allow constant connection-no "dial-up" and no additional charges to stay connected. So, people can visit, chitchat, coo at the new babies, generate gossip, argue politics and joust with jabs, all without worrying about the cost. After dinner, the web-cams can be switched over to the living room, allowing everyone to move to sofas, bean-bags and comfy-couches for virtual witnessing of the old folk dozing off, while others gossip, squabble and complain and football fanatics focus frivolously on the televised games of the day.

Hmmm…. I haven't yet quite worked out the time factor. What about virtual gatherings when everybody, including transcontinental friends and family, would like to be together-at least virtually? Perhaps people will just have to put up with unsynchronized virtual visits-after all, the telephone calls from far away often arrive at odd times of the day or night.

Well, those who enjoy transcontinental virtual visiting will have to stay awake at midnight to watch the televised turkey tasting; and then the other side will return the virtual visit at some other time, watching while the far away folks gobble up their goose and then sip on their schnups.

Virtual visit infrastructure

Virtual visiting infrastructure will soon be developing to make everything more realistic, convenient and attractive. Holiday gifts will be selected online, without the aggravation of last minute shopping, assuring optimum selection and satisfaction for everyone, with just-in-time delivery. There'll even be web-based services to deliver identical ham and turkey-meals, with identical trimmings and toppings, to all participants in the virtual celebration, so that all can dine on identical things, together. Simulating simultaneous smells of turkey and Christmas pudding through high-tech sensory attachments will be optional extras, to augment the virtual visit.

New social patterns

One wonders if the after dinner camaraderie will retain its traditional vitality. Maybe the time-difference will diminish the value of the virtual visit: the local gossip may be irrelevant, the recycled stories could lose their spice, and the politics might seem petty.

But, perhaps there will be improvements as yet unimagined. Virtual table talk in the new age could bring us to a new level of common sense and spirituality, rising beyond just sobre-mesa to a new and meaningful togetherness in the global village.

Meanwhile, if the politics stay petty and the arguments get too heated, the virtual visitors can simply be switched off...

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