For several years prior to this crisis, people’s innate ability to socialize was already becoming stunted by how frequently digital interaction infiltrated our lives. The value of real-life experience has been increasing ever since Facebook (and the like) burst onto the scene in the mid-aughts. Research, and pre-corona economic indicators, show that people are seeking experiences over material goods more than ever. Massive gatherings, from well-known music festivals like Coachella, to more niche (but delicious) Bacon & Beer Festivals, have succeeded in bringing people together to share their passions.
So, what happens to the human experience when these live events disappear?
For me, at first the shelter-in-place order felt like a snow day. I live with my wife, and twin fourth-graders in Brooklyn. That unique snow-day exuberance faded as, over the past few weeks, we began adjusting to our new normal. Four of us in the house, two attending virtual school and two working remotely, all housebound together; it presents challenges that are new to me as well as millions of others. Don’t get me wrong, while it’s not easy, I’m so lucky to have a great family, a comfortable apartment, plenty of food and online entertainment to ride this out.
But now, living sheltered-in-place, I’m worried. When I venture outside to exercise, the people I see seem shell-shocked. Our faces are covered, with only our eyes visible, yet no eye contact is made. You can see others calculating six feet in their heads. People walk down the middle of the street to avoid others on the sidewalk. I realize mid-observation that I’m doing the same thing. That my sense of personal space has been altered. I wonder “Will this feeling be long-lasting? Will I ever ride a crowded subway again?”
In virtual social gatherings, in which I participate regularly, there is still only one conversation, and variations of it. We try to connect, but the talk is always about how strange it is to do it this way, before moving on to whose life is in distress and to what degree. It’s a poor substitute for the real thing.
A close friend lost his mother to the coronavirus and could not attend the funeral because he had been exposed. He participated in a virtual funeral, and his family sat ‘virtual’ shiva for eight days. People popped in and out of zoom rooms to offer their condolences; yet, while everyone was so happy that the technology existed to make that possible, the first words out of many friends’ mouths were “I wish I could be there with you.”
Many people will grieve this way in the coming months. Having only peripherally participated in an experience like this, I can say that it falls somewhere between totally bizarre and deeply unsatisfying. Through the lens of the virtual world, while your condolences are offered and received, I’m left wondering if it helped. Virtual comfort isn’t the same as what’s offered in person. It’s a little too easy to hop into a video chat room, mute it when your kid is too loud, and jet when you must check on something you’ve put in the oven.
It’s just not normal. It feels hollow and I wonder if that lack of a true connection, if repeated, over time will diminish the strength of our communities and eventually our humanity.
Because I’m in the events business, I’m asked regularly: “Do you think everything will come back the way it was before?” I always start by saying no, things are forever changed—but finish by saying that things are going to come back stronger than ever before. As every day goes by without face-to-face engagement and experience, the value of them will rise.
Once the all-clear is given and we have proper testing and tracking in place, real-life experience will come back and come back strong. We may not shake hands, high-five and give bro-hugs right away, but we will venture out. We will enjoy shows and dinners again. People will hop on airplanes and take trips that were postponed.
And, who knows? By the time restrictions loosen, there could be so much pent up demand that the “COVID all clear” day may rival the repeal of Prohibition as one of the biggest parties ever. Single people might participate in a giant bacchanal, parents might hire babysitters for two weeks straight—and maybe kids will even put down the screens and just go play in the park for hours on end?
It will happen because we are social creatures and our humanity demands it. Real-life experience is far too valuable.