I used to be virtual. Now I’m remote.
The way we describe our digitally mediated selves, the ones that whirl through computer screens like silks through a magician’s hands, has changed during the pandemic. The change is more than just a matter of terminology. It signals a shift in perspective and perhaps in attitude. “Virtual” told us that distance doesn’t matter; “remote” says that it matters a lot. “Virtual” suggested freedom; “remote” suggests incarceration.
The idea of virtuality-as-liberation came to the fore in Silicon Valley after the invention of the World Wide Web in 1989, but its origins go back to the beginnings of the computer age. In the 1940s and 1950s, as Katherine Hayles describes in How We Became Posthuman, the pioneers of digital computing — Turing, Shannon, Wiener, et al. — severed mind from body. They defined intelligence as “a property of the formal manipulation of symbols rather than enaction in the human life-world.” Our essence as thinking beings, they implied, is independent of our bodies. It lies in patterns of information and hence can be represented through electronic data processing. The self can be abstracted, virtualized.
Though rigorously materialist in its conception, this new mind-body dualism soon took on the characteristics of a theology. Not only would we be able to represent our essence through data, the argument went, but the transfer of the self to a computer would be an act of transcendence. It would free us from the constraints of the physical — from the body and its fixed location in space. As virtual beings, we would exist everywhere all at once. We would experience the “bodiless exultation of cyberspace,” as William Gibson put it in his 1984 novel Neuromancer. The sense of disembodiment as a means of emancipation was buttressed by the rise of schools of social critics who argued that “identity” could and should be separated from biology. If the self is a pattern of data, then the self is a “construct” that is infinitely flexible.
The arrival of social media seemed to bring us closer to the virtual ideal. It gave everyone easy access to multimedia software tools for creating rich representations of the self, and it provided myriad digital theaters, or “platforms,” for these representations to perform in. More and more, self-expression became a matter of symbol-processing, of information-patterning. The content of our character became the character of our content, and vice versa.
The pandemic has brought us back to our bodies, with a vengeance. It has done this not through re-embodiment but, paradoxically, through radical disembodiment. We’ve been returned to our bodies by being forced into further separation from them, by being cut off from, to quote Hayles again, “enaction in the human life-world.” As we retreated from the physical world, social media immediately expanded to subsume everyday activities that traditionally lay outside the scope of media. The computer — whether in the form of phone, laptop, or desktop — became our most important piece of personal protective equipment. It became the sterile enclosure, the prophylactic, that enabled us to go about the business of our lives — work, school, meetings, appointments, socializing, shopping — without actually inhabiting our lives. It allowed us to become remote.
In many ways, this has been a good thing. Without the tools of social media, and our experience in using them, the pandemic would have been even more of a trial. We would have felt even more isolated, our agency more circumscribed. Social media schooled us in the arts of social distancing before those arts became mandatory. But the pandemic has also given us a lesson, a painful one, in the limits of remoteness. In promising to eliminate distance, virtuality also promised to erase the difference between presence and absence. We would always be there, wherever “there” happened to be. That seemed plausible when our virtual selves were engaged in the traditional pursuits of media — news and entertainment, play and performance, information production and information gathering — but it was revealed to be an illusion as soon as social media became our means of living. Being remote is a drag. The state of absence, a physical state but also a psychic one, is a state of loneliness and frustration, angst and ennui.
What the pandemic has revealed is that when taken to an extreme — the extreme Silicon Valley saw as an approaching paradise — virtuality does not engender a sense of liberation and exultation. It engenders a sense of confinement and despair. Absence will never be presence. A body in isolation is a self in isolation.
Think about the cramped little cells in which we appear when we’re on Zoom. It’s hard to imagine a better metaphor for our situation. The architecture of Zoom is the architecture of the Panopticon, but it comes with a twist that Jeremy Bentham never anticipated. On Zoom, each of us gets to play the roles of both jailer and jailed. We are the watcher and the watched, simultaneously. Each role is an exercise in remoteness, and each is demeaning. Each makes us feel small.
What happens when the pandemic subsides? We almost certainly will rejoice in our return to the human life-world — the world of embodiment, presence, action. We’ll celebrate our release from remoteness. But will we rebel against social media and its continuing encroachment on our lives? I have my doubts. As the research of Sherry Turkle and others has shown, one of the attractions of virtualization has always been the sense of safety it provides. Even without a new virus on the prowl, the embodied world, the world of people and things, presents threats, not just physical but also social and psychological. Presence is also exposure. When we socialize through a screen, we feel protected from many of those threats — less fearful, more in control — even if we also feel more isolated and constrained and adrift.
If, in the wake of the pandemic, we end up feeling more vulnerable to the risks inherent in being physically in the world, we may, despite our immediate relief, continue to seek refuge in our new habits of remoteness. We won’t feel liberated, but at least we’ll feel protected.