Friday, June 05, 2009

skype me

I was aware that there was a Skype, and that it had changed the lives of my students. It changed their lives, because now they could live thousands of miles from home, but still see their families every day, or any time they wanted to. Sure, there are limitations, but, when they found out this was possible, most of them went right to it. Love of family is the driving force that makes it difficult for people to stay abroad, or that drives them home; maybe i've said that wrong, but Skype, I feel, has more than any other force made the world much smaller. And, it's free!

So, Thom T., our lab director, who makes it his business to know these things, agreed to place a call, and sure enough, from my office to his, we not only had a call, but also recorded it; furthermore, he bundled up that tiny recording (he had recorded only a few minutes of it- still, he said, it was quite a large bundle) and sent that bundle to me over the text chat function that is right there on Skype. Apparently people get on Skype as one would on any phone- to anyone who is "on" at any time- and then one can send songs, movies, documents, anything, as one would on an IM or another chat function. But, you can do it, and look the other person in the eye as you do it. Look 'em in the videocam eye, anyway.

The Skype window is a little square that appears on your screen, with another smaller square within it; I saw him in the larger square, and myself in the smaller one. He told me to move the square up by the videocam, which on mac is at the top center of the computer, and it would appear more often that I was looking at him, rather than looking down. How many computers have these videocams these days? Most new ones; dell laptops do not; lots still do not. Sometimes you have to buy an external camera and hook it up, to get the full visual effect of Skype. But, it's still possible to use it just simply as a long distance phone service. Call anywhere, in the world, free- then if they don't have Skype where you're calling, make a local call, and connect to whoever you want. They apparently make their money that way- because, when you get where you're going, so to speak, you have to give them the quarter or the small fee it takes to make that local call. And this is still an enormous improvement over the what, seven dollars a minute people were used to paying. It will change life enormously.

Now how will it change teaching? I'm not quite sure yet. Speaking only of the limitations, the first is broadband; everyone has to have it. We in our building have T1 cable; my picture was smooth, everything went well. However, before I reached Thom T., I accidentally reached his mother-in-law in Maine; she is over 80; she answered the phone; she carried on a conversation with me; and she was not surprised, somehow, that this was happening. She seemed to enjoy it. But her picture was not smooth; every time she moved it took a while for the picture to catch up to her. And, finally, there was some interference, as if Thom T himself's answering his own Skype caused a great amount of interference to whatever connection we had. The interference noise was so great and so unpleasant that I had to eventually hang up on her, but, both of us have a story to tell. I apologized for disturbing her, and never quite figured out why my call went to her in the first place. Is it possible that he had opened up Skype while at her house, and it stayed open, or was reopened later?

In any case, he told of several people who used it, in spite of its not always being extremely clear. These are the early days; some people have laptops, some have dsl or cable; some piggyback on neighbors' wireless, etc. Also, he said, you sign up, you get your name in the directory, and people can find you, and they do; on the one hand, you want your friends to find you, but an occasional porn hustler will find you, or some other scurrilous entrepreneur. It's like other innovations. Sometimes the bad elements are the quickest to find it.

But, backing off a little, it was also amazing to just notice: Here I am, looking at the person I'm talking to. Pure, unvarnished, true image, his actual office, where he is and what he's doing. At one point he grabbed a teddy bear and put it to the camera. You do this, he said, because when you talk to nieces, etc., they can get more of a lively sense of you being there, and entertaining them. I've got to get my niece on Skype. I have a niece who I haven't actually seen in years.

From the educational point of view, it's very important that it can be recorded, saved, shown later, evaluated, etc. Software does this on a mac; he told me the name, but now, at 4 am, I have forgotten it. You can download 30-day trial software for free to do this, for both mac and PC, but different software for each. And he simply paid for his, since it wasn't that much, and he had a lab budget. Nevertheless he stressed how even the small two-minute bundle he sent me was quite huge; it took up a lot of space, and would easily have overloaded many old e-mail systems or more traditional uploading-downloading systems. What was important, he said, was to be able to crop, or cut out only a part of what you had recorded, so that you didn't always have to send huge bundles, most of which you couldn't even use.

Skype is a British company, he said, but he wasn't sure of that. It's the default for this kind of thing; people everywhere are using it. I imagine it's big in business, I said; of course you'd want to see people you're doing business with. But, consider the trends in these things. One, even laptops now can do what it used to take servers to do. Two, even wireless can now transmit huge bundles, carefully wrapped, anywhere. Three, laptops are being given to virtually everyone, everywhere; there are more of them than there used to be. Four, if you can truly live where you want, without really suffering from being unable to see the ones you love, then, what's to stop anyone from living wherever one pleases? Or wherever one can do the best for oneself? That would be a revolutionary change, I think. Another sun rises on what, for the first thousands of years of man's civilized existence on earth, has been a rather dark era. And I saw it myself. Yesterday.


At 5:34 AM, Anonymous Peter K Austin said...

Would you be able to find out the names of the recording software your colleague mentioned as this could be useful information if others want to use Skype in the way you described?



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