Virtual Relationality and Our Human-Shaped Hole

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The brilliant 17th century French scientist Blaise Pascal once commented that within all of us lies an “infinite abyss [that] can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.” Because of this “God-shaped hole” (as it’s come to be known), human beings search all over to fill it. But nothing—not even pleasing diversions— satisfies us because only God can.

Pascal’s piercing words have resonated through centuries, and there’s a complementary insight that comes directly from Scripture: We are also created with a human-shaped hole. After God created the world and called it—day after day—“good” and at the end, “very good,” there is shocking phrase in Genesis 2:18 (and I’ll add italics) “It was not good that the human being was alone.” And thus, the Lord God provided a helper, a strong partner. According to the first pages of the Bible, God made us in a very particular way: we are all created for relationships.

And as Drew wrote a few weeks ago, “Science and our Christian faith are in agreement here: relationships are of central importance for human well-being and flourishing.” What a wise man.

Scripture and science agree: It is not good for us to be alone. Researchers have certainly pursued the connection between technology and well-being. But now our COVID-19 world is involved in a literally global experiment: because of social distancing, our relationships are not primarily direct and in-person. Rather , they are mediated through texts, emails, Instagram posts, and Zoom meetings—with many of us experiencing a previously unknown phenomenon called “Zoom fatigue.” National Geographic summarized this new reality, “This exhaustion [Zoom fatigue] also applies if you’re using Google Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime, or any other video-calling interface. The unprecedented explosion of their use in response to the pandemic has launched an unofficial social experiment, showing at a population scale what’s always been true: virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain.” I’m calling this virtual relationality.

How is that experiment going? What are we learning about our inherent drive to be with others and what this drive means when it’s channeled through technology?

A few months ago, I would have argued that virtual relating is largely bad—blame it on my middle age—and yet honestly, now I’m seeing some upsides. In a moment, I’ll offer my reassessment, but on the way there, let’s first review a bit of the literature.


 


So Far, It’s a Mixed Bag

As with the coronavirus itself, there’s so much about virtual relationality that’s not yet known. For now, we have a mixed bag of emerging results from this unexpected social experiment.

National Geographic pulled fascinating observations out of this bag, beginning with the Zoom meeting problem and how we have adapted as a species: “Humans communicate even when they’re quiet. During an in-person conversation, the brain focuses partly on the words being spoken, but it also derives additional meaning from dozens of non-verbal cues, such as whether someone is facing you or slightly turned away, if they’re fidgeting while you talk, or if they inhale quickly in preparation to interrupt.” This is one of the most significant issues with the restricted input we receive in a video call. “However, a typical video call impairs these ingrained abilities, and requires sustained and intense attention to words instead.”

The BBC adds that we’re not used to using screens this way—usually they are a one-way form of communication: “People like watching television because you can allow your mind to wander – but a large video call ‘is like you’re watching television and television is watching you.’”

Overall, this is why video conversations add up to much, much less than what we might expect. And why we feel tired. The other day I finished 4 hours of Zoom calls—one, a chat with a friends; another, a department meeting; and third, a book discussion. I was wiped out. Why? It seems both Scripture and science point to the fact that this form of relationships is not how we’ve been created. When we try to live life solely on virtual relationality, it simply feels unnatural.

And yet, I can see some positives. Back to National Geographic: “On the whole, video chatting has allowed human connections to flourish in ways that would have been impossible just a few years ago. These tools enable us to maintain long-distance relationships, connect workrooms remotely, and even now, in spite of the mental exhaustion they can generate, foster some sense of togetherness during a pandemic.” And in that book discussion I mentioned above, one of our members has hearing difficulties; he’s enthusiastic about this new world of Zoom. “This is wonderful! I can hear everybody instead of trying to guess half of what you’re saying.” We even had a member from 500 miles north, who moved because of the devastation of our November 2018 Camp Fire, join us again, this time through Zoom.

I’ll close with this. Living in this COVID-19 virtual world can make us, at times, feel more cozy. If you’re an NFL fan, it felt intimate and enjoyable to see the players at their homes hearing about their stay-at-home draft to the NFL. ESPN wrote that this year’s draft “revealed a level of humanity, intimacy and spartan aesthetics that was not only pitch-perfect amid a national quarantine, but also suggestive of a new way of drafting.” Even famously grumpy New England coach Bill Belichick showed the world his dog Nike.

If that can happen, maybe there are a few good things in this mixed bag of virtual relationality. One can always hope. More to come as this experiment unfolds…

Cheers,
Greg

 

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