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A holiday Skype prompts awe and optimism

At the end of Thanksgiving dinner, I listened to a conversation between a 96-year-old woman and her 20-year-old grandson. There's nothing extraordinary about such a thing at a family gathering — except that the grandson was 3,500 miles away. A granddaughter had cleared away a dessert dish and replaced it with a laptop computer, and now the grandmother was able to see, hear and speak to her grandson in Europe. It was her first Skype Thanksgiving.

Everyone in the house gathered around the table to watch, in a way reminiscent of the scene in Barry Levinson's "Avalon," in which the late-1940s living room fills with people who've come to see television for the first time.

For a moment during the Thanksgiving Skype, the grandson could see only his grandmother's forehead because she had leaned too close to the laptop in an effort to hear him clearly. Once the dining room was quiet, however, she sat back and conversed with the lad as if he were seated next to her and not just a digitized head on a computer screen on a white tablecloth.

"Oh, my lands," she said.

My mother, the former Rose Popolo, was born in 1914 in an immigrant family, in a house without a telephone. By the time she was middle-aged, rotary-dial telephones were common in the United States, but special arrangements had to be made to speak to a relative across the ocean — a date and time appointed for a transatlantic call to a little store, and the relative brought to the store to wait for the call to come through. It didn't always work.

Now, here was Rose, finishing Thanksgiving dinner 2010 with a live and instant Skype conversation, a digital face-to-face via laptop. She was born in an era when time and distance were obstacles to human interactions — a letter might take a month from door to door across the Atlantic — and now she lives in an era when time and distance have become almost meaningless.

In the year of the former Rose Popolo's birth, World War I broke out in Europe, and the old way of waging war met the industrial way of death. The era is remembered for technological advances in killing and little that would serve humanity. Garrett Morgan invented the gas mask in 1914 — and just in time to save countless soldiers' lives, too.

In the 1920s, Birdseye invented frozen food, Goddard the liquid-fueled rocket and Philco the first complete television system. There were historic advances in the refinement of radio as a means of mass communication.

When my mother was 13 years old, Charles Lindbergh flew nonstop from New York to Paris in about a day and a half, and that was seen at the time as the greatest human achievement. Lindbergh, who had been a U.S. Air Mail pilot, reduced the delivery time for a transatlantic letter to less than two days. Eight decades later, the inventors of the Internet and Skype transformed the letter into a living, moving, immediate two-way human conversation on a computer screen.

That's a wow — pardon my tardiness at the exclamation — and it won't be long before a Skype-Facebook marriage has millions of users all around the world in digital eyes-to-eye conversations.

I look at all this at times and wonder if we're just inventing and purchasing things to amuse ourselves while the planet burns. Then, in the next instant, I am awed by technology and become optimistic that it will lead us to something grand, perhaps even save the world.

We've had so many innovations in communications — particularly in the lifetime of Rose's grandson — that there hardly has been time to savor the ingenuity behind them and consider the life-enhancing qualities they present.

While those qualities are not always clear, certainly they have made the world smaller, less mysterious, less frightening. More of us can look each other in the eye when we express and explain, and that must be a good thing. The world should know more peace as a result of all this human interaction. We should be able to make connections quickly and collaborate on great endeavors to make life better for all. Grandmothers should be able to see and speak to grandchildren thousands of miles away; heads of state should be able to avoid war and halt global warming. Please pardon the awe and optimism.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. He is the host of Midday on WYPR, 88.1 FM. His e-mail is dan.rodricks@baltsun.com.

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