The main question on everyone’s mind today is when will things return to the way that they were before the pandemic. When will things return to “normal”? Okay, not everybody is asking this question. Many people are realistic enough to understand that the pandemic has changed some things irrevocably. But still there is the hope that someday we will have vaccines that afford us enough protection that we don’t always have to wear masks, or socially distance. That we can go to restaurants, doctors’ appointments, parties and gatherings of all sorts, without being constantly afraid of this awful virus. And we can go to schools and offices without fear of getting terribly sick.
Now the virus has created greater hardship for some people than others. Yet everyone on the planet has been adversely affected to some extent. But, for some people, like many of the members of my entrepreneurial group, it has primarily provided an opportunity to segue into new forms of screen reality. If they had their way, business meetings, doctors’ appointments and many other forms of human encounters would all be conducted from now on with Zoom. So much more efficient in the use of people’s time. So much cleaner and crisper as a form of human experience. All the boundaries between people are neatly laid out. These members eagerly look forward to creating a new normal rather than returning to the old normal. There doesn’t seem to be that much hardship for them in physically isolating from other people as long as they have Zoom.
But, for some people, there are two levels of hardship connected to Covid. There is having to be physically isolated from other people. And there is also having to use Zoom as the only way of staying connected to these people from where they are physically isolated. For these people, it means immersing themselves in two different levels of numbness.
On the other hand, one might almost say that for the modern technocrat, the pandemic has been a blessing in disguise. It is forcing people to use new levels of technological mediation and to integrate this mediation as a part of their daily lives. Whether or not on some level, it proves to be a hardship for them.
And yes, hardship does not have to be something that is gratingly painful like extreme poverty, surviving a natural catastrophe like a wildfire or hurricane, or working on a chain gang. These may be examples of more traditional organic forms of hardship. But in today’s modern technological world, discomfort and even a kind of numb pain can paradoxically come from a loss of opportunity to have readily available external world sensation. There is, in other words, a hardship that comes from the encompassing numbness of the experiential vacuum.
So the excessive isolation that is resulting from the Covid pandemic and that is leading to an increasing use of Zoom for human communication is leading to a totally different kind of hardship from that which we normally would consider hardship. And the use of Zoom, which is a form of screen reality that is increasingly replacing external world reality, is leading to the loss of use of stereoscopic vision, of smell, of taste, and, very importantly, of touch. This means that Zoom is transforming our field of experience into a sensation-poor living environment. If this is the new normal, the loss of these more intimate immediate forms of sensation will create a hardship from a loss of sensory connection and grounding. And over time, the loss of opportunity to be stimulated along these more intimate immediate sensory pathways, will lead to difficulty in absorbing these overlooked stimuli even if and when they should present themselves.
When we think of a normal situation, we think of a situation where there is a stability created by a balance of forces or stimuli. But for the majority of people who use Zoom regularly today, there is not going to be a stability in the balance of stimuli. The new normal is going to create emotional and behavioral abnormalities.
Now as I have said in the past, using Zoom during the pandemic is better than total visual isolation from one another. I am just worried about what will happen assuming the pandemic subsides. Will technocrats like the people I know from my entrepreneur group push in making Zoom a dominating vehicle for communication between people? Will “normal” people feel overwhelmed by in-person interaction with other people? Such people will be caught between two kinds of hardship. On the one hand, they will continue to feel the pain caused by the numbness from too much exposure to the screen reality of Zoom. On the other hand, they will feel the pain caused by a sense of being overwhelmed by the primary experience stimuli of external world reality when they become more accessible again after the Covid pandemic subsides.
The opened-up field of experience will thus create a two-part disjunction for people. It will create a state of being for people that will be anything but normal in the sense of stabilizing or grounding. In this sense, we can say that the new normal won’t be very normal at all.
© 2020 Laurence Mesirow