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Tag: Hannah Sibona

Communication at a distance: technology old and new

View of Pentecost. © Hannah Sibona

By Hannah Sibona          In 2020, a face-to-face meeting, more often than not, means screen-to-screen. The global pandemic, social restrictions, and the ‘new normal’ has, for many of us, radically altered our communicative social practices. Only weeks before Europe shut down, I was conducting research on mobile phones among young women working in the garment factories of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The participants stressed the importance of making video calls on their smartphones. This technology allowed them not only to maintain frequent contact with their homes and family in rural villages, but enabled a feeling of closeness because they felt that “they are in front of me, they are nearby me, I am with them”. At the time, I remember being surprised that video calling could have such power. It was only once I got back to Europe that ‘Zoom call’ and ‘online drinks’ suddenly became common phrases, and represented a vital form of connection.

Bridging distances between people is an essential function of technology, and this year communication at a distance matters more than ever before. But changing circumstances have radically altered my modes of communication before. In 2012, I willingly entered a form of social isolation when I spent the year as a volunteer teacher on the remote island of Pentecost, Vanuatu. Although I was in good company among a handful of other volunteers and a local community that looked after us, in other ways I was very much cut off from the rest of the world. There was no internet, very expensive mobile phone calls were reserved for letting family know I was still alive, and the postal service was chronically unreliable. To seasoned anthropologists, significant periods with minimal contact with home, sporadic postal communication, and extortionate international phone calls, might seem like par for the course. For my millennial friends fresh out of university, I was entering a brave new world in which they could also participate by sending a letter, and maybe receiving one in return.

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