I was invited in an email from a travel magazine to watch a video tour of San Juan, which I was assured would “make you feel like you’re really in Puerto Rico!” I didn’t take them up on their invitation, which was pretty similar to about half a dozen others I’m getting daily lately, knowing what it would really feel like was that I was sitting on my couch looking at a screen.
If there’s something this lockdown has made very clear, it’s what a terrible substitute for real things “virtual” things are. “Family Recreates Disney Roller Coaster with Sofa Cushions.” Have fun kids! I hope their parents at least sold them lemonade for $9 a cup to complete the experience.
Technology has bestowed us with so many conveniences, but COVID-19 is revealing its limitations. Not that you’d know it from listening to the news or perusing social media, where people are tripping over one another to, with much syrupy smiling, assure every screen-starer who might be watching that this pretend world is great, just great! I mean, did you see the video John Legend made where he sang a song from his house in his bathrobe? I really felt like I was at a concert! It was “just what we need right now!”
Maybe people have invested so heavily in the ability of technology to deliver humanity to a higher plane that we’re afraid to recognize its utter failure to replace even very basic things: the majesty of a mountain, the vastness of the sea, the touch of a loved one, a cat on your lap.
Whittaker Chambers famously wrote that he found watching his baby daughter eat and “the delicate convolutions of her ears” to be “the most miraculous thing.” Nothing virtual comes, or could come, close.
As Francis X. Maier of the Ethics and Policy Center wrote recently: “Humans have a bottomless appetite for idols and marvelous skill at disguising them. We start by valuing our tools. We end up worshipping them.”
Well what are we supposed to do? We’re in a pandemic lockdown!
There’s a joke about economists that involves people stuck on an island with a can of food but no can opener. The punchline is when, after others have offered solutions to the problem, the economist says “let’s just suppose we had a can opener.” As surely as that’s a ridiculous answer is the response to mandated isolation that pretends we’re all doing great, just great!
A TV station is now periodically giving me a “break,” video of a babbling brook that’s supposed to make me feel better in the same way actually sitting by a babbling brook would make me feel (It doesn’t). The Red Sox have been on television for decades, but who gets the same tingle from seeing it on the small screen as he does from walking up that ramp to his seat with Fenway Park lit up on a summer night?
There’s a difference between making the best of a bad situation and the delusion that technology can deliver us from bad situations. I’m in a bad situation now. I can’t visit my COVID-19-positive mom in her nursing home. My wife can’t visit her mom. I can’t be with my colleagues and friends.
Call me a downer, but I’m OK saying the emperor is currently naked, and tired of people touting the opulence of his robes. Absence of the real things I’m missing only makes my heart grow fonder of them.
Paul Tormey of Orrington works in financial services.