The pandemic techno-future that wasn’t

Science

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, …read more

Source:: The Week – Science

      

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