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Video Chat Is Technological Magic. How Did I Ever Forget That?

Recently, I spent a good hour or two trying to determine if I had completely dreamed up an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Here’s what I remember: In one of the early episodes, when Will has recently pulled up to his relatives’ ostentatious mansion with only a hardshell suitcase and a neon T-shirt, he’s astounded to learn that they’re so rich they have a videophone—a device through which one can talk to anyone, anywhere as if they were in the same room. In my memory, he’s hilariously theatrical about the technology is. It seems unreal.

At the time, I was experiencing a kind of inverse geographical displacement to Will—we moved from England to Philadelphia when I was eight and the Fresh Prince became my favorite show. The fact that Will could communicate with his friends and family across the country as if they were right there with him felt to me like joyful sorcery. I became obsessed with the idea that this might be possible in the distant future. I was so transfixed that even with every exponentially thrilling technological advancement we experienced from the 90s onwards, I maintained I would only truly be impressed when we could all—not just the rich Banks families of the world—seamlessly and clearly video chat.

Fast forward 20-some years and the reality is even better than I could have imagined (or—if we’re considering that the memories I have of Fresh Prince could be fake—did imagine). Our phones and computers give us near-perfect access to our friends and families, allowing us instantaneous entry into their houses and their lives. Within seconds, we can see with crystal-clear clarity what they chose to wear that day, what state their apartment is in. We can read their facial expressions, intuit if they are tired or sad; we can make them laugh. When we move, we can give tours of our new digs, we can coo affectionately at disinterested babies, and try to get the attention of confused dogs. Most of all, we can feel close, even and especially if we are not.

As in all developments in technology, I know began to see video chatting as mundane within a few months of its becoming widely available. First, when I lived abroad in the mid-2000s, I would use Skype to video chat on painfully slow internet and it annoyed me. Leaps and bounds happened in such a magnificently short time period that within a few years, I could video chat friends from my phone, a tiny computer that fit into my pocket, and there would be no delay and no pixelation. But of course, that soon stopped seeming novel. I went from being aggravated at the slowness to disenchanted at the speed in an outrageously quick period of time. I’d FaceTime friends here and there, but I largely defaulted to text so that I could talk to them while I did three or four different things at once. Video chatting meant that I’d have to actually pay concerted attention to the person who was, through marvelous technology light years beyond my understanding, basically right in front of me.

If my kid self knew that I felt that way, she would in no uncertain terms think that I was a huge asshole.

In September 2019, my partner and I moved to France, across an ocean from our closest friends and family. A friend who had lived abroad for several years told us that our Sundays were about to become both our best and most exhausting days. That’s because it would be the day that we rigorously scheduled phone calls with our friends and family, across several time zones, to catch up.

We’ve spent most of our Sundays ever since punctuating afternoons and evenings with video and phone calls, recounting the same stories, frustrations, and triumphs to a range of loved ones, according to when this friend woke up or this family member was free. This weekly ritual has since made us equal parts homesick and at-home: with their faces right in front of us, we feel as if our people are not far away, that we can be thousands of miles apart but still feel their warmth. My favorite days are family get-togethers, when the phone gets passed around like a baby, with surprise and excitement coming from both sides of the screen. Our Sunday calendar has often been our fullest day of diligent conversation, while the remainder of the week is fairly quiet.

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