Uploading the Real You

d'Lëtzebuerger Land du 12.06.2020

A century ago and more, to “call on” a friend meant actually dropping by to see him. You’d hop in a carriage, pull up to his house, and knock on the door. “How splendid,” your friend would say, standing in the doorway in a suit, tie, and hat, “for you to call. What an exquisite surprise. You simply must come in out of the sun, post-haste, and refresh yourself with a brandy-and-water.”

Later in history, of course, a newfangled invention found itself wanting a verb, and “to call” fit the bill. Pick up the telephone and call somebody. It’s the digital equivalent of the visit, the same action minus the physicality. Well, so, not the same at all. But serving a parallel function, a remote version of the old thing.

I’m wondering if “attend” or “go to” will have to go the same route. I went to a science fiction festival last weekend, in the sense that I sat in my living room for seven hours watching talks and seminars. The event was meant to take place in Edinburgh but, following the coronavirus outbreak, had to be rebooted in cyberspace.

What terminology do you use for that? There isn’t a verb, at least in English, that neatly says it. “On Tuesday we’re going to cyberattend the opera.” That sounds pretty stupid.

At first, we as a society seemed quite proud of ourselves for virtualizing our entire lives. Me too. But, as excited as I was about this festival, cyberattending it let me down. It was interesting, yes. Better than nothing, obviously. But it was taxing on my imagination: I had to propel my psyche into the virtual realm of the festival, and the result was rather vanilla. How could it not have been? My mind isn’t calibrated to experience virtual spaces with the same emotive gusto of real life, nor are my senses able to shut out the distractions of my physical environs. Distractions like the familiarity of my house, or merely the awareness of being alone in a room.

And yet, the sessions were just as they would have been in Edinburgh. The moderators were an authentic blend of nervous, interested, and overeager, while the speakers presented the same books and offered the same insights as they might have done in a physical space. My attention was even wholly held for short bursts at a time, particularly during a workshop where I and three strangers had to collaborate on a task. More honestly, in that case, my supreme awkwardness consumed any and all cognizance of self, such that no earthly event could have interrupted the assiduity with which I was failing to maintain basic human normality. That would, I guarantee, have been much the same in real life.

So why was I let down? One obvious answer is that a virtual event cannot approximate the little moments that occur by the accident of physical proximity. Giving somebody directions, chatting to an author while buying her book, chuckling amongst fellow audience members. That’s a big one, true. But I think there is another part to the answer. I think that our minds, having developed in a mostly unvirtual society, are entrenched in habits that accord with specific physical spaces. For example, imagine an unpleasant colleague sitting in your living room for a meeting. Or your therapist coming to your workplace unannounced. Either way, it’s your same old brain, but—I don’t know about you—I’d be floundering like crazy. During every nanosecond of the work meeting, I’d be fantasizing about throwing this stupid co-worker out on his ass—out of my space—while the scene at work would probably get pretty weird. My brain would be acclimatized to sharing sensitive information with the therapist, yet it would also be exploding over the uncanniness of the encounter. However things went down, I’d definitely be sobbing by the end of it.

If such things as online festivals become more commonplace, I wonder if youngsters will develop better cyberemotive capabilities. Why shouldn’t they? As chat rooms and virtual spaces mature, it should become easier for your best public persona—not your avatar or pseudo-self—to manifest. You’ll crack jokes to a neighbor, share a glance, casually strike up a conversation. (You should have seen my catastrophic attempt to network at this online festival, dropping my email address into the chat window like a hungry cat smashing her food dish onto the floor.) True, I grew up with online multiplayer games and AOL Instant Messenger, but that was all fun and gossip and relative anonymity. Wouldn’t serious things, like virtual spelling bees or remote Q&As with scientists, foster online personalities that are more complex and authentic?

Of course, telephoning didn’t replace visiting: using the phone just became a new practice, necessity, skill. Subsequent generations became more comfortable with it, as I understand from Downton Abbey. Probably this virtual attendance stuff will go the same way. No big deal. But I think I’ll always be the guy who dropped by for a brandy-and-water long after the kids are making phone calls. Not too much water in mine, thanks. Jesus! What’s that racket? Oh, it’s the telephone.

Jeffrey Palms
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