Everywhere you look on the internet right now, dozens of articles outline how the future of X, Y, or Z will be more virtual. The future of work. The future of education. The future of conferences. Catapulted into the digital realm by the need for physical distancing, things will not go back to how they were before – even when the pandemic is over.

I’m not so sure.

For a while, yes, we may be hesitant to abandon the safety of our virtual sanctuaries, unsure when and how to pick up our pre-pandemic routines again. And in some industries, such as healthcare, it is indeed hard to imagine how the newfound practical benefits of remote technology will not spur lasting and positive changes (as my medical colleagues at Philips have explained here and here).

Yet I wonder, on a deeply personal level:

Will our forced confinement to the digital world actually lead to a renewed appreciation for everything that is not digital?

What the virtual cannot replace

I don’t know about you, but if there’s anything I’m now reminded of every morning as I look out of the window of my apartment before disappearing into a screen for most of the day, it’s how much I miss the real world.

I miss the smell of fresh mint tea shared with a longtime friend over a COVID-free conversation in a quaint little cafe on a Saturday morning. I miss the excitement of venturing beyond the familiar streets of my neighbourhood as I set out to photograph new places and stumble into interesting strangers. And most of all I miss being able to give a hug to the people I care about; those intimate moments when more than words, GIFs, and emojis are exchanged between us.

I miss the realness of it.

With every digital simulacrum of our former reality – the video calls, the virtual get-togethers – we feel deep in our bones just how impoverished it all seems compared to the real thing.

"With every digital simulacrum of our former reality, we feel deep in our bones just how impoverished it all seems compared to the real thing."

The subtle non-verbal cues as we chat with colleagues or customers. They are still there. But we have to put in extra effort to pick them up, if we can spot them at all.

The voices of friends. They remind us of a leisurely walk through the woods on a spring afternoon, or a night at a restaurant with dazzling dishes that stirred our senses. But that world is now out of reach, relegated to our memories.

After yet another day of back-to-back video calls and incessant instant messages, we feel exhausted. Disembodied, almost – as if we have merged with our digital devices. Deprived of rich sensory experience and true face-to-face connection, we can’t wait for the virtual to turn physical again.

Yet in a way, we were already headed in this direction before the pandemic propelled it to its extremes.

We were already on this path before the pandemic

Over the last decade we have let digital communications technology encroach on every moment of our lives, leading to what psychologist Sherry Turkle described as the “isolation of the tethered self” in her book Alone Together.

"The lure of instant virtual gratification has been pulling us away from the real world, slowly but surely."

Through screens big and small, we are constantly connected to each other, yet hardly ever with our undivided attention. In a world of 24/7 news and entertainment, where algorithms help to spread outrage and sensationalism, there’s always someone shouting louder than the voices around us that are waiting to be heard. The lure of instant virtual gratification has been pulling us away from the real world, slowly but surely.

We like to believe our days are guided by purpose, when in truth they are often guided by notifications. We habitually click and scroll our way through life in a state of semi-presence, haunted by the feeling there is something missing from our existence – not realizing it’s we who are often absent.

"We like to believe our days are guided by purpose, when in truth they are often guided by notifications."

Isn’t it ironic? In modern times it has become entirely acceptable to pull out our smartphone at the slightest hint of boredom, casually ignoring the person sitting next to us. But now that the smartphone and other digital devices are our only remaining portal to others, we wish nothing more than the comfort of a real person sitting next to us.

I take hope in that. Hope that we will start thinking more intentionally again about the modes of communication we choose in the moment, and the way we use them.

What does it all mean for the future?

To be fair, there is no doubt in my mind that the use of virtual tools will continue to thrive post-COVID-19. In fact, as a knowledge worker who can perform most of his tasks from any location, it has always befuddled me why remote work hasn’t taken off before at a larger scale. The countless hours of commuting saved, and the gains in productivity (for those who are able to set up a quiet home office) make one wonder why it’s still the norm in the business world to have people sit shoulder to shoulder four or five days a week.

But if there’s one thing our current social starvation is making abundantly clear, it’s that there will always be a vital place for face-to-face contact and companionship.

People – even introverted ones like me who value their solitude – will still want to meet in person. Students will still want an encouraging pat on the shoulder from their teacher when they’ve failed an exam. And professionals will still want to attend conferences – because most of these events were never about the content anyway; they were about meeting like-minded people and sharing a drink (or two) afterwards.

We long for that physical human connection with every fiber of our being. We always have and we always will. Perhaps we will learn to cherish it again with our undivided attention, now that we know what it feels like to lose it altogether.

Thank you for reading this far. If you have similar or alternative views, I’d love to hear from you in the comment section below.

Photos (shot on iPhone): Future World: Where Art Meets Science, Singapore, 2019

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