Share this article

print logo


It's Thanksgiving morning, and the kitchen table is covered with familiar and familial lists. On one page is scribbled the menu that keeps evolving even while it remains as recognizably ours as the lemon pie. On the second page are names and place cards that also have evolved while remaining as recognizably ours as my grandmother's china.

These days our family lives as close as next door and as far away as California. Our children and grandchildren have become part of the great Thanksgiving migration. They have joined the 37 million Americans who travel home for the holidays.

My husband and I don't bring in the harvest, we bring in the family. Indeed, in a country where food is plentiful and family often scattered, the most American of holidays is now less about the feast on the table than about the bumper crop of people around it.

I no longer take this holiday migration for granted. I remember the AT&T ads that encouraged people to "reach out and touch someone." Our generation learned to touch by touch tone. We were sold on the notion that a phone call is nearly as reassuring as a hand. Now we hardly notice how the languages of emotion and technology have been entwined. We "keep in touch" via cell phones. We "connect" over the Internet. We "see" each other over videophones.

Technology has made it easier -- and perhaps more likely -- to live apart. So we create more and more technological fixes for the human fix we are in: distance from people we love.

For weeks, I've carried around a story about some researchers at Carnegie Mellon who have created a high-tech long-distance embrace. Their robotic pillow in a humanoid shape is designed, they tell us with a straight face, to provide older people with emotional support. It's called "The Hug."

A far-away granddaughter can use her "Hug" to dial up grandpa's "Hug." When the two connect, thermal fibers vibrate and radiate heat, and the hug is passed from one generation to the next. And if one person is not home, they can even leave a hug message.

How many researchers, how many hours in the lab, how many grants did it take to transform a hug into a product called "The Hug"? Who decided that the demand for touching so exceeded the supply that hugging needed to be outsourced?

I have read as well of robotic dogs and babies used in nursing homes as "companions." Are these sorry artifacts of our time, telling us that caring humans are in such short supply that we must find their robotic replicas? Are people as susceptible as the woman in Steven Spielberg's movie "A.I.," who wrestles with her emotional connection to a robotic child?

Sherry Turkle, MIT's guru on technology and the self, calls "The Hug" a "wake-up call." It suggests, she tells me, "that somehow you can communicate your touch, your caress, remotely to a person on the other end. It makes dramatic the question why is it so hard to maintain contact with loved ones. And do we really think that a touch that simulates your touch is an expression of our human spirit? Or is it a cheapening?"

I do not think Americans will invite holograms of cousins for turkey dinner anytime soon. Nor will "Hugs" win a place at the family table. But when we're sold on so many technological replacement parts for so much of our humanity, we have to stop and celebrate the irreplaceable human longing to be together.

This is what strikes me this Thanksgiving. Our most restless of nations has the get-up-and-go to go home. We do not phone in Thanksgiving or e-mail family reunions. We spend more for tickets than turkey. Despite the best scientific efforts, 37 million travelers have no illusions about the difference between the virtual and real.

In our home, a family that ranges in age from 1 to 90, from high chair to wheelchair, will crowd around a table where we do not have to reach out in order to touch.

Washington Post Writers Group

There are no comments - be the first to comment