Thursday, January 24, 2013

Effort is the real real

By way of a Facebook contact, Jesper Tække, I found this article on what the author calls the IRL fetish. Jenny Davis, one of the editors at Cyborgology, describes the sense of importance that comes with old-fashioned birthday greetings, and she gives this a name: the IRL fetish.

This resonates with Sherry Turkle's book Alone Together, which I have written about earlier. As I expressed in that post, the communication efforts before and after the internet have changed so much of the framework, that to be nostalgic for the analogue past, romantic as it may feel, blurs the hindsight.

Jenny Davis is however on to something, even if I think she errs when she appreciates one thing over the other, as if a handwritten card is more "real" than a birthday greeting on Facebook. Where she is right is that the specially made greeting is more significant of the connection between her and her loved ones than the quick Facebook greeting from that guy in the dorm 15 years ago. Of course it it, and, seriously, would you want it any other way?

Back before Facebook, if you knew about somebody's birthday you'd congratulate them. The effort you'd put into that gratulation depended on the closeness of the relationship. It also depended heavily on reciprocity, and carried with it expectations. If I knew about a colleague's birthday, or heard somebody else congratulate him/her, I'd congratulate them. They would do the same to me, for my birthday. I would however not make a big effort for their birthday, unless it was somebody I was already closely connected to. I would avoid that in order to not be pushy. Being too nice and generous is a way to force your way into an intimacy the other person might not desire. Giving attention, gifts, cards, whatever, carries with it a demand in return: See me, return this, make us even, make us friends.

It's still like this. It hasn't really changed. The people who might have said "happy birthday" in the corridor now say "happy birthday" on Facebook (ok, some of the Facebook Happy Birthdays are from people I'd invite to my party if they were here). The people who might leave a regular, store-bought card now text you or email you. And the people who would craft their own card lovingly do the same now, and you most likely do something similar in return. And then there's the ones that call you on your birthday, and the ones that come over with cake, and the ones who have carefully chosen presents, lovingly wrapped. Those are the same people as they were 30 years ago.

That is because no matter how the technology has changed, the investments we are willing to make in communication are pretty much the same. To a person I know vaguely, I am willing to say "happy birthday" once, effortlessly. It's a nice thing to do, it doesn't cost me anything, and if they want to they can hit "like" - which is an effort equal to a quick "thanks" or a smile and a nod in passing. The person I know a bit more will receive a more elaborate greeting. This may mean a longer email, a call, a card - perhaps I'll chase down a place where I can create a silly electronic card if I know about one, or perhaps I will send them a gift in a game.

Because it isn't necessarily the materiality of the present which is important. I get presents in World of Warcraft and SWTOR - and I love it. A stack of virtual crafting materials, a piece of armour, or just a sprig of flowers - yes, it's electronic, but it reflects real effort. I know how much time goes into finding some of these things, and they are willing to sacrifice that for me!

This is what birthday greetings, christmas presents and all that have always reflected: The effort we are willing to put into the attention we give each other. An expensive gift feels overwhelming, not because of the quantitative value, but because we appreciate the effort that goes into gathering the resources used to purchase the gift. It gets its significance from the initial effort money symbolises. This is why a very expensive gift and a cheap, but thoughtfully hand-made gift can carry the same emotional value.

It all depends on whether the recipient is able to value it, though. I brought a pair of hand-knitted mittens to an American woman. She was offended at the weirdness of the gift: what the hell was she to do with something that useless, a pair of unfashionable ugly mittens, and she couldn't even take them back to the store and get something useful. It wasn't until her partner pointed out that I had knitted them myself, and talked about how intricately made they were, that she managed to thank me for them. We need to understand the effort to appreciate it.

I suspect that the current confusion about what is appropriate, not to mention the snobbery of the hand-made object (which is nothing new), is a confusion about effort and the appropriate level of effort to invest in for instance a birthday greeting. As Jenny Davis doesn't ask for expensive presents, but rather thoughtful ones, I suspect that what she fetishises is effort and attention, not the physical presences of something.

And effort is real, no matter what medium it's presented in. It's why money is so extremely important: it represents effort. In a way, I guess what Turkle and Davis are getting at is: Effort is the real real.

It's just hard to recognize. But personally, I'd rather have a Facebook greeting than nothing at all, which, for 90% of the people who sends one, would be the attention we would be able to give each other across continents and time-zones.

Friday, January 11, 2013

Blank books and new years

All who have been around me for a while know about my passion for blank books. I keep buying them, more than I can fill. When a beautiful one snags my gaze, I grab it and bring it with me. Accompanying this passion is one for pens, but I don't buy those as frequently. I do have a couple I love and guard though, like the engraved fountain pen which was a present from my colleagues for my Ph D. I love that one. I am keeping it in a drawer, though, safe like the blank books, which are on the book shelf. What is up with that?

The thing is - what I love about both pens and books is their potential. Most of my writing happens under pressure, with deadlines, and in a hurry. I sit hunched over the computer for a week or two, and a new article or chapter is borne. Then I send it off and move on. There's no cherishing the process in advance, no anticipation of the beauty of the words I am about to shape, no glorious joy of the ideas I tackle and play with. All of those things are lost in some nostalgic memory of writing from when I learned to write. When I learned an elegant longhand, and trained myself to write it, fluidly and easily. When I wrote my first poems, and hid them in the first journal I kept for more than a few weeks, and filled it slowly with words I'd go back and play with, poke at, tug around. The first academic papers, when I dropped the fluid script of writing lessons during childhood, and reinvented myself with something clear, easy, readable and modern looking, a black line marching determined over the white page. It was all by hand, back then, and I think it's me missing that process that makes me buy all these books.

Because when I do start another journal (I do use them, quite a bit, really) there is always this thrill, this moment of breathless anticipation. It can contain anything: The next great novel, or the theory of human-text interaction to make everything make sense - potentially, that's in that blank book, in that beautiful pen, just waiting to flow out of me.

And yes, that is all about the new year, too, because right now, the year is really mostly potential, and can take us anywhere.

And it's about the Hobbit, because of what Bilbo says to Frodo: "He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. 'It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,' he used to say. 'You step onto the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.'".

 Happy new year, happy new book, happy new road to you all.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

13th day of Christmas

Also known as Epiphany, Three Kings Day, and the night before as the Twelfth Night, the 13th day of Christmas marks the end of the celebrations. Or, as my mother said: "13 dags Knut feier jula ut." I have no idea who Knut is or why he would sweep Yule out, but it's a good date for cleaning up.

And so I have been packing, sweeping, carrying and stashing ornaments all afternoon. This year the tree was tiny (by our standards), but I had to do all the packing up and carrying out alone, something I have never, ever done before.

This year, due to the size of the tree and the amount of ornaments I have collected in the 26 years we have been a family, we had our first dogma-tree. A dogma-tree is a tree with a topic, and the topic this years was birds. As some may see, there's a little bit more than birds there. We filled in with some stuff we pretented to be frost and icicles, and pine-cones. The real discussion was as to whether a butterfly can be said to be a bird, and does it belong on a pine-tree in December? The yes-side won, through a democratic process. A good thing we were an uneven number present during the decorating.

The first thing to get packed up was the second thing I put up: The advent wreath. This year's wreath had been lighting up the stairwell with it's overwhelming lights: shining, white roses. My sense of style is kicking my shin hard every time I am close to admitting that I actually love the string of lights in rose-shape, because they were a lot bigger and more prominent than I expected. But I will find a way to use them next year as well, if nothing else to honour my father, who more than anything loved colourful, abundant lights for Christmas. He'd have adored the roses, and might have wanted to keep them up all through the winter.
My favourite thing is the advent star. When you drive along the dark roads of Norway in the winter, often the only thing that lights the side of the road are the lights in the houses. Late, when all have gone to bed, there's not much, a few outdoor lights, a window where somebody are working late, the flicker of a television. But during advent, there are stars and seven-armed electrical "candlesticks" in every house, often several - one in the kitchen, one in the living room, one to the side... We use a very old real candlestick, from my husband's family, for the 7 candles and never in the window, but we always have an advent star. I have always loved the muted light of the star, and I sneak into the living room to turn it back on if my family have been sensible and energy-conservative and turned it off before going to bed. The soft light at night is the colour of expectations and secrets, and comes with the scent of cookies and the sound of sewing machines, of conversations I am not supposed to hear, and the memory of waking up really early to see how the rooms are transformed, night by night, into a nest of Christmas cheer.
But now it's over, it's all boxed up, the tree is in the yard, the star in the cabinet, the birds and the glitter packed down. Tomorrow I'll bring the last few cookies in to work, and then I'll make soup stock from the bone of the dried sheep leg (fenalår) I had for Christmas. It's over, until next year.