The Gift of Presence

Lily WangJune 3, 2024AI and the Future of KnowledgeHelping Hands
The Gift of Presence

Artwork by Arturo De Arrascaeta Penayo, age 13, Uruguay

"I can’t see you," I repeated for the 10th time.

I heard a mumbling that sounded awfully like an expletive and the aggressive tapping of nails on glass. Never having known my timid grandmother to show any signs of violence, her uncharacteristic frustration was probably a sign that this was a lost cause.

"I still can’t see you," I sighed.

In the 10 minutes we had been on this call, I had said every variation of "press the camera icon" I could think of, using descriptions so visceral they would move my English teacher to tears. All to no avail. The screen remained black. My own exasperated face reflected at me in its small corner.

"This isn’t working, Laolao. Forget about the camera. Maybe we can just talk," I sighed.

It would be so wonderful to see her again, even if it was online. It had been a year since I last saw her, hugged her, and devoured her signature fried rice. My grandmother embodies the word "comfort." Growing up, she was always there to bandage my scraped knees, read my favorite bedtime stories, and walk me to school hand in hand. Even when my parents and I migrated to Australia, my relationship with her never wavered. Every two weeks or so, we would catch up on the phone: me updating her on my school drama and she updating me on the family drama. Every Christmas holiday, my parents and I would return to our hometown to celebrate New Year's with her. It was an annual trip we looked forward to greatly.

That is, until COVID. Now, our yearly traditions were reduced to a laggy video call that only worked one way.

"How are you celebrating New Year's?" I asked. She sounded immensely relieved to hear me change the topic as she divulged her plans to make stir-fry and watch some show from a few decades ago that I had never heard of. I nodded sympathetically, knowing that her plans were far from the wonderfully chaotic family gatherings that would otherwise have occurred if not for current circumstances.

As she talked, I was hit with the realization that she had been quarantining by herself for months now. I never fully appreciated just how difficult that must have been for her. She always loved company, and her small apartment was always filled with friends and family coming and going. Now, her solitude was a stark contrast to the lively bustle of her pre-pandemic life.

Simultaneously, I realized that our online calls to each other had become more necessary and significant than ever. In a world that emphasized placing physical distance between individuals, technology could close these gaps. We are brought together in the digital sphere when the physical world is in upheaval. Every time a call starts, we are reminded that our experiences are not singular. We are not alone. Even in the direst situations, connections can still be forged and flourish. Isolation suddenly feels not so isolating when you are laughing with someone through a screen (the lags only make things funnier).

Technology is a difficult space to navigate. There are barriers that inhibit people from accessing it and reaping its benefits. As someone who is fortunate enough to have grown up with technology, I realize that it is my responsibility to help those who don’t share the same privilege. Listening to my grandmother’s animated chatter, I was reminded of all her patience and dedication to me in childhood. Memories of her sounding out my first Chinese characters and walking me through easy math problems flooded my mind. She was, and continues to be, my teacher in so many areas of my life. Now, I have also become hers in the context of technology. It is only right for me to pass on my knowledge, so that she can feel supported and connected in a time of such uncertainty.

It takes a lot of effort and time to gain digital literacy, and even then, things don’t always fall into place. Sometimes the Internet fails, or the call drops, or the screen freezes. Sometimes the camera icon disappears, and video calling is no longer an option. Nevertheless, the knowledge that another person is on the other end, undergoing a shared experience, is in itself comforting. My pandemic-meddled brain was reminded of the historical romance novels I binged, where star-crossed lovers, separated by some potent force, lay awake at night, gazing at the same moon. It didn’t matter that they couldn’t hold each other or see each other. It isn’t about the physical presence of someone, but simply presence. All that matters is that somewhere across the world, someone is cradling a small piece of metal, gazing at a pixelated smile, thinking of you, too.

Lily Wang is a 16-year-old living in Melbourne, Australia. Her passions lie in literature, politics, and philosophy. She can often be found in the realms of a novel, immersed in an article, or in deep discussion with friends on a topic that knows no bounds. Lily is also guilty of watching and re-watching sitcoms while working on her latest knitting project.