Life on the small screen: Part one

Shortly after my father joined the faculty at the University of Waterloo, he took me to see the university’s cutting edge computer installation. At that time, the university was a leader in computer science in Canada, although my father, a professor of what was then called pure mathematics, had no time for such modern foolishness.

(He still doesn’t, really. While, at the age of 92, he knows how to use the internet and can email, his writing style is reminiscent of someone sending a telegram, where the cost was calculated on a per-letter basis: “Pamela: It will be good to see you. Dad” is a typical response to an email from me chatting about the news, our cat — adopted from my dad and his wife when they could no longer manage her care — what we are all up to and suggesting the possibility of a visit.)  

Back in the 1960s, the computers, housed in one building, were an impressive sight. We stood on a kind of catwalk around the outside of a multi-storied room, to watch and listen as the wheels of computer tape whirled and whirred. One of my dad’s colleagues handed me a stack of computer cards that spelled out my name in WATFOR, the computer language developed by the university.

Recently, I have found my mind wandering back to that almost 50-years-ago peek I had at the early days of this technology that, thanks to the pandemic, we have become more reliant on than ever.

Distance work

I am a big fan of computer technology and the internet. Without them, I could not do my job, even sans pandemic. I could not communicate easily and inexpensively with colleagues spread across the country, deliver trainings via webinar to women in remote and rural parts of Ontario, conduct research quickly and (relatively) easily, hold meetings with people in dozens of different locations.

The internet, my laptop and my smart phone allow me to stay in touch with family and friends, even when we are in different time zones. The texting I once swore I would never do has become a mainstay of my family and social communication. I have even come to appreciate the value of Twitter.

Never have we understood the benefits of technology more than now, during the pandemic, as our reliance on it has reached new heights.

Our initial love affair with all things online is understandable. None of us has seen anything like the pandemic before, and technology offers us many ways to create a semblance of normalcy in a sea of anything but normal.

Many of us have been able to continue working. We can stay in touch with family and friends even if we or they are quarantined. We can get groceries without leaving home. We can go to court without leaving our desk and without having to gown or stand up for the judge. We can have medical appointments online. We can even turn to Facebook or YouTube to watch our favourite musicians, who are struggling to stay afloat by giving house concerts from their garage, basement or living room.

It is, as they say, all good. Except, it isn’t really.

The Big Sick

But after more than two months of doing all of my work online, I am sick of the technology that makes it possible. I am tired of feeling like my ear buds are part of my body; sick of staring at my own face while I wait for others to join yet-another Zoom meeting; exhausted from trying to interpret body language from the tiny square images of others on my screen; fed up with facilitating meetings where either no one speaks or everyone bursts forward at the same time.

Don’t get me wrong. I am grateful every day to have a job that I can do online. My colleagues and I are able to support women for whom the pandemic means even more isolation than usual; my days are filled with work, which distracts me from thinking too much about all the things I can’t do right now and, because I am working, I still have an income.

The pandemic has created the opportunity for us to see both the beauty and blemishes of what technology has to offer. If we are smart, we won’t ignore the blemishes in our appreciation of the beauty: technological communication cannot and will not ever be able to replace in-person contact.

In a recent essay, Lauren Collins, who was in Europe and unable to travel to the United States because of the pandemic to be with her father as he died, wrote:

“Video calls are unsatisfying, not just because of the lack of touch but because they require mutual active presence. Conversation is only a part of companionship. It’s hard to just be when you’re on a call, hard to see when you’re constantly looking.”

I, too, crave that physical contact with my colleagues — that quick shared smile, grimace or eye roll across a meeting table — just as I crave the quiet companionship of being in the same space with someone I know, where we feel connected without saying a word.

There is a lot at risk if we jump too quickly to embrace what have been effective ways to manage during the pandemic into permanent approaches to work, without proper consideration of what – and who — will be lost if we do so.

Next week, I will dig into some of those concerns.

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