Family Chat


Every Sunday my family meets in a Google Hangout we named “family chat.” Mom starts the call from British Columbia: she’s the one who gets to the airport three hours before a flight, and she’s the one who emails a link to aunts and uncles who only keep paper calendars. Grandpa joins from the Big Island, where he never gets the afternoon rainbow to resolve in the webcam. “You look so beautiful,” he tells each one of us, every single time.

I started a weekly video chat thinking tech would help me keep in touch with my sister and three brothers — across states and international borders and texting plans, we never talked.

But the older generation was the one that fell in love. Mom invited Grandpa, who was bemused to learn there was a camera in his computer, and that it had a purpose. Grandpa invited my half-aunts, and the news skittered through the family in the old-fashioned way, via telephone, along with instructions for the new-fashioned way, via secret cameras. Now, Grandpa schedules his whole day around family chat: he won’t go anywhere on Sundays for fear of missing the call.

Video is a revelation. Mom gives us a tour of her new condo, the first place she’s ever owned. It’s a box in the sky over a Canadian forest, and there are bald eagles. We see and talk about the weather: island rain in Maui, wind causing noisy feedback from an open window in Scotland, a muggy summer in St. Louis. And, critical for a family of introverts, everybody gets to sit on their favorite living room couch. In family chat we all host; home is in the cloud.

My family’s always been too far to gather for holidays and we’re split between them anyway: different North American Thanksgivings, Christmas versus Pesach. But family chat is better than the once-a-year phone calls we used to have. Sitting with three generations for an hour each week lets us share normal life, a web of interaction effects that generate rambling, unpredictable conversations. My brother gives our cousin advice from his lofty position as a college freshman. Mom and her half-siblings remember lyrics from the sixties and sing to our smallest cousin, harmonizing across a wash of static. Uncles I’ve never even met poke their heads onto the screen, bringing family and friends to say hi. My aunts sometimes leave the video open even when they go, like they’ve got to do their part to sustain the precarious portal. I came out across four countries when I introduced my girlfriend on family chat. Hangout’s video froze for a heart-stopping moment, but audio came through: “The Paltin family has become a worldwide franchise,” Grandpa said, “But we are welcoming new members.”

Family chat gives us time together, and time is the most valuable thing. Grandpa refused a chest-opening heart operation a year ago with a gentle confidence that his doctors found maddeningly incontrovertible. Grandpa is a psychiatrist, and it’s hard to change the mind of a psychiatrist. If he’s learnt one thing, it’s that time enjoyed trumps time prolonged. Time and memory comes up a lot during family chat. Grandpa tells us about a hot Philadelphia summer at thirteen spent sneaking into local burlesque shows, and mom hides her entire face in her hands. But embarrassment must skip a generation, because Grandpa and I cackle over it.

Family chat breaks all the time. Luckily, IT is a joint affair. We yell helpful and unhelpful troubleshooting through a frayed connection to my aunt who lives in a Northern commune. It turned out there was snow on the satellite dish. The internet in Hawai’i is spotty when you’re pulling up Hangouts on your phone on the way to hike a rainforest. As video breaks up, I type a realtime transcript in the chat window. This devolves into parenthetical jokes at the expense of anybody who doesn’t have the chat window open. Brokenness begets creativity. We’ve traded photos across the family chat by holding physical copies up to the camera, but I’ve taught some of us to screenshare, which has led to the disorienting ouroboros of leading grandparents and great aunts through friends’ facebook photo commentary, via screenshare. Brokenness is not a binary of working or not-working tech; for us, it’s a mosaic of familiar and unfamiliar, understanding and not understanding, allowed to share space.

I used to study classrooms, where researchers try to convince students that making mistakes is normal and ok. Now I’m in tech, where we race to redesign products around a mistake-free experience. It’s not that I want things to break, but, mistakes can be beautiful. The way that people solve things when they break is beautiful. Do we ever let it happen? Do we give mistakes the chance to teach us?

Every week my aunts come in late and are surprised that they’ve been automatically muted, and they yell and laugh soundlessly as we try to describe a microphone icon, and then what we mean by icon, and the concept of a virtual button, and that the button disappears when you don’t move your cursor over it, and then what a cursor is. But we don’t let each other give up. My family knows that I study technology, so of course they ask me why I haven’t fixed it all. They also ask if they need to worry about robots, and which phone they should buy. At work I interview engineers and they, too, talk about feeling lost and not having the answers. The difference is this: when our tech doesn’t work we blame the tech, but my grandparents blame themselves.

When I moved to San Francisco to join a big tech company, Grandpa went to a Radio Shack and asked for whatever he needed to keep up with technology. They sold him a selfie stick. He put it in a place of honor on the mantel next to the Buddha. In physical space, I live far away from family. Last year I moved to this new city full of spaces where I’m the only— the only social scientist on the team, the only researcher for the org, the only woman on the tech side, the only queer woman at the brunch, the only Paltin-Hicks in the city. But once a week I feel more grounded, more connected, more seen. We make and solve mistakes together, a cycle of renewal and messy reincarnation. Grandpa tells me about times that he, also, felt lonely —an immigrant, he and his brother the only Jews admitted to the one medical school that didn’t reject them for failing the “character requirement” that meant not being Jewish. Sixty years later, they paid for my college applications. My cousin sings us songs in a language that gets spell-checked when I write it in a tweet. We don’t have solutions for each other, but we can work through brokenness. We don’t let each other give up.

A lot of stories about inclusive technology end on benevolent outreach to helpless elderly, teaching them to send an email to a distant grandchild who’s probably on snapchat instead. You can’t help but get the feeling it’s a race you won’t win, chasing the kids from platform to platform. Stories about tech dystopia, on the other hand, end on the implication that democracy will only be saved by banning previous generations from Facebook. But I need them, my grandparents and aunts and cousins, with thirty-year-old phones and commune computers and paper calendars, as much as they need me. Maybe more. Few stories show families together, over time, learning.

Tech seems increasingly determined by economic avalanches that roll right over creative gestalts like my family. In research, I confront consistent assumptions that single users can be put in one demographic box, and they’re independent observations. But I live for behaviors, for conversations, for interaction. I want to think about the living room couches all over the world, including the cushions that my grandmother sits on, on the floor. We’ve got to design for surprise and togetherness and learning. It’s easier to pitch a millennial social media persona than an international, multiethnic family with everything from digital natives to digital phobics. My aunt is afraid of microwaves, but she joins family chat to see our faces.

I do research not just to see where tech breaks, but to see what happens after. Maybe a selfie stick on a mantel doesn’t fulfill its designed purpose but maybe it still has purpose, sends a blessing all the way over the ocean to the only Paltin-Hicks out here. We need to see the meaning in what people do even when it’s not what we expect. We need to let people break things and not be so very afraid of mistakes. When I listen to the conversations at work, I wonder sometimes if the future will care about small groups who want to connect, who have jungles and roosters and different languages and were never told about secret webcams and invisible microphones. Technology that misses my Grandpa will miss a lot of good puns.

My family is Hawaiian and Californian and Canadian and Scottish and immigrant, Jewish and ex-Jewish and ex-then-back-again-Jewish, Buddhist and atheist and Catholic and Guilty, distant and close. And we use technology together. Every week, family chat is shabbat and sangha and luau and Sunday dinner. They use technology the way they do everything else: imperfect, funny, brave. There’s never going to be a technology that’s perfectly designed for all of us, and that’s ok. We just need one that lets us get together.