While it may not be divine intervention that brought us technologies like the communications platform Zoom, it is undeniable that 21st-century tech has made this bizarre, scary and tragic time a little less isolating.
Much has been written and said about the tragedy of this pandemic. The loss of life worldwide is devastating and heart-rending. Families and friends have been kept apart at the best of times. At the worst of times, however, when hugs and human touch are needed most, this is especially cruel. Saying final goodbyes by telephone or on a little screen is unbearably painful.
In the meantime, though, something has happened that probably few of us anticipated when this pandemic hit us full force in mid-March. We have seen people at their best, coming together to help those who need it, checking in on neighbours and family who are isolated, taking steps that are uncomfortable for us in the short-term because it is in our collective best interests in the long-term. What could have been a time exemplified by fear and anxiety, selfishness, isolation and retrenchment has been, in so many cases, including in our synagogues and so many other community organizations, a time of unparalleled flexibility, creativity and devotion to what really matters.
We cannot overestimate the power of a comparatively simple technology like Zoom. Presumably intended as a business tool, it has exploded into our pandemic world as perhaps the new century’s version of what old long-distance advertisements promised – it’s the next best thing to being there.
Nothing can replace a hug or even just the proximity of our loved ones. But imagine the alternative of going through these past few months without small miracles like technology that lets us see the faces of our friends. Human nature tends to take for granted whatever we receive almost as soon as we’ve got it in hand. But the future we marveled at in the 1960s while watching fanciful cartoons like The Jetsons is reality today. Not the flying cars (yet) but the wall-mounted video phones are better: we hold them in our hands or sit them on our laps.
The medium is the message, said the great Canadian theorist Marshall McLuhan. In future, people will look back and ponder how the technologies that united us in this time of isolation changed us and the way we communicate. In the meantime, we can already see that technology has led to even more engagement with learning, socializing and spiritual exploration than happened in-person before we had heard of COVID. And, while so many warn that we are on the verge of being “Zoomed out,” a recent poll contradicts this idea, finding that Canadians overwhelmingly love the freedom to connect to everywhere from anywhere. For Vancouverites, especially younger ones who are forced to move some distance from their parents due to housing prices, Zoom and similar tools can permit virtual visits without hours of time-wasting (and environmentally deleterious) travel. An hour-long business meeting that might have required 45 minutes of commuting and parking time starts and ends at the dining room table, freeing up hours per week for children, partners, housework, leisure, hobbies or sleep.
As we now prepare to celebrate the High Holidays in ways that our ancestors could never have imagined, we will depend on these technologies to deliver an approximation of normalcy. It won’t be normal, of course. But it’s normal for now. And that is a blessing.