In this time of anxiety and uncertainty, the feeling “Stop the World – I Want to Get Off” can’t be very far below the surface. The 1960s musical and later movie was the story of a man who was constantly displeased, no matter how much success he achieved. His existential angst was only resolved when he realized that his family life and friends had been what he should have prioritized; they had made his life worth living. He hadn’t realized their importance before the end of his life.
As we face the coronavirus, we are told to social distance. Physical proximity is a no-no. Handshakes, bro-hugs or kisses are potentially dangerous. Café croissant at the tea room or marché on Saturday are things of the past. Social gatherings of more than five people are subject to fines. In some places, we can’t even leave our homes to get some fresh air.
What are we left with? Telephone calls, skype, emails, WhatsApp and all have become our means of communication. Without physical contact, we are using technology as a substitute for face-to-face. Student lessons can be taught over the web; almost all of us can work from home. Without the physical, without social contact, we have been reduced to the electronic. We have no choice.
Is there a difference between the face-to-face and technology? I am reminded of a story that happened in the 1960s when technology began to enter academia. It was told from a small college, very face-to-face perspective.
At a large university, an eminent professor was tired of giving the same lectures every year to thousands of students in a large auditorium. He turned to an assistant to ask for advice. “We can record your lectures in a studio and then play them back for the students,” the eager assistant suggested. “That way you don’t have to come to class and we can replay the lectures every year.”
After recording the lectures and having them played for several months, the professor asked the assistant how things were going. “Well,” she answered, “during the first couple of classes everyone showed up to watch the recording. Then fewer and fewer students showed up.”
The professor was worried that his classes were not being followed. “And now what?” he asked. “Now,” the assistant answered, “one student shows up to record your recording and then sells the recording, summary and notes. No one actually sits in the auditorium anymore. That’s a thing of the past.”
Technology has done wonders. Today, during the pandemic, students are able to continue classes by internet. Electronically, we are able to keep in contact with our loved ones and friends. Businesses like Uber eats are helping to feed us as we are stuck in our homes. Amazon is delivering that which we cannot find in stores. In a time of crisis, all of this is positive.
But is there a price? The knowledgeable bookstore clerk has been replaced by algorithms and home deliveries. We are learning to do without the local store, the local shopkeeper, the local restaurant and tea room. The face-to-face has disappeared as collateral damage of the pandemic. The price of that is hard to quantify.
Part of this social distancing is an inevitable result of technological advances. Lessons can be available to millions of students through massive open online courses (MOOCS). Teachers will be forced to use teaching technology during the crisis and certainly after. It is cheaper to order plane tickets over the web than paying a travel agent. The face-to-face with a shopkeeper has a quantitative price whatever the qualitative price may be.
We should be thankful for technology during this time of social distancing. It is a way of keeping in touch. But it is no substitute for physical proximity, for the handshake, bro-hug or kiss. As a matter of fact, the crisis should remind us of the importance of social proximity. When the crisis ends, hopefully, we will appreciate what we were missing during social distancing. We are, after all, social beings.
In this time of crisis, with all its anxiety and uncertainty, please don’t stop the world. I don’t want to get off.