This is the seventh blog post in the series Sixteen Psychological Reflections on COVID-19 by Robert Romanyshyn
The erasure of boundaries has been a key factor in unleashing the pandemic that girdles the globe. In Blog 6, I suggested there is a connection between the pandemic and the technology that has created a digital Utopia, literally a no-where place where one can be everywhere and anywhere. In this blog I explore that possibility in more detail.
I am not suggesting a causal connection between the pandemic and technology. Rather, I am exploring a psychological connection, which connection focuses on the COVID-19 pandemic as the other side of the creation of a digital world, calling us back to remember what we are in danger of losing and forgetting about our humanity.
Today we are webbed together in virtual space and time as we sit at our computers. But are we alone together, apparently connected but haunted by a sense of isolation? Do we suffer from terminal identity, a felicitous phrase that not only describes our sense of identity in the digital world, but also suggests that there might be something more pernicious about this phrase, something terminal about our addiction to the terminal?
In the early days of the virus, we saw numerous online examples of individuals reaching out to neighbors and friends by opening their windows or standing on rooftops or balconies to share music and songs and poetry. A wonderful, human hunger to be with others in community was evident in these spontaneous, creative eruptions
Is that most basic human hunger truly satisfied when the community is a digital one?
Of course, the benefits of digital technology are beyond question even before the pandemic.
And yet the question of its psychological costs is a necessary one.
As its benefits increasingly seduce us into its use, do the apps we use – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and maybe even now TikTok etc—begin to use us?
Do we gradually begin to go down a rabbit hole as the digital world beckons as a new reality?
On that slippery slope we not only forget but also forget we have forgotten that strange but ineluctable desire to be with others that is only mimicked in the negative utopia of the digital world.
Sherry Turkle, who early on championed the computer revolution of the 1980s in her book The Second Self, had a change of heart. In a later book, Alone Together (2011), she questions if we are more isolated from each other now.
We have lost the art of writing letters. This practice no longer fits in the time warp speed of the digital world.
Online with emails, texts, photos etc, there is little or no pause between receiving and responding. Without this pause there is no time to take a breath, no time to consider and weigh a reply, no time to allow the letter, whose trace of the other displays itself in the handwriting, to marinate in the juices of memory and imagination.
Is the frenzy of contact with almost instant messaging a symptom reminding us of how deeply lonely we are in the digital world, of the absence of the mirroring others who reflect back to us some embodied sense that we are real?
Community, friendship is not a quantitative measure, nor is love. They are qualitative in character.
How many friends does one need?
Does having 1000 friends on Facebook assuage one’s loneliness?
Does the quantitative measure of friends on Facebook mask the qualitative sense of being and having a friend?
Are we now lonelier and more adrift in the digital sea of images and bits and bytes of code?
Victor Frankenstein’s Monster, whose isolation from a human community because of his physical appearance, is a prophetic omen of the terrible anguish of being alone. Out of touch with all his kind, his primary appeal to his maker is to make for him a companion to assuage his loneliness. Together, side by side, he says he will be able to tolerate his sense of being alone, without community, without a history that binds one with others. Without others, without even one other, Victor Frankenstein’s Monster wanders throughout the story as an orphan abandoned by his maker.
In the digital world are we psychologically becoming orphans, apart from all those intimate, familiar embodied rituals, customs and actions that bind one to others?
Was that the hunger of the orphan who in those early days of COVID-19 reached across the space of quarantines and lockdowns?
Familiar situations that we have come to take for granted are now alerting us to what is absent when they take place in the digital world.
One very public example was the decision to hold the Democratic and Republican conventions on Zoom. Given the infectious contagion rate of COVID-19, that decision was necessary.
But to step back for a moment from that necessity invites us to not forget the difference between it and what such conventional gatherings have been. As the New York Times columnist David Brooks noted, political conventions were places where politics was done in the face-to-face encounters of deal making and horse trading, in the backslapping behaviors of persuasion, in the mess, ambiguity and turmoil of a being together in the excitement of a historical moment.
To be sure they were not the epitome of virtue, and they were in addition islands of exclusion, but they anchored traces of a history, reminding us of the birthplace of democracy in the Greek Polis. As discussed in Blogs 2 and 3, memory does matter. It has a transformative quality. So, in the context of that history as we Zoom into this new polis let’s pause for a moment with these questions.
If one of the key pillars of democracy is the capacity for dialogue and open debate in which we not only listen to each other, but also are capable of regarding our own perspectives from the other’s point of view, then do we need to consider how the digital polis is weakening the foundation of that pillar? Are we in danger of increasingly becoming a benumbed citizenry, so overwhelmed and anxious that we distract ourselves with the multiple ways to amuse ourselves to death, or become prey to the simplistic slogans and rhetoric of a new fascism?
Is the digital polis a shadow side of the COVID-19 crisis where zombies and fascists will shape our future?
It is not a judgment that I am making here between digital conventions and conventional ones. We cannot dis-invent the digital world we have created. Nor should we wish to do so even if it were possible. It is attention to the differences that matter.
What we can, and I would say, must do is avoid the slippery slope of its seduction as the digital world becomes the new reality that leaves behind what makes us most human: our embodied being together in the world with others. That desire is a hunger that haunts the digital world. The subtitle of Turkle’s book cited above captures the lingering and haunting sense of this desire as we slide down that slippery slope: Alone Together: Why we Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other.
To close this blog, I offer one other example of this difference that needs to be remembered.
Some years ago, I had a Skype session with my 15-month old grandson. Because he lived so far away, I welcomed this technology, and yet throughout the session what was absent in this kind of presence haunted me as a longing and a loss. We could see and hear each other but we were not in touch with each other. There was no haptic sense on the screen, which became quite evident when he offered me a taste of what he was eating.
“Grandpa, do you want a bite of my cookie?” Even before I could say, “Yes, please,” his hand touched the computer screen. As he withdrew his hand, which he had just extended toward me, he looked at the cookie and seemed puzzled that I had not taken a small bite of what he had offered. The puzzled look on his face was an expression of an unarticulated metaphysical question: ‘where was grand-pa?’ It was a moment of wonder that silently acknowledged what we have lost as the digital world has enmeshed us with its charms.
Perhaps it would be wise for all of us to be as young children as we enter into the kingdom of the digital Utopia.
Enjoy all the essays in the series Sixteen Psychological Reflections on COVID-19 by Robert Romanyshyn.
Robert D. Romanyshyn is an Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology at Pacifica Graduate Institute, an Affiliate Member of The Inter-Regional Society of Jungian Analysts, and a Fellow of the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. He is also a Core Faculty Member at Jung Platform.More Posts by Robert Romanyshyn