Digitally abused and socially distant
Right now the world is in the midst of a pandemic. A coronavirus named COVID-19 has suffocated the world both literally and figuratively, affecting people’s health, jobs, and the economy. What at first some thought was flu-like, was quickly realised to be something else and caused nations to take drastic steps by imposing lockdowns on businesses, events, public spaces, travel and much more. We’ve seen nothing like it in our lifetimes, and it’s likely the impact will be felt in many ways for years to come.
I’m now in week nine of lockdown where I have been working from home, isolated from family, friends, and my better half. In that time I can count the amount of people I’ve spoken to in real life on one hand, and yet I realise I am one of the lucky ones.
While that scene setting sounds bleak, there are a number of reasons why I I’m thankful despite the current situation. I work for a tech company with a modern approach that gives us the ability to be agile which has been incredibly valuable to keep things running. The setup we have in our work environment means we can work remotely at the click of a trackpad and have similar, if not exact same access to all the tools and services we use in our daily work lives.
For me, this has not only been a strength and a blessing in these times, but it has also shown how other incumbents just don’t have the structure, or the agility to react in any way as effectively in situations like this. I have people close to me who have been put at risk purely because the company they work for was caught on the back foot with no way to mobilise their teams to work from home without major disruption to their business practices. That is simply not good enough in today’s landscape.
At what cost?
Technology allows for access. Access to goods and services from practically anywhere, providing you have a device that can connect to the internet and a means to access it.
In general, this situation has shown that we have a reasonably mature digital infrastructure and an empathetic workforce that allows us to build and mould our digital tools to help deal with crises. You only have to look as far as Google and Apple to see the contact tracing API they are building to help with track and trace.
Crisis-specific tools aside, there are a number of common products that have come into the spotlight during this pandemic, and have been responsible for keeping people connected both at work, and in their private lives during this prolonged lockdown period. Without the likes of Zoom, WhatsApp, Slack, and others, there would be many more businesses that would have ground to a halt.
Now, while I acknowledge the effectiveness of these products, together with my privileged position of having the access, the means, and the support, I’ve realised there is a price to pay that’s greater than the sum of the hardware and service receipts. Mental wellbeing.
I’ve never been one to work from home and I thrive in situations where I’m surrounded by people. That’s not to say that I need to talk all the time, I just like the atmosphere that a populated space creates. It’s the bustling coffee shop, or the mass 10am stand-ups in the background, it’s the white noise that taps into my psyche and makes me focus on the job at hand. What I’ve found with the move to exclusively communicating remotely is that by abstracting the day-to-day interactions and hiding them behind a technological looking glass, the filters that are now in-between us are surprisingly absorbent.
Quick catch-ups over coffee are replaced with Slack messages that are heavily curated to compensate for absence of tone and body language signifiers. Meetings are replaced by tiled personas in a Zoom window where not everyone can be seen while the host presents into a vacuum of profile photos and buffering connections. While this sounds like a humorous anecdote in a stand-up performance that’s “funny because it’s true,” it’s actually having real-world consequences that the isolation accentuates by covering it up.
On a personal level, I’ve found that communicating exclusively in this way has a number of negative effects on me. I’ve found that at the end of the working day, I’m more tired than I’ve ever been, I feel like the constant connection that’s allowing us to carry on with business as usual is causing a digital fatigue that is actively making me avoid communicating out of office hours. My mood has been swinging, my output has been fluctuating, and my concentration wanders multiple times an hour. It seems these digital tools extract their energy from more than just the outlets in the wall.
What about the future?
There is no doubt to me that the future looks way different to how it does now. On the positive side I can see a world where work/life flexibility increases and allows for people to focus on just getting the thing done rather than moving the thing forward in a specific time period. Conversely, I see a world where some of the rich experiences are taken out of real-life interactions and replaced with semi-recognisable avatars from a bygone era of interconnection.
Before the pandemic you couldn’t swing a power charger without hitting an opinion or a news story about how we’re all glued to our devices while we navigate the outside world. Now, it looks like we could all be actively encouraged to spend more time with devices and connected tools, and worse still, this is all in the confines of our own homes. This whole situation feels like it’s expediting humanity’s transition into the dystopian future so cynically fleshed out in Wall-E all those years ago.
I think we have to be honest about what’s coming down the road. On one hand there will be more freedom where you could embark on a journey of self discovery at any time, as long as you spend a few hours each day in your yurt on a Zoom call. However, not everyone will react in the same way. There’s potential that the swap from connecting in real life to connecting in the digital one will create a pandemic of other sorts. One of isolation, low-energy, and compromised mental health.
I know how this all sounds. It’s a negative reaction in the middle of a pandemic by someone who has been isolated with limited human interactions for over two months, but actually I’m quite hopeful. I think this whole crazy experience is teaching us a lot. It’s teaching us that technology is a huge enabler for us, and we must have it. We need to provide access in remote parts of the world where there is currently limited or no service at all. Products need to be better and more accessible whilst being mindful and responsible about the effects they have on the people using them. But more important than anything else, once we’re back to normal, we need to preserve the connections we have in real life by stepping away from our laptops and phones and have rich conversations with the people we share the same space with. It just may be no closer than 2 metres for a while.