I have been hearing a lot of talk about the wonder of technology in this messy time. Many people have seen their eyes open to the wonders of working from home. Online learning, while contentious at best, has had some success, especially when done well with prepared, recorded lectures. Entertainment wise, we are seeing artists, talk show hosts and others trying their best to bring up spirits in unconventional and novel ways.
However, when people talk about how the coronavirus will “change” the way we view working or learning or relationships or whatever, I have to roll my eyes a bit. Although this has been an interesting experiment, I contest there is something fundamentally broken about this way of life.
Let’s start with the most obvious. Many are saying this will push workplaces to offer remote work more readily to more people. Not only is it more flexible in general, but in a time of urban sprawl and long commutes, it critically saves time and money for the worker. Saving gas has also been good for the planet, resulting in huge decreases in pollution (although this may be tied to decreased consumption, as well). These are all legitimate benefits.
The “great online class experiment,” as it has been called by some, is a wild learning process for students of all ages. For children, teachers have worked to figure out new ways to reach and teach their students, with readings, quizzes and other new approaches from dedicated teachers. At the college level, we’ve all been adjusting to either live streams or asynchronous lectures. While it has been a mixed bag, we know there is a push for the latter, both among students and universities. After all, more pre-recorded lectures means less time the professors need to work on teaching day-to-day, even when this pandemic is over.
— jimmy fallon (@jimmyfallon) March 31, 2020
For entertainment, it’s been a wreck — just look at the nonexistence of sports! But through this, clever artists and entertainers are adapting. Many performers are taking to social media to talk with fans in live streams. Others are doing “concerts” on various platforms — including Zoom and Club Penguin. Talk show hosts are filming episodes in pajamas from their houses, with editors polishing it up remotely. People are making things work as best they can, and we are seeing more authenticity as a result.
Now, obviously this model in its entirety is miserable and unsustainable. Especially socially, nobody wants to be cooped up and alone all day, every day. No one is happy right now. But even after this passes, these concepts in isolation will persist. Floating the idea for working from home will be easier when you can point to things working out during the coronavirus pandemic. Administrators will have more ammunition to push classes online than ever before. This may lead to new developments in music and content creation. And some are already saying how this will, abstractly, make us appreciate friendships more.
Perhaps this is pessimistic on my part, but I don’t see these moves made out of necessity to be evidence we should keep moving in those directions once this social distancing ends. There is a reason most people don’t work or learn or entertain from home, and it goes beyond just seeing people versus being alone.
Of course, there is something missing from experiencing the world through a screen. Although we are more flexible in some ways working from home, we are less flexible in terms of context switching and simple collaboration. Learning remotely, we are more isolated from our mentors and peers when we find ourselves stuck. Socially, there is so much missing from not being there, sensing body language and having full attention. The small distractions and home-grown feel are cute and endearing for a while, but there’s nothing really of substance to them.
More generally, we cannot sustain this for long. Humans crave variety — variety that seemingly mundane tasks like moving from class to class or meeting to meeting provide. Our brains are not wired to work at the same desk, day after day, with little change. Personally, it’s driving me crazy, to an extent that no amount of FaceTiming, texting or walking can quell.
While there are benefits to flexibility, and while this is certainly a comfier and less isolated experience than previous pandemics were, the coronavirus shows us the true limits of our technological advances. As much as we can simulate the work and education and entertainment, we cannot simulate the stimulation we crave from going about our regular life.
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Peter Fenteany is the associate opinion editor for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.