The pandemic is testing the impact of communications technology on American society. On the one hand, those of us with ready access to and familiarity with social media, teleconferencing, Google Hangouts, Zoom and other means of communications have found it to offer human contact in a safe and clearly socially distancing form. On the other hand, there are those who either lack access or just can’t get the hang of it. The old, the rural, the poor. Many of the children set adrift from school miss the direct interpersonal contact and the way of learning that works for them. The sunny side of technology is that it allows some of us to remain in touch, with virtual everything—classes, meetings, social gatherings, even church services. The shadow side is the left behinds.
I grew up in a left behind environment. My parents split when I was a toddler. No Dad and no child support meant not having what others had. I could live without dancing lessons and music lessons and travel. The two most important missing enrichments, other than an actual present father, were a car and, in the 1950s, a television. All my friends’ families had both. On the way to school they would talk about what they saw on TV and the places their family had been. I was a teenager before our family caught up. I am now at the other end of the age spectrum, and while I am reasonably comfortable with at least some forms of social media and communications technology, many of my fellow senior citizens are not. Many of the upcoming generations don’t have the access that helps them feel like part of a common culture. Social distancing has widened the technology divide.
There’s also the personal dimension. Virtual presence is not the same as actual presence. Touch is missing. Body languages is not as readily apparent, even on Zoom. On-line classes for K-12 are quite different from the interaction that takes place in the physical classroom. Children have different learning styles and different degrees of parental support and supervision in the learning process, especially if parents are working from home. For college students, being present among peers is an important part of the transition to adulthood. For many occupations, conferences with their peers are an important way not just to stay abreast of new developments but also to network and socialize with their peers away from the workplace. That kind of experience is not replicated by teleconferencing.
This week I have a routine doctor’s appointment. It will take place on my iPhone with facetime, which is nice but definitely less personal. I will get my Jazzercise online, and miss the presence of others in the room sharing the experience. I will watch a church service prepared on Zoom and broadcast on YouTube, but I would rather be saying the affirmation and singing the hymns amidst the familiar faces I know and love. I will get takeout from a restaurant once or twice to try to keep them in business, but it isn’t even close to eating with friends or family at a restaurant. I will drink a glass of wine in the late afternoon with a group of friends, their faces all looking back on my Zoomcast. And I will long for the days of surprise visits, actual hugs, bringing cookies or a book to loan to a friend, and a sit -own restaurant meal.
So after pandemic, does normal mean same? Probably not. The longer we have to practice social distancing ,the more different the world will be. One difference may be how much we shift from physical presence to virtual presence, and how many people are shut out from the contact they need in the process.