The pandemic techno-future that wasn't
What we know six months into life with COVID-19
Exactly six months ago today, while Americans were still conflating Corona beer with coronavirus, I found myself suddenly, guiltily, free. It was March 15, and my governor, New York's Andrew Cuomo, had just asked all businesses in the state to voluntarily close to stop the spread of COVID-19; five days later, the order would be mandatory for non-essential businesses, and additionally ban gatherings of any size for any reason. As a citizen, I was terrified; as an introvert, though, I confess I was giddy about the excuse-free cancelation of all foreseeable plans and obligations.
For some, though, the past half year has accelerated the nightmare that science-fiction has been warning about for decades: the future in which we work virtually, go to school virtually, have virtual movie nights and happy hours and concerts and gym sessions and church services, even date virtually. The pandemic represents, in other words, an abrupt eviction from real life to the long-dreaded techno-future of living online.
But as it turns out, it doesn't matter if you're a techno-optimist or a techno-pessimist: If anything has become clear these past six months, it's that despite all our hopes and fears, technology will never ultimately replace the experience of actually being with and around other people.
Following the initial quarantine stampede online, we glimpsed how technology might not just replicate parts of normal life, but replace them going forward. "Last weekend, in between trips to the grocery store, I checked up on some friends using Twitter DMs, traded home-cooking recipes on Instagram, and used WhatsApp to join a blockwide support group with my neighbors," Kevin Roose wrote on March 17 for The New York Times. "I even put on my Oculus virtual reality headset, and spent a few hours playing poker in a VR casino with friendly strangers … My inboxes are full of invitations to digital events — Zoom art classes, Skype book clubs, Periscope jam sessions." And technically, Roose didn't even need to be making trips to the grocery store: you can do all that virtually too (alas, sustaining our mortal vessels, for the time being, still requires physical sustenance). Even as sports started to return, the presence of real fans ultimately was not a dealbreaker; sometimes, even the presence of real athletes wasn't, either.
In many ways, this is a success story: technology is doing what it's supposed to do. A real-world failing — our species' susceptibility to a small collection of spiky protein-encased RNA that we've prosaically named "SARS-CoV-2" — has been met with programs, services, and apps that help us carry on basically as normal (the copious amounts of loungewear, admittedly, are new). Imagine how much more isolating it would have been in quarantine if there hadn't been options for staying in touch and entertaining ourselves; sure, Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine, but he didn't have the distractions of Tiger King, "Yoga with Adriene," and Animal Crossing to keep him sane. In fact, in certain respects, technology has been so good at stepping up to the plate during the pandemic that it's even replicating some of the pitfalls of IRL interactions — take it from this introvert, turns out you can get fatigued socializing on Zoom, too.
But as the months have worn on, the limitations of technology have revealed themselves. Video-conferencing was good for the occasional family night, party, or even wedding, but it fails miserably when it came to having parallel conversations, the sort of which organically splinter off when groups get bigger than four or five people. (You can, I suppose, chat in a private room off to the side during a video conference, but the rest of us are politely pretending not to notice). Certain microgestures also fail on screen; expressions and nods get lost as they're translated through the pixely abyss between computers. And that Zoom fatigue? "We've evolved to get meaning out of a flick of the eye," Jeremy Bailenson, the professor and director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, told The Wall Street Journal. "Our species has survived because we can produce those signals in a way that's meaningful. Zoom smothers you with cues, and they aren't synchronous. It takes a physiological toll."
The bad news is, many of these problems exceed the capabilities of our beloved, overly-complicated devices, and can't be fixed with subsequent updates. Advances in technology, for example, will probably never be able to satisfyingly substitute overhearing strangers' conversations as you work at your local coffee shop, the serendipity of running into an old friend you haven't seen in years in a random bar, the silent camaraderie among irritated commuters over a delayed train — experiences I never thought about before, but now deeply miss. There are more consequential limitations, too: the simple warmth of another body, wrapping you in a hug when you are in mourning, will always be superior to even the most heartfelt condolences shared on Facebook walls. On a national level, our inability to grieve together about the pandemic's staggering toll has undoubtedly left us stunted, with emotional scars likely to last a generation. We are social animals, and socializing means more than just verbal or visual communication; we find comfort in the midst of the herd, even if we consider ourselves loners.
The infuriatingly widespread noncompliance with COVID-19 gathering restrictions as of late only illustrates our overriding need to be around others, and tech's constraints in providing an alternative. It is, after all, not just older adults who've been flaunting the rules; the techno-literate, those of us who grew up in chat rooms and forums, who date online and know to use ring lights, are some of the most egregious rule-breakers, packing bars and boats and pools. But for all the outright coronavirus deniers out there, I think there are just as many reckless wishful thinkers, hoping — against all scientific evidence, expert testimony, and better judgment — that things really are better, so they can enjoy being physically around other people again.
I read recently about a robot designed to take care of older people, which is the perfect example of this failing of our techno-future. The robot, at first, sounded like another instance of how technology has adapted to make life safer with minimal compromise; the elderly would be protected from pulse-bearing (and potentially virus-bearing) life forms, but still have their loneliness reduced by interacting with the robot. "But there are concerns that the robots are potentially insufficient in terms of proper human companionship," The Conversation writes. Concerns? Ask any of us who were raised on the promise of simulations and a future of minimal in-person interaction: the past six months proved this isn't what we signed up for.
It turns out, I really miss disliking being around other people.