IT used to be a distraction from our ‘real’ lives. Articles and essays bemoaning the time we spent on the internet were cause for mourning. People decried the corrosive effects of social media, its ability to create enmities and jealousies, false truths and fake lives. They were all correct; the digital harassment of vulnerable people, women and minorities among them, was and is a truth. Lives and careers were destroyed by tweets or Facebook posts. Nothing, it appeared, was ‘real’ unless it was shared and liked and posted.
All of that has changed in this age of quarantine. The emergence of an invisible enemy, one that has forced billions of Earth’s erstwhile inhabitants indoors, is birthing, with each day spent in seclusion, a new reality. The odd and historical nature of our present moment means, in effect, that we are at point zero. Everything that happened before this point will be considered and theorised based on the cataclysm through which are now living. Books that had meaning may not anymore, pastimes that were possible have slipped into the murky realm of the impossible.
Virtual reality — the other world, so to speak – has in this moment of transformation become the sum total of reality.
In that time before the coronavirus struck, we had the actual world to use as props for our glossy and colour-corrected Instagram posts and Facebook brags. A whole new breed of stardom was created on this basis. The social media ‘influencer’ and the ‘YouTuber’ with millions of followers were all engrossed in creating content, new norms, new standards and new comparisons for others to ape and adore.
There is no doubt that what we are living through will transform the world around us and all of us who inhabit it.
The rest of us (or at least most of us) followed their lead. With the use of Instagram filters and photo-corrections and selfie-sticks and special lighting, we tried to transform our cups of chai, our get-togethers with friends, a small flower in the garden, a pile of fruit on a vendor’s cart into works of art. Social events were the best material for social media; if a future historian goes through social media posts of Pakistan before the coronavirus arrived, they would consist entirely of celebrity weddings, including the ‘casual outtakes’ by this or that newlywed starlet, followed by a glut of other weddings with everyone else acting like the influencers who came before. Social life was lived in part and in full consciousness of how it would look on social media. Vengeance happened in the bad and tagged pictures of others, love was the duck-faced selfie that became a stock, if bizarre, pose for a generation of women.
In these times of coronavirus, virtual reality is all of reality. Instead of something optional, in which we could create more photogenic, more popular, richer and cooler versions of ourselves, we are now reliant on it as the staple means of communication. Without the internet, we would find ourselves cut off from the world and each other. In quarantine, it is WhatsApp and Facebook and Twitter that everyone turns to for information and collaboration.
Students have to learn and even take classes online, officer workers have to attend meetings on Zoom. The truth of our unadorned selves and lives, the truths of the drab sofas we sit on and the stained walls behind us, are now the backdrop. No longer can we edit and select and curate the versions of ourselves we present online; the versions of ourselves we present online are suddenly the sum total of all versions of ourselves.
The future is unknown. It has always been so, but our present moment underscores with deft cruelty the terrible and inescapable uncertainty of it all. Life and death, suffering and surviving are all elements of our reality in a way that shows us what we are and have always been, fragile and vulnerable creatures that can be brought down by a single act of nature. There is no doubt that what we are living through will transform the world around us and all of us who inhabit it.
In this new world, virtual reality and web-based communication are not optional appendages, but crucial and essential. It could follow, therefore, that the frivolities and consumerist indulgences that populated Instagram feeds will no longer be morally defensible. Gleaned from tragedy, our virtual reality could well have a measure of authenticity that we were unable to embrace before. With no ‘real’ beyond the virtual, and the virtual as a constant presence, the performances we engaged in for social media will become tedious. No one can pretend all the time, stay fully made up all day long, or create beautifully put together meals three times a day; travel is impossible and gatherings banned.
There is hope, then, in our moment. With virtual reality and web-based communication (which fulfils an essential social and professional function) becoming the near sum total of the way we interact with the world beyond our homes, matters will be less corrosive. Actual human contact is terribly dangerous now, and may continue to be so for some time in the future. To preserve the life we have in a way that could never have been imagined, we have become wholly reliant on virtual life. The distilling, curating, selecting that we did before was the luxury of a life in which the internet was useful but not essential, even life-saving. In this world, when the virtual is the real, where family members can only see each other via its connective tissue, we have the opportunity to make the future kinder, more honest and less judgemental than before. In this, the age of coronavirus, the real and the virtual have united to become one.
The writer is an attorney teaching constitutional law and political philosophy.
Published in Dawn, April 1st, 2020