All right! So I have a lot to be thankful for during this Corona virus crisis. I have a roof over my head: a place where I can shelter in place. I’m reasonably healthy. I’m eating well. I have a lot to occupy me during this time of staying indoors including writing my articles for Diariojudio.com. And most important, I am able to stay in contact with so many wonderful people in my life through my smartphone and, in particular, now through Zoom. I have had several encounters through Zoom this week: a meeting of the Main Street Entrepreneurs, a colloquy on uncertainty (how appropriate!), a get-together with my daughters, my son-in-law and my grandson, and a Torah class. Technology is allowing me to juxtapose my real physical presence with screen reality images of my family and friends, as if any one of these makeshift groupings had the connectedness of a real physical organically connected group.
So what is it I experience through Zoom? A cropped two-dimensional vision of an experience of several compartmentalized people as well as the audio connected with it. What is missing is a full stereoscopic vision of people grouped together as well as natural vocal sound as well as touch, smell, and, when applicable, taste. The last three would be called the more immediate senses. Senses that can be major components of primary experiences. The kind of experiences that, as a result of the flowing blendable continual stimuli that comprise them, help us to feel more alive.
But as long as some people continue to eat wild animal meat, and there is no indication that this habit will cease, there will continue to be further pandemics, if not of the Corona virus then of some other equally dangerous virus. This habit is not the only cause of pandemics, but it seems to have had an influence in other recent pandemics. Each of these pandemic viruses will bring with it its own rules of social restriction. And in many of these cases now, if people want to communicate to groups of people, they will continue to rely on Zoom and other similar technologies. And, in the long run, there could be some long lasting effects to such a strong sustained dependence on these sophisticated forms of screen reality. As Zoom and other similar technologies become more and more prominent as modes of communicating, they will start to blur together in our minds with primary experience external world communication. Not only will communicating with Zoom on a screen seem more and more normal and natural and as if in the external world, but our communicating through primary experience in real life will start taking on the unreal cast of an ongoing video program. Somehow, the field of experience will flatten as will our emotions. Our ability to form deep connections with other people will diminish. Even our ability to form deep connections with ourselves will diminish as our sense of self becomes more and more fragmented. And we will lose our ability to properly know ourselves.
In terms of the five senses, our growing tendency to experience the world on a flat screen will lead to a flattened experience of the external world as well. As the world flattens around us, there will be fewer and fewer points on it to which we can connect ourselves and feel a part of that which is around us. We will tend to become more and more the passive observers, even when dealing with primary experience, which we tend to grasp through flowing blendable continual stimulation. But as the world flattens experientially, it will also harden into a sheet of defined discrete phenomena. And rather than connect with it, we will slide right off of it into a pervasive numbness.
Our experience of sound will create similar problems. Voices on Zoom have a subtle metallic echo to them, as they do on all electronic media. The flowing blendable continual stimuli of the human voice in the external world get translated into a defined discrete phenomenon. Rather than engaging and communing, there is something more distant and impenetrable to it. Perhaps this is also to some extent true with a telephone conversation, but because it only consists of sound, we are never lulled into believing it is a substitute for a real encounter with a human being in the external world. The same is also true for a radio broadcast. But because a Zoom conversation approximates real life in many ways, the sounds of the voices emanating from these conversations will have a greater influence. If voices become hardened defined discrete phenomena, their ability to really connect people become significantly diminished. We hear, but we don’t really listen as well. These voices have a weakened capacity to make and preserve organic imprints on us. And, of course the same thing begins to happen to the voices we hear in real life. We hear them, but we don’t listen as well. The voices slide right off of us, and we are left in an increasingly profound numbing solitude.
Then there the three senses that are left out of not just Zoom, but all other screen reality: smell, touch, and taste. In particular, smell and touch are part of most encounters with people in primary experience. The smell of another person’s body scent and sweat and perfume or cologne. And then there are the smells of one’s surroundings: marketplaces, restaurants, cafes, bars, farms and ranches, nature. Touch comes into play in shaking hands with someone, kissing her or him on the lips or cheek, slapping him or her on the back, embracing him or her. Some combination of these forms of affectionate touching plays an important role in most cultures in the world in connecting people with one another, and in confirming, at the same time, one’s physical place in the world. And although affectionate touching has been significantly restricted in the age of the Corona virus with social distancing, this restriction will not remain in place forever. But touch is also important for connecting to one’s physical surroundings. Standing on the floor, touching doors, touching furniture, touching silverware and plates. All this is like when you say you’re going to pinch yourself to make sure you are actually in the unusual situation in which you seem to be. Touch is the ultimate criterion that one can use to determine the reality of a person’s time-space coordinates. If you can touch something, supposedly, you are in the external world.
But all this gets either distorted or lost altogether when dealing with Zoom. And more so with Zoom and other similar technologies, distinct from other forms of screen reality, because we can feel that the different participants in the Zoom world are almost if not quite in the external world in terms of the social connections being created. To the extent that spending a lot of time on Zoom in such a way that it is a substitute for our participation in primary experience and external world reality, it makes us somehow less fully human. Less capable of being in touch with our internal feelings and less capable of fully expressing them in the external world. Less capable of being able to make, preserve and receive organic imprints in a way that solidly connects us to other people and to form solid families and communities.
In summary, during the Corona virus crisis, am I glad that I can communicate with people through Zoom, so I don’t have to be visually isolated from them? I grudgingly have to answer in the affirmative. But I am worried that there will be a lasting paradigm shift on how people communicate, so that there will be an ongoing predisposition to use Zoom and other similar technologies, even when it is no longer necessary. People’s minds will become reconfigured to feel more comfortable with Zoom than with primary experience. And that will be a sign of crumbling relationships within families, friendships, and communities.
(c) 2020 Laurence Mesirow