In the face of a global pandemic, billions of people worldwide are stuck at home observing governments’ social distancing guidelines. The interpersonal interactions that characterize humanity have been interrupted by an invisible disease. In response to the loneliness and isolation created by mandated quarantines, many people have turned to technology. Which begs the question: Has technology helped connect people or isolate them?
It’s clear that COVID-19 is redefining society’s relationship with everyday technologies that make socialization still possible. Illness has created a void and innovation is jumping in to fill it.
“This is the first time we’ve lived through an event as a global community that requires us to physically distance from each other at the same time that we have these technologies that allow us to remain digitally connected,” said Ellen Broad, senior fellow at the 3A Institute, which is building a new branch of engineering aimed at bringing AI safely, responsibly and sustainably to scale.
“The technologies have taken on new forms of significance. They’re standing in for people in ways I don’t think we ever had to rely on them to do.”
Connected by the Cloud
In particular, it’s cloud-powered platforms, tools and devices that are connecting neighbors across the street, families across the country and friends all around the world.
“We are in uncharted territory,” Broad said. “Before this hit, we supplemented the ways that we communicated, worked and learned with technology. Now I think we are co-developing new kinds of dependencies on them, and the role they play in our lives is coming into sharp focus.”
Zoom’s video conferencing platform is among the technologies emerging from the coronavirus communication vacuum. According to company documents, its mission is to “develop a people-centric cloud service that transforms the real-time collaboration experience and improves the quality and effectiveness of communications forever.”
In the age of coronavirus, that mission has proven to be an invaluable means of bringing people together.
“The day I went into quarantine, a friend of mine gave me a Zoom tutorial,” said Hilary Jackendoff, a Los Angeles-based Zoom user who has been hosting yoga nidra meditations on the platform since her county’s stay-at-home orders began.
“I have been leading classes for about 30 to 60 people a day from all over the world – the United Kingdom to Nigeria to Israel. It’s really cool to be able to connect with people in real time.”
Jackendoff said participants told her how good it felt to be in a space with others and where they could talk.
“They have their cameras on and it’s an opportunity for people to feel connected and seen. My aim is to allow them to feel really safe and grant them the experience of deep relaxation.”
House of Yes, a New York City nightclub that was routinely packed on a typical, pre-coronavirus Saturday night, was suddenly shuttered by COVID-19 in March. Nevertheless, it has continued its weekend festivities by hosting “Digital Dance Party” events on Zoom as well as the live streaming platform Twitch, according to said Jacqui Rabkin, director of marketing at House of Yes.
“We have to keep moving, dancing, creating and connecting,” Rabkin said. “It's part of our core fabric as humans. It's so important to keep creating during these times and find new ways to foster connection between people. We knew our audience would be hungry to connect digitally and dance together in whatever way possible. People are excited to show off their dance moves, props and creative outfits on video for everyone else to see.”
For House of Yes, moving online has been a challenge, but also an opportunity.
“We're excited to be able to move to the digital sphere because it allows us to connect with more people around the world who can’t be physically present at the club,” Rabkin said. “We have a wider audience now, in all senses. We’ve had parents, kids, babies and pets come to our digital parties. Entire families are tuning in and dancing together.”
House of Yes also has been organizing online burlesque classes and drag shows via Zoom. Galas, happy hours, stand-up comedy, university lectures, business meetings, Easter and Passover holiday meals, funerals and more have all been hosted on the platform.
Innovation vs. Isolation
Netflix Party and Discord are two more tools that have been facilitating virtual connections. Netflix Party, which is a Google Chrome extension, allows you to watch Netflix movies and television shows with friends in another room, city or country. On Discord, you can livestream video game sessions with your peers.
Virtual reality is an even more immersive medium that facilitates exploration of environments beyond the confines of one’s home. VRChat harnesses that experience with an emphasis on community.
“Virtual reality head and hand tracking allows for a level of interaction and expression, connection and communication beyond what is typically possible in online games,” according to a community manager at VRChat who goes by “Aev.”
“Users can build connections with each other using body language the same way we communicate in real life,” Aev said. “This enables people to come together in a human way while still staying safe at home.”
These social connections are so powerful that people who were looking to just fill time emerge with actual friendships. It’s yet another example of technology helping to connect people amidst social isolation.
“Friend groups have formed across different cliques, fandoms and real-life territories,” said Aev. “People can come together from any location to explore thousands of worlds and experiences that go beyond the limitations of reality. Users without virtual reality gear can also connect and take part in the social experience, enabling more people to come together.”
The game leverages the power of the cloud to allow users to develop and upload their own content, including avatars and “worlds.”
Using cloud-based technology to reduce social isolation and loneliness, these companies ensure quarantined individuals can continue to interact.
“During the last major pandemic that the world lived through, the 1918 flu pandemic, people’s worlds in a connected sense were a lot smaller,” Broad said. “Because we have an increasing saturation of devices and we are all connected to the web, it accelerates the speed of so many things. This kind of speed and scale of change is unprecedented.”
Long after COVID-19 subsides, the social trends it spawned may endure — including a newfound reliance on virtual communication that can shape people’s connection to technology and to each other for years to come.
“I don’t think we are going to go back to normal because there isn’t any kind of state of normal,” Broad said. “Our cultural practices and attitudes change subtly all the time. We are at many different crossroads with technology.”
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Chase Guttman is a technology writer specializing in drones. He’s also an award-winning travel photographer, drone cinematographer, author, lecturer and instructor. His book, The Handbook of Drone Photography, was one of the first written on the topic and received critical acclaim. Find him at chaseguttman.com or @chaseguttman.
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