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One week before the Canadian government ordered a nationwide stay-at-home order in response to the coronavirus pandemic, I packed up a car with a week’s worth of food, supplies, and camping gear and drove myself and my two kids three hours north of Vancouver, B.C. to a favorite back-road camping spot. The kids were on Spring break anyway, my wife needed time to convert our living room into her home office, and the weather window was good. I also did it because I expected a full lockdown was coming. It was an opportunity to connect one last time with the beautiful, outside world before saying goodbye and going into forced hibernation.
For the duration, we were pleasantly cut off from news of the outside world. The days were perfect blue sky, with the sun glinting off snow-blanketed mountains. The nights were cold and clear, not a single electric light in view. I taught my kids how to build, light and maintain a fire. At night I showed them the North Star, Cassiopeia, Orion and the Big Dipper. The trunks of cedar trees behind our campfire glowed a flickering red, as occasional sparks shot up in front of the black mountain silhouettes across the lake in front of us. All was silent. Meanwhile, I knew that the virus was spreading around the world.
When we got back to the city, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s message and tone was unmistakable. Stay home. Do not travel. Only do what is essential. If possible, work from home. Connect virtually.
Now we are hunkered down in our apartment, like everyone else.
The coronavirus has not just created a sudden public health crisis and an economic shutdown, it has also launched an unexpected social experiment, one that takes the evolutionary logic of digital technology to its extreme: everybody self-isolated, stuck inside, using the Internet.
Nobody knows for sure how all this will affect our relationship to digital technology. However, under the tragic circumstances, the prevailing view is: Thank God for the Internet.
This is a perfectly valid sentiment. The Internet makes the lockdown much more livable than it otherwise would be. Thanks to the Internet, kids can connect with grandparents who may be forced to self-isolate. Many things — yoga classes, concerts, museum tours — can go on. Virtual parties, church services, and playdates are possible. Schools and universities can teach online. Lots of work can still get done. The government can function and deliver much needed services. Right now, the Internet is a lifeline for many. Plus, we have Netflix.
Before, when it came to digital technology, many of us were like binge eaters, mindlessly gobbling up more than was good for us; endlessly checking, clicking, scrolling, watching, and updating, anywhere, anytime. But now, stuck in our homes, we have a reason to be glued to our screens. Which raises an interesting question: Will a virus-enforced lockdown cement our screen addiction even more? Or will it teach us an important lesson, and show how gratuitous and unhealthy our relationship to technology was before this crisis?
Economists probably expect the former. With respect to the effect of the pandemic on Amazon, National Retail Federation President and CEO Mathew Shay recently put it this way on MSNBC: “The patterns and the trends that existed before we went into this disruption will simply be accelerated as a result, whether that’s online behavior, digital engagement and fulfillment…All of those will have a legacy and there will be a long tail on that as we come out of this.”
In other words, because economic crises tend to accelerate pre-existing trends, we can expect even more Amazon takeover after this is all over, and probably more tele-conferencing, more online learning, and more virtual social connection. We will be more merged with technology than ever. Full cyborg.
If people like Mathew Shay are right, the power that tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook have over our lives will likely now be even greater than before.
But, as I reflect back on those nights in mid March stargazing with my kids, I hope for the alternative: I hope that, when all this is over, we will put our devices away when we are blessed again with social closeness. I hope we will all be so sick and tired of connecting through digital platforms that we will forever cherish the times we can share physical space with our loved ones. I hope we recognize that real human connection means being able to hug or high-five or shake hands with people, and that being social means being closer than two meters away from someone, close enough even to accidentally spittle on them when we speak.
I hope that students and teachers will still interact face-to-face. I hope that we go out and support brick and mortar stores that actually pay their fair share in taxes, and that are staffed by well-treated employees who will interact with you and even help you.
Especially, I hope we recognize that screens are a second-best alternative to — not a substitute for — connecting with anything at all that is ultimately important: our families, our kids, our friends, our students, our teachers, our communities, and the beautiful, natural world. In short, I hope we relearn how to really connect. If we don’t learn that, then we might as well expect the future to be like living in a global lockdown: self isolated, socially distant, and probably very unhappy.
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