The winter of our disconnect

Christmas is the time when we put aside our online identities and rediscover the rich complexity of real-life encounters. Help! says playwright Lucinda Coxon

I won't be sending many Christmas cards this year. I was never very good at it, regularly only getting halfway through the (mostly out of date) address book before the rollerball ran out of ink and the stamps got stuck together with spilt seasonal spirit. Trailblazing Henry Cole conceived of the Christmas card in 1843, as he was desperate for something pre-printed to spare him the manual labour of his Yuletide correspondence. Now, simply signing our names and addressing envelopes feels like too much.

So, this year, I'm taking Henry Cole's idea and running with it. It's the logical next step: broadcasting my goodwill via Facebook. On Christmas Eve, I'll be crafting some very-nearly-witty status report, which aspires to the perfect blend of irony and schmaltz. And I guess it will end up being read not just by my FB "friends" (mostly work contacts who wouldn't expect a card in any case), but also "friends of friends" and maybe even their "friends" too. And since the world is now allegedly down to just four degrees of separation, I assume it won't be long before Kevin Bacon himself briefly sets aside his glass of cheer to chortle over my Merry Whatever.

In other words, I'm completely absolving decades of Christmas card guilt by committing to some essentially meaningless contact with an enormous number of people, many of whom I don't know, don't much care about and might not like if I met them. And what's strange is that I feel pretty okay about that. Is that so bad? Or so unusual? After all, Christmas is traditionally a time for playing fast and loose with the truth. They start us young, with the whole "wish-list up the chimney" routine. So a little moral fudge with my proliferating virtual pals is surely, just like Santa Claus, a harmless escapist buffer against the gruelling reality of the season.

No matter how much we love it – and I do – Christmas is a time of unspeakable stress, producing dramatic spikes in depression and divorce before the flames on the pudding have fizzled out. Never mind the sense of exclusion for those who are alone or flat broke at a time of year that markets itself with endless images of families enjoying loved-up overabundance. That overabundance itself is a killer, too.

It seems that, while the combined forces of overspending, overeating and sanctified binge drinking are more than enough to cause expectations to crash and burn, the excess that pushes most people over the edge is this: prolonged and unmediated exposure to their nearest and dearest.

And, worryingly, unmediated exposure to other people in general, never mind our relatives, seems to be becoming increasingly difficult for us to bear. In a world where a huge amount of our time is spent negotiating reality through screens – TV, computer, phone, tablet – we are starting to struggle without a shield in place.

The 2011 World Unplugged Experiment asked 1000 students in 10 countries to turn off their media for a day. They were bereft without the aural insulation of their MP3 players, foxed by having to be a coherent version of themselves, rather than operating as multiple identities, variously geared toward email, text or social networking sites.

They struggled socially to be spontaneous and flexible, having grown accustomed to being able to consider and control.

And it's not just the LMFAO generation in trouble with this. Technology has made screenagers of us all. We've all got used to the buzz of unilateral agency; acting on impulse, but from a safe distance. A few clicks of the mouse saves us a trip to the reference library – Google knows what we want, based on what we wanted before, limiting our horizons, but enforcing our sense of mastery.

We buy books, rail tickets, free-range turkeys online, without the bother of crowds and queues. It's so pleasingly different from messy real-life encounters; encounters that might have broadened our sense of the world and ourselves; developed our social tolerance.

My latest play, Herding Cats, is about the perils of pretending to be people we aren't and the extraordinary opportunities that modern living affords us to do so, in a world free of accountability or contradiction. All seems unnaturally normal in this world, where the characters are sometimes voyeurs, sometimes performers; where "friends" are a kind of audience. But the home truths of the festive season change everything.

As communications technology shrinks the globe into a glittery bauble, it offers the seductive lure of the Christmas list; of desire being interchangeable with reality.

It makes us feel bigger than we are.

A family Christmas, no matter how congenial, will generally have the opposite effect. It is full of flesh and blood immediacy; packed with reminders that some dynamics never change, no matter how many Kindles pre-loaded with Personal Development For Dummies are lovingly gift-wrapped and left under the tree.

Like all real encounters, it is unstable, contradictory, rich and sometimes overwrought; sometimes feeling like too much to deal with.

So how early on Christmas Day will you reach for the oxygen mask of your virtual existence? A sneaky tweet? A round of Angry Birds? A Skype call to a sibling who is comfortingly far away?

But before we berate ourselves too cruelly, it's worth remembering that Henry Cole's first Christmas card was controversial in its day, not because it ushered in a new degree of inauthenticity with its preprinted message. Rather, because of the scene it depicted: a family feasting on a slap-up lunch, with a loving mother encouraging her small child to knock back a glass of red wine.

It seems we've needed something to take the edge off the raw truth of the season for longer than we'd like to think. A new age simply furnishes new solutions. So, sloe gin or Crackberry? Choose your poison. And cheers.

Lucinda Coxon's play Herding Cats is at London's Hampstead Theatre until 7 January. Booking: 020 7722 9301 / hampsteadtheatre.com

Suggested Topics
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
news

As anti-Semitic attacks rise, Grant Feller re-evaluates his identity

Life and Style
food and drink

Savoury patisserie is a thing now

News
news

Meet the primary school where every day is National Poetry Day

News
people Biographer says cinema’s enduring sex symbol led a secret troubled life
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
News
newsGlobal index has ranked the quality of life for OAPs - but the UK didn't even make it into the top 10
News
people

Kirstie Allsopp has waded into the female fertility debate again

News
In 2006, Pluto was reclassified as a 'dwarf planet'
scienceBut will it be reinstated?
News
The moon observed in visible light, topography and the GRAIL gravity gradients
science

...and it wasn't caused by an asteroid crash, as first thought

News
people
News
Researchers say a diet of fatty foods could impede smell abilities
scienceMeasuring the sense may predict a person's lifespan
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
News
Gillian Anderson was paid less than her male co-star David Duchovny for three years while she was in the The X-Files until she protested and was given the same salary
people

Gillian Anderson lays into gender disparity in Hollywood

Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Life and Style
fashionThe Secret Angels all take home huge sums - but who earns the most?
Sport
football

Striker ignored Brendan Rodger's request to applaud audience

News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Gadgets & Tech

    Domino Developer and Administrator

    £40000 - £45000 Per Annum + benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Domino ...

    Systems Build Engineer (Development) - Peterborough

    £35000 - £45000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: A highly successful, inte...

    Trainee Recruitment Consultant

    £18000 - £23000 per annum + OTE: SThree: SThree are seeking Trainee Recruitmen...

    Account Director / AD

    £Competitive + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: An Account Director with a ba...

    Day In a Page

    Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

    Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

    A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

    The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
    An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

    An app for the amorous

    Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

    Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

    Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

    After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
    She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

    She's having a laugh

    Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

    Let there be light

    Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
    Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

    Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

    Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
    Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

    A look to the future

    It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
    The 10 best bedspreads

    The 10 best bedspreads

    Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
    Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

    Arsenal vs Galatasaray

    Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
    Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

    This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?