Commentary: Virtual solemnisation - weddings could return to basics, with opportunities and challenges
"Here comes the bride … I’ll send a like." As Singapore works towards enabling remote solemnisation, sociologist Terence Heng discusses what is gained and lost in this transition.
LIVERPOOL: Recent lockdowns, movement control orders and circuit breakers around the world have meant that all manner of face-to-face activities are now being done remotely, or are “home-based”.
You know, all the essentials - home-based working, home-based learning, home-based-bubble-tea-bingeing (to get free delivery).
Even the military is getting in on it. In Singapore, fresh conscripts who would otherwise be confined in-camp for Basic Military Training (BMT) are getting remote instructions over the Internet.
It makes me wonder how Warrant Officer Mani would make Recruit Heng get down on the ground for some push-up punishments.
“Eh, knock it down! Are you knocking it down? I can’t see. Can you angle the webcam lower? Ah, thanks. Knock it down!”
EVERYTHING IS GOING ONLINE – WEDDINGS TOO
It’s not surprising that, where possible, the everyday activities that we do (and need to do) are the first to go online. Of course, that still masks the unequal distribution of labour and privilege in society – certain jobs will always be easily done at home, some not so.
But what about those special, one-off events? The kinds that are “once in a lifetime”?
Next week, the Singapore Parliament will discuss the possibility of allowing weddings to take place online, with caveats about ensuring both bride and groom are physically in Singapore, among other restrictions.
This has already happened elsewhere around the world, like in New York, where virtual weddings appear to be the only option for a city in lockdown. Virtual toasts and virtual guests, but all still able to share in a happy occasion.
WEDDINGS GO BACK TO BASICS
On the face of it, streaming a wedding ceremony where a couple exchanges vows is a very good idea, especially when physical distancing rules are in place.
Such ceremonies lend themselves well to digitalising (the act of turning something physical into something virtual) because there is a particular focus (wedding couple) and the audience’s role is largely observational and passive.
Just think back to attending weddings or Registry of Marriages (ROM) ceremonies. There wasn’t much for you to do as a guest, and at large events, you may not even get a chance to interact with the wedding couple.
(Unless you were that one uncle who thinks he’s a wedding photographer because he owns a camera, and proceeds to get into every. Wedding. Photograph.)
In a time when weddings are becoming increasingly commercialised, the idea of minimising the ceremony down to its bare, legal essentials is a tempting proposition.
By disregarding the bells and whistles and layers of ostentation, the virtual wedding, as it currently stands, offers us a chance to disengage from pomp and focus on people.
Virtual weddings also challenge us to question what is really necessary for a wedding to be successful and meaningful.
Whatever the circumstances that have forced us into these arrangements, it is nevertheless an opportunity to slow down the credit card spending just a little bit.
However, I am not so naïve as to believe the wedding industry would not eventually find a way to get people to spend virtually. Ultra high-definition streaming, custom emojis and multiple angles from remote mini-drones all come to mind (that last one exists somewhere in science-fiction already).
WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER CEREMONIES?
At the same time, once we start examining cultural practices, the reality is virtual weddings will struggle to mimic dearly held and longstanding rituals that have come to become an integral part of that ceremony but require multiple instances of physical interaction.
After all, as I’ve mentioned in other commentaries, weddings are rarely just about the couple, but a conundrum of kinship, social and commercial networks assembled in a concentrated burst of activity.
Tea ceremonies in Chinese weddings are a good example of this, where a wedding couple offer cups of tea to family elders.
On the surface, they are about “paying respect”, but sociologically, they are also about constructing and affirming familial bonds. To some, this affirmation of bonds exceeds the legal ceremony in importance and legitimacy.
Some of these tangible rituals can be made symbolic. They can even be digitised. But for this to succeed, one requires the buy-in from not just the state, the celebrants and the wedding couple, but also the complex networks of individuals that make up the wedding.
This is not always so simple. And turning something that has been physical for so long into something digital means encountering resistance.
To digress, this is also why apps that purport to replace religious rituals (like burning offerings) have never really taken off, because they ignore the deep and stubborn precedents of practice.
NOT EVERY BRIDE, GROOM OR GUEST HAVE THE SAME RESOURCES
Apart from the challenges involved in digitising very physical actions, it is also important to remember that not everyone has the same access to the resources required to conduct a virtual wedding.
While the digital divide goes some way in helping us to understand unequal levels of access, I offer two more points for us to think about.
One, place both matters and does not matter. While a virtual wedding can be conducted anywhere (that’s the whole point), not everyone can stream live on a chic rooftop overlooking the city skyline. And not everyone wants extended family and friends peering into their living room.
While it could be argued virtual backgrounds could address this issue (who would not want a wedding on the bridge of an Imperial Star Destroyer?), such solutions are situational and yet again dependent on the different resources available to different people.
To this extent, town halls and marriage registries are still vital for virtual weddings to succeed, because they offer a way to level the proverbial playing field of “my virtual wedding venue is nicer than yours”.
Two, virtual weddings run the risk of excluding entire groups of individuals who do not have the technology, which could include the networks of family and close friends that weddings comprise of.
To assume that all of one’s family and friends have laptops, smartphones and Wi-Fi to stream a 30-minute video likely assumes too much.
For any legislation of virtual weddings to succeed, it must take into account the same challenges individuals and groups face when working or studying at home. That is why support from institutions that provide spaces and the requisite tech (like ROM perhaps) is crucial.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE
Technology continues to shape and influence the way we socialise, interact and ritualise.
That couples now regularly create custom hashtags for their weddings and include livestreaming even before lockdowns began suggests that society was already developing a hybrid mix of tangible and intangible wedding practices.
The question that we must now raise in a post-COVID-19 world is this: When we make deliberate and dramatic shifts to familiar ways of life, whether out of preference or necessity, we need to first think of the human before the technology.
Around the world, those who create the technology (and the rules that come with it) are often overly enamoured with the utopian possibilities and opportunities afforded to those they genuinely intend to help.
The belief that technology or technological advances are either only neutral or beneficial fails to take into account the unevenness of everyday life.
While there are many things to gain from going online, there are also many things to lose. Intimacy, closeness and shared social spaces are still fundamental to the human experience.
In other words, we should not be so quick to disregard the tangible.
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Terence Heng is a senior lecturer in Sociology at the University of Liverpool, UK, where he is also an associate at the Centre for Architecture and the Visual Arts.