Cyberfoot in Cyberdoor

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 10.04.2020

Does anyone else have an uncanny feeling that our lives and lifestyles used to be totally different? Lately, my memory has been glitching with snapshots of an alternative reality… Restaurants, bars, shops, strangers, smells, and crowds. Parties and ice hockey and petting the neighborhood dogs. Leaving the house. Showering. In sum, they form a perfect vignette of science fiction, a time and place where the entirety of the human species is not being obsessively menaced by the microbial universe alive on every surface, breath, and mind.

A time and place before the Virus.

Alas, that one isn’t our reality. Ours is the one where, thanks to the Virus, nearly everything has been spontaneously relocated to the internet: Skype with the therapist; WhatsApp with the doctor; Teams with the teacher; Zoom with the family group; FaceTime with friends. Essentially, we’ve transitioned into the Matrix, except a version that is, technologically, rather impoverished. In the real Matrix (of Neo and Morpheus), steak tastes juicy, gunshot wounds bleed, you sweat when you run. Meanwhile, on the family Zoom call, Uncle Brady – visible only by his forehead – is rehashing the plot arc of Breaking Bad, which he has finally got around to watching; your niblings (ages two and four) are screaming because the magical tablet that brings video games now delivers only miniature, boring people; and Aunt Carol’s video has stopped working, but every few minutes she shouts: “EVERYTHING’S FINE OVER HERE. HELLO?”

School by distance isn’t going well, either: the “digital classroom” is a fairly grandiose description for what is, essentially, a reality show in which a solitary teacher, sitting in front of a messy bookshelf, gets a migraine live on camera. And over at the e-workplace, the cult of extremely formal email writers is having a field day, riffing on new material like I trust you are maintaining health and safety in these difficult times before dropping straight into
A pandemic is hardly reason to lower our standards; please find herewith attached my comments on your draft, which requires extensive revision.

No, no, no: we cannot jack into a real, proper Matrix. The space in cyberspace remains, for us, a theoretical location that still needs to be effortfully imagined into existence. It’s totally unequipped for smell, touch, or taste, let alone a third dimension or an immersive experience. What we do have are frustratingly handicapped digital substitutes for certain elements of our old routines, and a lot of frozen food in the basement fridge. Like, a lot a lot of frozen food.

To be less cynical, however, there are many positive effects of living vicariously online. Distances become illusory, for one thing: you “see” your friends in Boston as often as your friends in Diekirch. American expats in Luxembourg feel marginally less guilty about not visiting their parents, since parents worldwide are, in record numbers, going unvisited. For another thing, commutes have evaporated, saving time and hassle, and, most felicitously, the environment. And I actually did have a remote appointment with the doctor, which was delightful. Ask any other germophobic hypochondriac: getting precious medical advice without risking the biohazardous nerve-busting clusterfuck of the waiting room is more futuristic and technologically satisfying than any overmarketed gadget thingie from Apple. By a landslide.

We’re not wholly submerged in our humble approximation of the Matrix, then, even if we’re doing our best. Thus, anything not happening in the cybersphere is happening at home (for those of us lucky enough to be able to self-isolate, that is – for workers of essential jobs, all of this is different and far more heroic). As such, the spectrum of activity in a day has grown narrow. Meals and fresh air loom large. In many ways, what excites me now mirrors what excites a dog: breakfast! a snack! a walk! oh my god – dinner!

While nations are certainly reacting differently to this crisis, according to their means and governments, what strikes me on my own microlevel is simply how borderless the world has suddenly become. Granted, expats like myself may be prone to this type of feeling – yet the isolation, by confining me to home and internet, has started to anonymize my physical environment. It suggests a point, a rather sad point, where the most salient part of Luxembourg the nation – meaning the country as an abstract force, beyond my personal network of Luxembourgish friends, family, and news – would be its weather. I would know this is the Grand Duchy not because my flat is here, because the Pont Adolphe is here, or because I’m failing at languages in public. I’d know it because the weather overhead is Luxembourg’s weather. Beyond that, I might as well be in Colorado or a bunker on the moon with Aunt Carol.

This is not to encamp myself with fogies who say that the internet is ruining interhuman relationships (it isn’t) or who dream of simpler, bygone times. This is to wonder what will happen as we keep improving the real Matrix of our modern human devising. Will we achieve a borderless earth made up of virtual communities? What if nationality and culture were uncoupled from geographical location? If you were simply a virtual citizen of a virtual government?

A final word: obviously, the quality of online living or the relative joys of staying home are marginal issues in all this. Not everybody has a job that can be done remotely, or the luxury of implementing the strictest measures of protection. Some are working us through the crisis and I owe my safety, and my relative peace of mind, to them!

Jeffrey Palms
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