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Haeun Lee, an IPFW exchange student from Seoul, South Korea, talks with her mother using Skype on her iPod.

Staying connected

Technology helps eliminate distance between families

Haeun Lee uses Skype and texting as a way to keep in touch with her family over the distance.

When Haeun Lee is feeling especially homesick, she might ask her mom to turn on the computer and go about her business.

She doesn’t necessarily want to talk – though that would be nice. Instead, she just wants to observe her family. It helps to make Lee feel as though she’s nearby, as opposed to 6,652.6 miles and 13 time zones away.

“(I) watch what they are doing, and I feel like I am home, and I feel like my parents are next to me,” says Lee, an exchange student from IPFW who is from Seoul, South Korea. “Sometimes I miss my mom’s voice.”

Ever-changing technology and new forms of social media mean that friends or family members who are studying or working overseas are never more than a few clicks away. Of course, it’s not the same as a great big bear hug, the type where one party is lifted off the ground.

But it helps.

Kevin D. Miller, an associate professor of communication at Huntington University, says his wife, an emigrant from Ukraine, uses Skype to talk to her family.

“But we still spend the $1,500 for a ticket every now and then to go over there,” he says. “Being with someone is not the same on Skype. … A good test case: If you had a baby or a toddler, and that was your grandson or granddaughter, would you be satisfied with only Skyping? Or would you still feel that compelling need to be there to hold, to hug? I think in the end, the electronic age eases our homesicknesses, but it never satisfies those homesicknesses.”

When Miller looks at society’s current communication age, he relates it most closely to the tribal age, when communication was about touching, hearing and speaking. It was about story-telling around the campfire. The invention of the printing press changed that, and the invention of social media changed it again.

Because what is Facebook if not small, specialized groups – or tribes – with the goal of sharing stories and information?

“(The electronic age) began to return us to touch and sounds like the tribal age,” Miller says, “but the difference was the communication could be transmitted over long distances and instantaneously.”

Out with the old?

With each new development in communication, something from the old way of life is obviated, Miller says.

Vinyl records became obsolete as cassette tapes gained popularity, then tapes became obsolete as CDs gained popularity, and now CDs are becoming obsolete as music is moved to digital files.

And yet, vinyl records are undergoing a revival. He predicts the same thing will happen with that old form of communication: letter writing.

“There’s a certain quality to it, a certain personal touch to it that … a printed message just can’t equal, the same way being in person is always better than Skyping across the globe,” he says.

Last year, when Miller’s son was a second-grader at Flint Springs Elementary School in Huntington, he learned that come third grade, he would not learn cursive.

This disappointed his son, Miller says, and he asked his parents to teach him longhand. He viewed it as a loss, knowledge his parents had that he would not have. (This year, Miller’s son’s teachers have said longhand is on the curriculum.)

Handwriting shows personality, Miller says, and that is lost as handwriting becomes obsolete, as too will be the ability to put thought and reflection into correspondence.

“How many of us have sent an email and hit the send button and wished we could recall it the second after we sent it?” he asks.

Miller still receives the occasional handwritten letter, from his parents, who are in their 80s.

“They (the letters) mean a lot to me,” he says. “I also get emails from them, but the handwritten ones mean something the email ones can’t match.”

Lee never writes letters, she says. It takes too long. She does receive care packages from her parents, but she knows what will be in them – her mom will show her clothing she sends for her OK before sending that package on its seven- to 10-day trek to the other side of the globe.

What comes next

When newlyweds during world wars I and II used to write about their lives to each across oceans of war, they could have no way of knowing that their grandchildren would keep in touch with their overseas loved ones through contraptions called the computer and the Internet. Similarly, it’s hard to imagine where technological advancements can possibly bring communication next.

The best predictions, Miller says, come from science fiction. (The communicator in “Star Trek” looks eerily like a cellphone. And characters wore earpieces that could have been modeled after a Bluetooth headset. And “Star Trek: The Next Generation” had a contraption that looks sort of like an iPad.)

With that in mind, the next frontier – not to be confused with the final frontier – could be biodigital interconnectivity.

Come again?

Instead of communication that is continual, it will be continuous; it’s the difference between being able to send a text message at any time, for example, and sending text messages at all times.

“And it’ll be connected to our bodies and our minds,” Miller says. “Already we’re seeing those with mental impairments from injury are able to operate computer screens (by transmitting neuron activity electronically on the screen). We’re moving toward some kind of fusion of the body, the mind and the digital.”

Until then, students like Samah Al-Rawahi will have to be content with her communication with her family in Oman when both parties are able to make it to a computer screen.

Al-Rawashi, 20, is studying media and communication, and she lives with her brother in Fort Wayne. The rest of her family is overseas. She talks to them three or four times a week.

“I think it would be so much harder (without Skype),” Al-Rawahi says. “I’m a very family-oriented person. Leaving my country to come here was hard enough. I get my strength from them. Just talking to them makes my stay here so much easier.”