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 I was never very good at it, regularly only getting halfway through the (mostly out of date) address book before the rollerball ran out of ink and the stamps got stuck together with spilt seasonal spirit.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
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
Arts and Entertainment
booksNovelist takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Arts and Entertainment
Al Pacino in ‘The Humbling’, as an ageing actor
filmHam among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
News
Fifi Trixibelle Geldof with her mother, Paula Yates, in 1985
people
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
Sport
Mario Balotelli in action during his Liverpool debut
football ...but he can't get on the scoresheet in impressive debut
Environment
Pigeons have been found with traces of cocaine and painkillers in their system
environmentCan species be 'de-extincted'?
Arts and Entertainment
booksExclusive extract from Howard Jacobson’s acclaimed new novel
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
A Pilgrim’s Progress is described by its publisher as “the one-and-only definitive record” of David Hockney's life and works
people
Sport
Loic Remy signs for Chelsea
footballBlues wrap up deal on the eve of the transfer window
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker
TV
Life and Style
Instagram daredevils get thousands of followers
techMeet the daredevil photographers redefining urban exploration with death-defying stunts
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'
TVDaughter says contestant was manipulated 'to boost ratings'
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

    Lead FE Software Developer (JavaScript, TDD, jQuery, Knockout)

    £55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead FE Softwa...

    Quality Assurance Engineer (Excellent education, Manual, Automa

    £40000 - £50000 per annum + Bonus+Benefits+Package: Harrington Starr: Quality ...

    CRM Developer (MS Dynamics 2011/2013, JavaScript)

    £55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: CRM MS Dynamic...

    Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL)

    Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL) Su...

    Day In a Page

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor