Living Virtually or Virtually Living?

How the Pandemic is Helping us Rediscover the Importance of Physical Presence

Just as we were beginning to believe that progress is correlated with increased virtuality, the pandemic reminded us that physical presence really is indispensable.

The Great Digital Migration

The narrative of virtuality told us that everything physical can, will, and should, be replaced by virtual counterparts. For many thinkers, even our physical lives are destined to become mere extensions to our digital selves.

This is not mere futuristic speculation. Just as physical goods like tickets, newspapers and greeting cards have been shedding their materiality to become pure information in “the cloud,” and just as physical places like banks, schools, libraries and stores have been progressively displaced by online counterparts offering the same services, so our social lives have been shedding their physical integrity to become matters of pure information.

According to a Wall Street Journal report from 2018, two-thirds of teenagers favor online communication to face-to-face talks with friends.

The Religion of Disembodiment

For many geeks working in Silicon Valley, the vision of total disembodiment has taken on dimensions of religious fanaticism. This religion has its own prophets, in the form of men like Ray Kurzweil. It has its own eschatology, in the form of doctrines like the Singularity. And this religion even has its own sacramentality, in the form of what Wired Magazine called the internet's “electricity of participation.”

The software engineer and venture capitalist, Marc Andreessen, captured the mood in 2014, when he waxed rhapsodic on disembodiment-as-emancipation. Andreessen declared that when “all material needs are provided for free, by robots and material synthesizers,” then “human nature expresses itself fully, for the first time in history.” He added that “without physical need constraints, we will be whoever we want to be.”

Andreessen has been echoed by the Oxford professor philosopher, Luciano Floridi, who developed a theory of anthropology in which human identity is merely a subset of the virtual world, which he calls the “infosphere.”

Being Virtual is Cool

To be virtual is to be part of a digital ecosystem of limitless possibility, including the promise of greater individual and corporate flourishing. It is significant that we call this “being virtual,” not “being remote.” To be virtual is to be connected; to be remote is to be absent. Remoteness implies being limited, far away, and confined to time and space, whereas to be virtual is to transcend the limitations of time and place. Being remote was never cool but being virtual is.

The virtuality-as-liberation narrative tells us that everything time and space can do, virtuality can do better.

But then there was COVID.

Maybe Not so Cool

In the wake of last year’s lockdowns, the idea of remoteness returned with a vengeance. Instead of talking about virtual this-and-that, we began hearing about remote-this-and-that. The difference may be semantic, but it signals an important shift in attitudes. We have been reminded—painfully reminded—that for all its benefits, the digital ecosystem can never replace physical presence.

What the internet does best, namely to connect us, it also does worst. Stuck at home and glued to our computers and smartphones, we are not more connected than ever before, but less. Not only has virtuality failed in its promise of emancipation, but it simply underscores our remoteness from one another.

From Being Virtual to Being Remote

Technology writer, Nicholas Carr, captured the new mood in an article for his blog Rough Type. “I used to be virtual,” he shared, but then added, “Now I’m remote.” He continued by explaining that the concept of remoteness brings us back to our bodies, over and against the mind-body dualism of virtuality:

The way we describe our digitally mediated selves, the ones that whirl through computer screens like silks through a magician’s hands, has changed during the pandemic. The change is more than just a matter of terminology. It signals a shift in perspective and perhaps in attitude. “Virtual” told us that distance doesn’t matter; “remote” says that it matters a lot. “Virtual” suggested freedom; “remote” suggests incarceration….

The pandemic has brought us back to our bodies, with a vengeance. It has done this not through re-embodiment but, paradoxically, through radical disembodiment. We’ve been returned to our bodies by being forced into further separation from them, by being cut off from, to quote Hayles again, “enaction in the human life-world.” As we retreated from the physical world, social media immediately expanded to subsume everyday activities that traditionally lay outside the scope of media. The computer — whether in the form of phone, laptop, or desktop — became our most important piece of personal protective equipment. It became the sterile enclosure, the prophylactic, that enabled us to go about the business of our lives — work, school, meetings, appointments, socializing, shopping — without actually inhabiting our lives. It allowed us to become remote….

Carr wants us to learn from the pandemic, as it helps us understand that a virtual life is not emancipating but enslaving. The pandemic has taken the shine off virtuality to reveal the remoteness that it merely conceals. Again from Carr’s article:

In promising to eliminate distance, virtuality also promised to erase the difference between presence and absence. We would always be there, wherever “there” happened to be. That seemed plausible when our virtual selves were engaged in the traditional pursuits of media — news and entertainment, play and performance, information production and information gathering — but it was revealed to be an illusion as soon as social media became our means of living. Being remote is a drag. The state of absence, a physical state but also a psychic one, is a state of loneliness and frustration, angst and ennui.

What the pandemic has revealed is that when taken to an extreme — the extreme Silicon Valley saw as an approaching paradise — virtuality does not engender a sense of liberation and exultation. It engenders a sense of confinement and despair. Absence will never be presence. A body in isolation is a self in isolation.

Living virtually, it turns out, is virtually living.

is the author of Gratitude in Life's Trenches: How to Experience the Good Life Even When Everything Is Going Wrong (Ancient Faith 2020) and has a Ph.M. in history from King’s College, London. He is currently working on a Master’s in library science through the University of Oklahoma. He works as a freelance writer and researcher for a variety of publications and operates a blog at www.robinmarkphillips.com.

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