June 8th 2020
But, if we’re honest, everyone is tricking themselves a great deal during this season. As shelter-in-place rules keep us trapped at home, we’ve taken as many of our beloved relationships and activities as possible online. Happy hours that used to be in bars are now on Facetime; musical performances have moved from concert halls to Instagram; churches meet via Zoom; friends watch movies together at a distance via Netflix. I’ve slotted tons of these digital activities into my calendar in place of their physical, pre-COVID equivalents, and sometimes I spend more time digitally with others than I did physically before quarantine began.
But it’s a sacred illusion — one we desperately need. Similarly to how we suspend our disbelief in magic while watching Harry Potter to allow us to engage with the story, we suspend our disbelief that we’re not actually in the same place as our friends when we call them to allow us to feel the connection we crave. And similarly to how great special effects can make fantastical elements of a movie easier to believe, the radical improvements in digital communications technology over the last few decades has made it much easier to believe that we’re with the people we love as we see their faces streamed to us in glorious, real time 1080p. As quarantine carves a massive hole in the lives of all but the staunchest hermit, the illusion becomes necessary and almost impossible to live without — something sacred, at least in our strange times.
But as we demand more and more of the illusion by moving all of our social events and relationships online, we stretch it to its breaking point. When our deep human need for connection can only be met via Facetime and Zoom, at some point the gap between the promise of physical togetherness and the reality of simulated togetherness grows too large — we’re unable to suspend disbelief anymore and the communication that once gave us energy now saps it.
The Illusion of Digitization
Just like video calling, much of our Internet technology exists to allow us to digitize social activities so that we can conduct these activities in ways we couldn’t before. We’ve digitized going to the store (Amazon), playing games with friends (Xbox Live), attending a performance (Instagram Live), and many forms of work (every knowledge worker working from home right now). All of these digitized experiences require the same illusion as the video call, as our imagination fills the space left by the imperfections that are inherent in taking a physical experience and putting it online. Reddit, for example, is the digitization of local meetup groups. Taking these communities online is incredibly powerful, as it allows people to connect over niche interests with no regard for physical distance. If I’m a part of a group of ping pong enthusiasts on Reddit, I can discuss ping pong, watch videos of matches, or learn about technique seamlessly. But the illusion breaks down when I finally want to find someone to play against. That physical need can’t be met digitally.
“All models are wrong, but some are useful.
Since we’re not going into the office right now, my team at work meets via Zoom. There are aspects I miss about meeting in person that simply are not supported by Zoom’s technology — seeing people’s body language clearly, having side conversations to catch up on the weekend, or eating cookies that someone made over said weekend and brought in to share. In those moments, the illusion is made obvious, and I remember that we’re not together in a conference room in the office. But that’s ok. The most important thing of those meetings is not sharing cookies (sadly), but being able to discuss ideas and make decisions, and Zoom allows us to do that really well. We can share screens, present slides, and discuss freely in a group. The model of a physical meeting is wrong, but incredibly useful.
When we use digitized activities to replace the parts of their physical counterparts that they model well, the illusion holds up. Sure, sometimes screen share freezes at a crucial moment, but generally the Zoom model of collaborative work together is good enough to allow me to suspend disbelief and fully engage in work with my team. The trouble comes when we use the digitized activities to replace things they were never meant to.
The Failed Digitization of Social Life
The weird thing about Zoom fatigue is that, at first glance, it seems like video calls should be a decent approximation of most of my social activities. Social life consists mostly of talking to different people in different places — happy hours, meals and parties are largely just vehicles for conversation. It seems like talking to these same groups of people via video chat should be able to keep me socially afloat for a couple months.
But instead, each video call leaves me more burned out. There have been tons of articles about the phenomenon of Zoom fatigue, all by people that did far more research than yours truly. But I think two interesting threads can be drawn from our discussion of the illusion of digitization that are helpful for understanding our current moment and thinking about what it means for the post-quarantine future.
First, part of our Zoom fatigue problem is that video calls digitize the wrong part of social interactions. In every conversation of significance, there’s both joy and anxiety to be experienced. We feel joy when we connect with someone else and are able to meaningfully share life with one another. This might look like making a clever joke that only that group understands, being listened to and accepted when sharing about your problems or fears, or expressing feelings about a common experience. We makes us anxious when we feel judged, self-conscious, or not accepted in a conversation. To share life in the ways listed above, we risk exposing our emotions and who we truly are to someone else, which always brings the threat of rejection. If the conversation makes us aware of this threat, we feel anxiety.
Video calls take all the anxiety-provoking parts of conversation and amplify them, while dulling the joyful parts. Spotty connections and other distractions on the other person’s screen can make us feel unheard and uncared for. You can’t make eye contact, a crucial part of building trust. Seeing a video of yourself during the call stokes self-consciousness — I find that I am much more self-conscious of the way I’m being perceived when I can see a video of myself speaking in real time. Latency makes it harder to have flowing, natural conversation that leads to deeper connection. And, most crucially, no matter how connected you feel to the other person, at some point the screen goes black, and you’re snapped back to being alone. Every conversation ends with a sort of involuntary Irish goodbye, which feels deeply uncomfortable.
Video calls promise the world and seem close to the real thing, but often leave us feeling empty. The illusion holds up — it just models the anxiety-provoking part of social life better than the joy-giving part of it. As a result, we long to disconnect and hide from video calls with friends, even though we’re lonely and in need of connection.
A lot of life has this combination of joy and anxiety, which makes me wonder: what if there was technology that amplified the joy part of an experience while dulling the anxiety part? Would it be like the opposite of video calls, where instead of hiding from it, we instinctively gravitate towards it?
Our inescapable physicality
Second, even if Zoom perfectly modeled conversation, creating the perfect illusion for every non-physical aspect of talking to a friend, our social interactions would still be deeply impoverished. No matter how well we digitize experiences, the physical nature of our humanness is essential.
We are inescapably physical. We often think of ourselves as having a body, but we are our body — there’s no you without your physical body. And as physical beings, our needs for friendship, community and love are physical needs as much they are emotional needs.
Jesus, my role model, understood this. When you read about the way he cares for people in the Bible, it’s usually in a deeply physical way, which can be counterintuitive for a guy who is supposed to be super spiritual. When Jesus heals sick or disabled people, he always reaches out and touches them — even the contagious lepers who are shunned physically by their community. He shares meals with all kinds of people, he lets kids climb all over him, he makes food for hungry people to meet their physical needs. He gets down on his knees and washes the dirty feet of his followers the night before his (very physical) death. Unlike our common perception of a spiritual teacher considering himself above the physical, Jesus enters into the physical reality of life, meeting people’s needs physically as well as spiritually and emotionally.
We all deeply miss the physicality of our relationships in this moment. We spend a lot of time talking, but the ways that we care for each other physically matter just as much — a hug, sharing food, eye contact, singing together, throwing a frisbee. It might be obvious, but there’s something to physical presence that is not and cannot be captured by a video camera and a screen. Our digital substitutes for physical presence are good, and despite burnout, I’m thankful for the ability to see the faces of my friends and family to help ease the social pain of quarantine. But we need the physical, with all of its messiness and danger and inconvenience, and I’m hopeful that when we get it back soon enough, it will taste a little bit sweeter having known its absence.