Friday, August 28, 2020

When Real Life is Virtual...


by Laurie Allee

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Together Apart
     Finding the analog in the digital

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have a love/hate relationship with technology.  The last few years have made me feel like I'm living inside a dystopian technocracy, where people have been mindlessly sucked into screens, where tech billionaires determine what we see and how we see it, where real life is superseded by social media with everyone corralled into digital echo chambers, crouched behind their highly-filtered avatars.  



And yet, there are so many things I love about technology.  I was not only an early adopter of most new tech, I also made my career writing copy, advertising, branding and educational content for the internet -- starting way back when it was mostly seen on a dial-up version of AOL.  I've blogged for over 11 years.  I license my photographs mostly to digital platforms. I even have my own little YouTube channel.

Back in the early days, I and my colleagues had big, utopian plans for the world wide web!  But what we all hoped would be a great unifier has mostly turned into a big shopping mall filled with a lot of angry people who can't seem to stop yelling their team's propaganda sound bites. 

Or sharing cat videos.  

Or blocking each other on Twitter and then scrolling to find more things to buy, more cats to stream and more people to block on Twitter.

I have thought for years that we were missing out on so much of what technology could do for us, by focusing on a weird, compulsive urge to just scroll, scroll, scrollIf tech is capable of connecting us, I thought, then why have so many of us felt utterly disconnected?


These thoughts are what made me start this website, and dedicate myself to the concept of #slowtech and what Cal Newport has defined as "digital minimalism."  I wasn't about to relinquish Wikipedia, GPS directions, email and my favorite YouTube accounts.  And, I'll admit, nothing beats Twitter for connecting with fellow activists and artists.  But I decided I was going to impose some tech restrictions on myself.  I would approach my devices with equal parts respect and wariness.  When I put down my phone, I was happier.  When I scrolled less and read more books, I was calmer.  When I decided to produce more and consume less, my creativity flourished.  I even slept better and got less headaches when I turned off WiFi.

I found my relationships improving when I spent more actual time with people -- real, face-to-face, screen-free time -- rather than relying on perfunctory likes on their Insta feeds or heart emoji replies to their texts.

I stopped virtually chronicling  my nature walks and meals and evenings out...and started actually experiencing them.  I rediscovered the joys of snail mail, long phone calls and deep creative focus uninterrupted by any urge to check my phone. (Yes, the compulsion goes away if you wait long enough.)  When I'd tell people what I was doing, most of them smiled and nodded and went back to their phones, but a few joined me.  I thought: this is a movement, slow but steady. 


But just as I was getting used to how nice it was to be more analog in this digital world, COVID-19 changed everything.  

When California declared a state of emergency and locked down on March 4, I wasn't surprised.  I'd seen videos from Wuhan.  I'd read books on global pandemics.  On March 19 Governor Newsom ordered California to go on lockdown, and I had a feeling it was going to be a long time before we would open back up again.
  
Suddenly, the screens that had served as our virtual distractions from real life became our windows into real life.  We couldn't get together with other people, so instead of sending quick text emojis, we called and used FaceTime.  Watching "Influencer" livestreams seemed bizarre when we really just wanted to visit with our loved ones.  And even though we all still scrolled -- possibly even more than before -- there was a change to the nature of that scrolling.  We were scrolling not to mindlessly consume content, but to connect to the earth we couldn't touch, and to the people we couldn't see.  

We were looking, really looking, at the world out of grasp.  We were celebrating crystal clear water in Venice and the unusually clean air in Los Angeles.  We were admiring each other's gardens and artwork and countless pans of banana bread.  Many of us were getting pretty creative and instead of just forwarding YouTube videos, some were making them:




As friends and loved ones fell ill, technology became the only way to connect while quarantined.  As others were hospitalised, our technology became the only lifeline to visit hospital bedsides, and all-too-often, the only way to say a final goodbye.      

In California, the partial opening and ensuing surge of disease has not brought a return to "normal" life.  There are health directives and staged reopenings.  And, just like the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, there are some who aggressively refuse to socially distance and wear masks, denying the severity of the crisis and no doubt hastening its second wave. Many people are still mostly hunkered down at home.  My family has health risk factors, and in the absence of a vaccine or reliable therapeutics, we have stayed at home for the last five months except for walking the dog, taking a few drives and making a couple of trips to the pharmacy. 
  
And something kind of amazing has happened.  

Separated from beloved family and friends, abiding by the instructions to not gather with those outside our households, many of us have, through our screens, rediscovered each other.  Instead of meeting for dinner but constantly checking our phones while sitting together...we're using our phones (and laptops and tablets) to BE together. Technology has shown me it can be more of what I always hoped it would be: an actual way to connect, rather than a synthetic distraction to alienate.


It seems strange that it took a global pandemic to make people start having more real conversations...to meet online for old-fashioned party games and virtual dinners.  Before Covid-19, video meeting software was rarely used by anyone other than professionals.  They primarily utilized it to host webinars and connect with remote teams.   With the exception of avid Discord gamers and college kids hosting all night streaming parties on KAST, most of us didn't really use technology's virtual meeting capacity for more than occasional FaceTime calls.  Let me put it this way: even among my nerdy, tech-obsessed friends and colleagues, nobody ever invited me to a Friday night Zoom party until Covid-19. Even my tech-savvy Gen-Z daughter and her friends--wildly active on text and Instagram groups -- only started having face-to-face Zoom parties after lockdown.

And speaking of professionals, for years businesses have insisted that remote workers couldn't perform as well as those in cubicles.  Full-time, remote positions have been the unicorns of the professional world -- with many of us opting to freelance in order to have that flexibility.  


Photo courtesy Ketut Subiyanto
It looks like the remote work naysayers have largely been proven wrong.  As of this past April, 62% of employed Americans worked from home.  According to a recent study from McKinsey Research, 41% of those workers say they're more productive than they were before the pandemic.  Many workers report more fulfilling, better use of time without the wasted hours (and stress) of commutes and travel. Many companies are discussing the benefits of accessing new pools of talent with far fewer local constraints.  Workers have better work/life balance, and potentially reduced real-estate costs.   

Remote workers are eating lunch with their families, walking their dogs, taking more naps, and spending more time with their kids. There is more time for yoga and playing guitar and reading books.    I don't know a single professional person who misses the freeway, the office parking structure, the water cooler or the ubiquitous banks of fluorescent lights.  Even taking into account how challenging it has been for parents to balance distance learning, at home work and family life, people are overwhelmingly on board for remote work.  In fact, a whopping 98% of people would like the option of working remotely for the rest of their careers.  

Technology facilitated all of this.  


Photo courtesy Tatiana Syrikova
I'm acutely aware of how grossly unfair this is to the other 38% of American workers -- many of whom are bringing groceries and essentials to those of us lucky enough to stay safely at home.  These workers have employment reliant on digital technology -- they are the app workers and delivery drivers who have literally kept our country functioning during an unprecedented crisis. They are also the ones most harmed by the double-edge of tech's mighty sword, wielded by a system that values profit over people.  

They are underpaid, largely without protections, reliant on the freelance gigs that well-meaning laws now threaten to abolish, and businesses refuse to replace. These workers risk their lives every day while people like me are lucky enough to stay at home.


Photo courtesy Norma Mortenson
Through technology, my loved ones can avoid risking Covid-19, safely order groceries online to be delivered by workers who deserve better from the companies who pay them.  This pandemic has shown how technology can help us take care of each other.  We need to make sure to take care of the workers serving under that technology.

Maybe I'm still a bit tech-utopian at heart but I believe through activism and
solidarity we will use the reach, convenience and capacity of digital technology to demand -- and create -- better jobs.  Essential work is often gig work, and we must make sure those jobs are safe, pay fair wages, allow work/life balance and offer flexibility.  


I'm a member of Freelancers Union.  I like their approach to the gig economy and the changing face of employment in the 21st Century.  In 2017 they successfully campaigned for New York's landmark Freelancing Isn't Free legislation against nonpayment. As a  freelancer for almost 3 decades, I believe legislation like this is as vital and necessary as other the other laws enacted to hold businesses accountable and strengthen unions.  As technology erases more and more traditional work, we must find ways to help, protect and empower workers.  This was true before Covid-19.  It's even more vital now.  (If you are a freelancer who has lost work during the pandemic, take a look at the Freelancers Union Covid-19 Resources Page.

I don't know how we're going to get out of this pandemic, the  ballooning unemployment crisis and economic catastrophe but one thing is clear: a lot of people are going to be scrounging for freelance work.  Much of that work will involve apps and online deliveries, especially as we go into the inevitable second wave of Covid-19 with more inevitable closures and restrictions.  I hope we all do what we can to help each other, and help the workers unable to work from home, or unable to work at all.  

I've personally seen the political power of digital tools in my experience with various grassroots causes, and especially in my volunteer support for Bernie Sanders in both 2016 and 2020.  Using my phone and a few apps, I was able to reach far more voters than I ever did when I walked actual precincts in my youth.  Using social media,  I have been able to make alliances, join like-minded groups, organize and distribute information.  By using technology to reach voters, I've been able to actually talk with many who don't necessarily share my political beliefs.  Actual communication is how we will come together as a country.  Hashtag activism tends to alienate, but I've found that one-on-one conversations enlighten and facilitate empathy.

I hope we all can find ways to make a positive difference using our devices, because the toxic aspects of political social media are abundantly clear.  Can any of you remember an election as belligerent, antagonistic and angry as this one?  I don't care where you lie on the political spectrum, it's obvious that while our screens can be windows, they can also be weapons.  As much as Covid-19 has brought together families and friends via Zoom, it has dug more warring trenches via Twitter.    


The Covid-19 crisis has made me rethink my relationship with technology yet again.  While I have no doubt at some point, when life really does return to a more recognizable version of normal, a lot of people will go back to mindlessly scrolling, letting phone calls go to voicemail and having shortcut communication via gifs and emojis.  It's easy to hide behind the screen.  It's seductive to abandon real life for a digitized version of it. 

But I like to think that a lot of us will expect more from our devices.  I'm enjoying my regular Zoom and FaceTime visits with people I rarely saw even before Covid-19.  I love all of the online classes and discussion groups and meetups that have cropped up since we've all been staying at home. I value the ability to spend time more with a doctor via a televisit, rather than being rushed in and out of a crowded waiting room.  For the first time in many years, I feel like my technology is connecting me to actual people, rather than just data mining my Google searches to sell me more stuff.  It's almost as exciting as the first time I heard my dial-up modem connect to Compuserve, and I found out I had mail. 

We're seeing what our lives and relationships might be like if we use technology to find balance, keep safe, work better, bring people together, make social change, facilitate creativity and enhance rather than replace the very real, tangible, touchable, analog aspects of being human. 

And if you have a Zoom group meeting regularly to talk about these things, count me in.


Click here for great ways to be more intentional with technology, including excellent ways to connect more meaningfully with others online.

Be sure to check out my original video at the top of this post. (Making videos is a great use of digital technology!)

This is the first installment of my series: Analog Via Digital in the Age of Covid-19. You can sign up for email alerts in the form on the right column of this page.
I love connecting!  Feel free to leave a comment or reach me directly here


  

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