Sunday, May 29, 2022

Real Vs Virtual: Is COVID-19 Changing The Idea Of Who We Are?

When a pandemic and technology disengage us from the real world and the significance of physical experience, what does civilisation fall back upon to redeem itself?

Real Vs Virtual: Is COVID-19 Changing The Idea Of Who We Are?
Travelers wear face masks and goggles as they use their smartphones outside the Beijing Railway Station, in China. AP Photo

Recently while taking a webinar, I got into an argument about the difference between the ‘virtual’ and ‘real’ experience with two students. The discussion spilled over to the definition of reality and why they felt the older generation doesn’t understand the definition of a new reality. The two students, amongst the brightest, insisted that they could go to any city in the world via a computer program and could view every street, the historical buildings and museums and insisted that this experience was as real as visiting the place. “Isn’t there a difference between physically being there and a visit through a computer program?” I asked. They sounded incredulous and insisted they have visited many cities through this program and further said they don’t feel the need to visit these places anymore.

I tried to tell them that there are differences in the nature of virtual and physical reality that cannot be bridged.“It is through our senses we see, feel and smell a place that creates an image in mind that gets locked in. Giving an example of Rome, a place they had virtually visited, I said, “Millions have visited the city and would consider it incomplete if a pigeon didn’t shit on your head or you weren’t heckled by a pickpocket.”

“When you are going through a virtual city, what happens to all the sounds, smells and sensations that you miss? You are not walking through it, you are sitting at one place and watching it. They are not the sounds from the real world and people,” I said. “The traffic, the smell of the food, the street and the language all mix together to give a feeling not available in the virtual world. A flat-screen will not give you any sense of real city around you or who is approaching you. In a virtual city, you will never get the feeling of getting lost and searching for who knows English to find directions.”

I had shared several experiences about the importance of sensation in the real world. Once in excitement to follow a local march in Italy, my train ticket had fallen down from my bag without my knowledge and after a search across the entire street, I had discovered it lying on the sidewalk still usable. Another experience I shared was in Hong Kong when I had left my briefcase on the bus. The driver had restored it and refused to take an award. “No one steals in Hong Kong,” he had told me.“Never think we are Chinese.”

Can a one-dimensional experience last a lifetime? And no matter whatever is put in the computer program making it as real as possible, would it ever be a substitute for a sudden experience that can force us to introspect and look inwards?

Today, the COVID-19 may have done that to us. As the world sits in front of millions of flat screens and maps the new reality by moving a cursor, the very definition of what constitutes reality may be undergoing a change to make the older reality fade away. This is guided by the fear in many that the physical world is not safe anymore and there is a comfort in the virtual worth holding on to.

Years ago, as bag-packers, my friend and I used to look at Japanese groups who would come out of their tourist buses, look in the direction of the guides’ stick and click pictures. They made no efforts to explore or walk around. Whether in the colosseum in Rome or in Auschwitz, it was the same. Within one week, they would cover the entire European civilization from the renaissance to the world war. The tourists had been everywhere but also perhaps nowhere. Today, we may be becoming like those tourists who experienced little, processed even lesser and believed they had seen all.

These students didn’t get my point that the virtual world is not anything close to real. It is the unprogrammed in the program that builds understanding of reality by engagement with other people; me telling the students that the surprises and the changes make an experience real, didn’t cut any ice. What James Baldwin once famously said that any human touch can change you forever or what R.D.Laing said about the freshness of the world around us may be lost forever to human imagination.

I guess I left the students baffled.I wonder was it a generation gap alone? Is a day coming and soon enough when the virtual experience will be counted as equally real as one’s being physically there? Will it be seen as a psychological symptom if someone says that his virtual understanding stands at par with the real or even higher? That the virtual will be a reference point and replace the experiential as the determinant of reality?

I believe the COVID19 pandemic has assaulted us with this realization faster than we imagined. After the pandemic is long over, we will not be able to look at the physical reality in the same way or value our experience in the same way as our earlier generations did. We may be the last generation standing midway between the two eras where the virtual is waiting to take over the real.

Throughout most of recorded human history, human behaviour has been seen as a manifestation of something deeper than itself whether intimate, political or financial. Now when a pandemic and technology disengage us from the real world and the significance of physical experiencing, what does civilisation fall back upon to redeem itself?

Nowadays, when I take online classes, I miss the nod of the head, the smile that a backbencher has understood. I miss the occasional blank look that makes me repeat my lesson. I needed them for validation, to feel real.

At home, three screens glare at us from all sides. We all sit in front of laptops occasionally raising our heads to discuss something interesting, a joke or cartoon maybe. We do so by clicking our keys on the laptop. My daughter already thinks our laptops are antique and prefers her phone.

The screens disconnect us and prevent us from reacting to each other. Many of my clients already say they met their significant others through the screen. Some also proposed. The most important events of our lives, jokes, laughter and sharing of loss will be through the screen. In the past month, I sent two condolence messages, three birthday greetings to childhood friends. In each case it no longer seemed right to just call and share; it felt like an intrusion into their privacy.

This is also a predicament for many psychologists. I have seen Sunit (name changed) get over a bad marriage, a divorce and he is now fighting a painful custody case. The last few sessions he had were online. When I asked him if he felt any difference, after a moment’s silence he said, “I feel safer and anonymous while talking online. My communication, my business is so much online now that it seems more real now. It has become a way of life and I want to continue.” I nodded my head wondering how the new reality would challenge the principles of human behaviour I had learnt long ago at graduate school.

Soon psychologists may have more clients who prefer online to offline. I understand it is the psychologists who may be getting more anxious this time than the patients themselves. The psychologists may wonder will they be as sure of themselves as they were in the physical space with their patients? I wonder what will happen to the theories of understanding of human behaviour we read in graduate school which formed the bedrock of our human understanding and healing.

In the new virtual world, images of reality seem to supersede reality; they are edited so that the very source of the image ceases to matter while the image itself becomes all-powerful. It is the new reality where solitude may no longer be solitary, where being out of touch is alien for the young and old alike. The only place dreaded is where the wi-fi doesn’t work. It has become the new dead zone. All holiday advertisements for the remotest islands and mountain resorts announce that their rooms are twenty-four hours wi-fi equipped.

According to evolutionary biology, we were created by nature to grow and evolve in a physical world alone. Our senses, our intuitions all evolved to build a complex system to face a violent and unpredictable world. Has it then outlasted itself and coming to an end? Are we on the brink of a new era based on virtual reality? We evolved to take in an enormous amount of information through our bodies and nature programmed us further to chisel it. Called body language, it was the foundation of our perception, body image and social behaviours. Will it drop dead like a dead skin to be crafted again for a new one?

In the virtual world, we rarely look inward. Interactions with others are more performances and less based on exchanges that the human civilisation is based upon. It is the unpredictable whose presence makes me look inwards and ask certain questions that one can’t do in the virtual world. Knowing, sensing, intuiting has taken a backseat and the tactile, the visual no longer hold.

The physical world we leave behind did create meaning in our lives. It gave us poets, writers, scientists who drew their imagination and inspiration from the sensory world. It is something that the virtual world post-COVID-19 won’t be able to do. It will not create the meaning that Viktor Frankel said makes us truly human and gave us hope. I hope we discover an answer to that sooner than later.

(The author is a professor of Psychology at Amity University. Views expressed are personal.)