Social Distancing: Could We Get Any Farther Apart? A Message from Outer Space

The greatest misfortune at this time of quarantine may not be the wreckage of the economy nor the sickness and loss of life, but the unbridled, whole hog consumption of the Internet. It was already bad before the shutdown, when either sitting in an airport, going up an elevator, idling poolside, waiting at Starbucks for coffee, or out for a stroll on the sidewalk, people would interface not with a neighbor, a friend or family member, but with their screen. Now in lockdown mode, people all over the world from Taipei to Tallahassee, ranging from three years old to eighty-three are glued, unabashedly, to their personal device. For work, for news, for sex, for sport, for friendship and for religion each of us kowtows to the screen. I catch myself impulsively looking to my inbox or Instagram with anticipation for the next tidbit of something promising, something appealing, something new. In this long dreary stretch of isolation, it is as if the smartphone holds the possibility for salvation, no matter how insignificant or fleeting. Without thinking, I flip through my phone at the end of a meal, while waiting for Netflix to come up, or when doing a Big Job on the throne in the morning.

Our Android or Apple device has become a portal to our own private universe– pictures and faces, psycho babble and social jabber, heaps upon heaps of stuff real or imagined. We have come to worship the third eye of the built-in camera that spews an endless stream of maya from its gaze. Withdrawn into the burrow of phone-life, we risk losing intimacy with one another. In the bardo of social distance, not only do we lose touch with friends, but we lose touch with the family member on the other side of the couch. Face to face, in the flesh, unmediated contact is becoming rare and I worry we are falling from the graces of real time sharing. When wanting to connect, I find myself waiting for minutes and then hours for the attention of my fifteen-year old, held captive by his screen. It’s understandable. In the midst of the lockdown, the screen is our lifeline and collectively we cling to it. Without question. As a result, we permit each other unbridled time to drift through the galaxies of the world-wide-web brimming with stardust, gaseous clouds and blackholes.

Sucked into the virtual reality vortex of the smartphone are we habituating to life at a digital distance? Are we retreating into cyber tunnels from which there is no escape? Like sugar, fast food, or wanton sex, will the seductions of the screen leave us simply wanting more? Like Hal at the end of 2001 Space Odyssey, is our computer driven reality coming back to haunt us? Without hugs and high fives we may be trending into an era of digital distance from which there is no return. What an oddity of space and time we have entered. David Bowie said it best, “I think my spaceship knows which way to go/Tell my wife I love her very much, she knows.”

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