I was making a list of all the activities I did over the past couple of days online and on my computer, and you'd think I had the most dynamic work and social life ever. But all I was doing was looking and speaking into a screen, and the flat experience made me feel disconnected and down.
Now to some folks, not interacting with people IRL and spending hours in front of a machine is a fantastic lifestyle. But to me and I suspect millions of others, it's a way of dehumanizing our existence. The architects of technology probably imagined a world that's efficient and does not have to be messed up by small-talking humans, so they've pretty much gotten what they've wanted. But to those of us who actually like heartbeats and laughs, it's been challenging, and spending time online socializing is two-dimensional.
Even though I socialized and taught online the past couple of days, and got a lot of non-people-related work done on my high-quality Mac that has a large screen, decent sound, and a sharp graphical interface, I still felt like I barely existed. I even walked outside surrounded by snow, lights, and notable architecture, but I still felt like I was some kind of detached machine that had unplugged from another. It wasn't until I went to the store to get a few items that I finally snapped out of it. All I did was order something from the deli, and when the person working behind the counter (and plexiglass) asked me to repeat what I said, I joked that one day we won't have to try to figure out what each other is saying through masks, and she nodded, and then I thanked her for taking care of my order. I don't know why that broke my automaton sensation, but I felt like someone had opened the door and cut the cord and allowed me to live in the real world again.
I think it's because I had a spontaneous interaction with someone, and it wasn't work-related. I'm lucky that I can go to an essential job a few times a week, but there aren't many people there and they're all busy in a high-pressure situation, so even if we do chat, it doesn't feel like a break but a tense reprieve. And being at home for hours in a room getting stuff done and feeling more empty after scrolling through social media doesn't fix the problem, even though my productivity has increased. Having online meetups is better than nothing, but it all still makes me feel flat. I am conforming to the screen, not moving or interacting with anything three-dimensional, and I still have to fake introversion to keep things together. I feel like my face has become a wall, because I don't want people to misinterpret my expressions, so I try not to have any. And if I smile (barely), it's still an act, because I'm trying to stay in control of my screen image.
And then there's this: part of the flurry of my online experience was a seminar that was led by a very talented speaker whose lectures I'd attended offline before. And that person managed to be animated and dynamic on screen, so they seemed to effectively transform their offline presentation to the digital space. But it was like what I'd observed before the pandemic: the person was really friendly and interactive, but I know they're really not like that. Yes, they're yet another person who seems to be so into people, but it might just be an act: one time we were heading in the same direction, and I was the only one who could drive them several miles back to where they were staying. I assumed that since they were so into people and so talkative, we'd have a conversation during the trip back to the city. But they didn't want to talk and didn't initiate any conversation. So the talkative, energetic, seemingly people-oriented person, who makes money from working with and helping people, wasn't really that way; they were withdrawn and awkward. So remembering their outgoing act became part of my excessive screen deflation and just reinforced the fact that it's much better to meet authentic people, especially offline.