Throughout my childhood, I would roll out of bed on Saturday mornings and amble downstairs to find my parents in the living room—my mother cradling her coffee mug and my father munching on buttered cornbread. I’d go into the kitchen, grab some yogurt (and perhaps the coffee pot), and nestle into my dad’s side. We’d watch Million Dollar Listing: New York and Below Deck: Mediterranean—spying on lives that we would never even come close to living. These lazy mornings were just one of the many hours I would spend with my parents in front of the television—shows ranging from the morning news to Bachelor in Paradise. It was our way of sharing our time, carving out space for each other regardless of busyness or stress.
My siblings and I did not share the same taste in TV shows. When we were in high school, Lars and Annika would talk over dinner about the anime they were watching while my parents and I exchanged raised eyebrows and shrugged shoulders. Most days when we were all still living together, we spent our free time drawn into our own screens. What we did agree on, however, was video games. We’d pull out our DSes and throw bombs at each other in Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks, button mash our way through Mario Party minigames, and race through Mario Kart—Lars always got to be Dry Bones as Annika and I were relegated to multi-colored Shy Guys. My sister would spend forever designing her character in LittleBigPlanet while Lars and I figured out how to make our avatars slap each other. Most recently, Anni and I spent two hours over Christmas break yelling back and forth, “Chop the onions!” “I need a dish!” “Throw me a tomato!” “The soup is burning!” while playing Overcooked 2. I related best to my siblings when we were shoulder to shoulder, yelling or cheering about pixels on a screen.
I’m used to connecting with others through technology—using TV shows or video games as a launching pad for deeper conversations or merely as a way to spend time together. I’m not used to only connecting with others through technology.
These days when I talk to my family, it’s through a screen. Our weekly video chat, which has been a staple of Sunday afternoons ever since 2015, has become less of us rehashing our weeks and more of “Can you believe the number of cases?” and “We’ve been going on our daily walks outside.” and “Any idea if school is going to open again?” I’ve taken to calling my sister daily to gently suggest some coping skills as she is struggling to adjust back to living at home again and taking online classes. My extended family sends flurries of texts daily about everything from puppies to daily briefings on the coronavirus to Zoom meetings to suggestions to watch The Curse of Oak Island together. COVID-19 has flipped the usual script: we are using technology to discuss our reality rather than discussing technology in reality. Yet we are still reaching out, sharing, connecting.
Even in this new reality, however, I find myself turning back to the old ways—depending on TVs and video games to bring together the people whom I still see on a daily basis. At night, my housemates and I play Mario Kart 8, which involves me screaming “GREG HOW DARE YOU—” when his character zooms in front of me, bumping me from first to fourth place. We do home workouts from people on YouTube with titles like “Fat Burning Workout for Cover Model Abs! Get Shredded!” and curse whoever invented crunches. Then we shuffle back to the TV room to continue our three-night Lord of The Rings marathon. Most of our lives now exist virtually, but I still find more satisfaction in these small moments of human connection than I do from hours of scrolling on Twitter.
In my own life, tech has always been a way for me to connect to the people around me; however, that connection has always fallen short when I tried to extend it to people who aren’t living nearby. No matter how many times my friends post on Instagram or how many hot takes on the latest political kerfuffle are debated on Facebook, I don’t get the full story. But now, since our only way of connecting with basically everyone is through the internet, could we find a way to do it better?
Could all of these Zoom calls and live streams and free resources actually show us how to connect meaningfully, even when technology is the only option? Will we wield it to build and deepen relationships? Or will we delve more deeply into the numbing side of the Internet, trying to drink from the firehouse of social media without going beneath the surface?
Alex Johnson (‘19) is a virtual computer science teacher and a proud resident of the Creston neighborhood in Grand Rapids. When she isn’t reading Young Adult fiction, she’s playing board games with her housemates, listening to podcasts, scrolling on education Twitter, and preaching the gospel of intentional community to anyone who will listen.