Open Anthro Vol 9-1 Remote Communication
Keywords:Open Anthropology, anthropology, communication, communication and media, remote communication
The COVID-19 pandemic has generated tremendous changes in daily life across the globe. Initially, without biomedical therapies and vaccines to reduce sickness and suffering, people reduced their risk of infection by covering faces, washing hands, and especially by remaining physically distant from family, friends, and colleagues as well as strangers. Physical separation continues to provide basic safety even as vaccines become available, but this distancing—more generally called social distancing—has also created new forms of distress from social displacement and inadequate emotional connections. In particular, the pandemic’s social displacements have posed thorny challenges for people seeking to exchange ideas, offer comfort, and express feelings in close relationships.
To stay connected, people have explored innovative cultural and technological strategies to communicate remotely about family, romance, work, healthcare, and other matters. Many of us, for example, increasingly rely on FaceTime, Twitter, Zoom, and other technologies and social media to express ourselves—particularly by displaying our faces—across multiple cultural and social contexts. Anthropologists have long observed that human groups who encounter new social contexts develop innovative means for exchanging ideas and feelings with others. As happens with any new cultural pattern, the initial encounters with unfamiliar communication practices seem unsettling and stressful, particularly during everyday conversations. The fundamental human desire to connect with family and friends, celebrate life events, enjoy romance, complete work, and protest social injustices does not disappear during a pandemic. Rather, discussion and action take new forms. As experienced educators, we currently grapple with the complexities of sharing knowledge remotely rather than in face-to-face classrooms. For example, Zoom fatigue has become a common issue that educators address with students. Having gained familiarity with new communication practices in our own personal and work lives, we offer our anthropological reflections on how this pandemic moment relates to broader human experiences with remote communication.
For this issue of Open Anthropology, we selected anthropological studies of how humans in contemporary and past societies have used remote communication to connect socially despite physical separation. While contemporary cultural studies emphasize how people currently depend on digital and electronic modes of transmission to connect remotely, archaeological cases show that humans have striven to bridge separations across time and space for millennia. Remote communication is indeed an aspect of the human condition. What insights have anthropologists gained about how humans convey meaning remotely? How do people become present to each other while occupying different territories? How do materiality and a speaker’s physical location shape communication across distance? How do people share emotional closeness and secrets when open face-to-face conversations are not possible or not desirable? In this time of COVID-19, the anthropology of remote human communication highlights human practices for creating and maintaining close social connections and new identities with people located in distant physical places. These perspectives also offer insights into how to understand and address the distress associated with distant social interactions.
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