In junior high, I had a friend who never wanted to hang out, but she was perfectly fine just talking for six or seven hours straight on MSN Messenger. Talking about what? Nothing, of course — we were 13. But she didn’t see the point of hanging out when she could “hang out” with me while painting her nails, watching a movie, cleaning her room, fighting with her mom, measuring her areolae (smaller than mine, which she never let me forget), and simultaneously “hanging out” with 20 of her other “closest friends.”
I think about her a lot these days. She must have hit the ground running a year ago, perfectly attuned to a moment that required her to stay at home, alone, away from the fleshy meat sacks of her “friends” whom she “loved” spending time “with.”
This month marks one year since the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic — and, thus, one year spent inside for the sake of saving each other from the possibility of a lonely and painful death. It’s a strange anniversary, and I’m not entirely sure how we should commemorate the agonizing loss and terror that are still very much going on. What insights can we glean from a year of this when we all have, probably, another fucking year of this — a digital-first (and sometimes digital-only) world, an unsatisfying avatar of the real thing. There hasn’t even been room yet to be nostalgic for the online alternatives we started using during the pandemic, largely because we still have to use them. The vaccine is steadily being rolled out but travel remains restricted, and social distancing will continue to be the norm for the immediate future, so we’ll have to keep it going with the virtual happy hours, the online book launches, and the remote cooking classes where I pretend to give one iota of a shit about baking bread. I’m done with living my life entirely through a laptop, and yet it’s not done with me.
A pandemic year spent increasingly online feels like the natural progression of the society we were hurtling toward, one we have designed for decades. We made phones that were tiny computers, which connected us, immediately, anywhere, with the 10th-grade English teacher we added on Facebook after we graduated. We signed up for social media accounts so we could send a DM to any writer we like — or, more accurately, hate — and tell them where they were wrong in their stupid little article. (Please do not do this after you read my stupid little article, I am very tired.) Our news is almost completely digitized, meaning our every waking moment can be spent looking at up-to-the-minute charts about who’s dying, where, and how. FaceTime, Zoom, Signal, iMessage, Google Hangouts, Skype, Facebook Portal — they’ve all made it possible for us to never feel too far from anyone we love. There is Netflix’s Teleparty if you want to, awkwardly, watch a movie with a buddy. You can send your friend a string of voice memos every day for a kind of stream-of-consciousness communication; you’ll never feel like you’re out of touch, but you’ll never feel intimately connected either. Miss someone’s face? The way they tilt their head when you tell them a story? The look of your mother’s hands in red nail polish? Call your person, and their countenance can be projected onto any screen you prefer. We were sold on it as an approximation for physical contact, so close to the real thing that you won’t even miss the real thing.
I’m done with living my life entirely through a laptop, and yet it’s not done with me.
All that technological advancement, all those emotional arguments for a tech-centric world — it was all made for a moment like this. And a year into it, I feel like I can definitively say that it fucking sucks. Good god, how it sucks. I would rather swallow all my teeth than do one more video call with friends whose faces I just want to poke with my grubby fingers. I would rather my body stiffen into an unusable husk than do one more stretching session with an instructor over a video call who mispronounces my name throughout Savasana, which really should be illegal to do to me, an actual Indian person. I love the internet; I built my career, my social life, and my personal life on it for 15 years. And now I would rather do anything else.
Psychologists call it “touch deprivation” or “skin hunger,” the emotional and physical need for touch — something we probably needed more of even before the pandemic. “No doubt the thought that you cannot hypothetically access touch,” Dr. Neel Burton, a psychologist, told the New York Times last fall, “makes the craving worse than it would otherwise be.” As a species, we were already terrible at admitting our own loneliness; a full 12 (if not more) months spent away from one another isn’t going to teach us how to ask for more touch in our lives. We just weren’t built to be staring at each other on screens. In fact, staring at giant floating heads on the monitor you brought home from the office might actually be triggering your fight-or-flight response. And while many of the coping mechanisms for these problems sound perfectly nice — send a letter, set regular check-ins with your friends, talk about something other than our collective pulverizing despair — none of them are good enough to help us forget about all that we’ve lost in the last year.
My life has always felt like it fit in my phone, but now I resent that convenience. My constant clawing at that little machine feels desperate, like trying to suck moisture out of a rock. I pinball from my laptop to my phone to my iPad, distracting myself from one big screen with another, much smaller screen. I sleep with my phone under my pillow, and it’s the first thing I grab in the morning, eager for good news. Do I live at work, or do I work at home? Neither: I live on the internet, waiting for the day that someone releases me back into the wild and I can attempt a conversation with someone that doesn’t include the woman-laughing-into-her-coffee GIF.
All my screens perform variations on the same theme: They let me work and they let me watch the trailer for the new Elliot Stabler–centric Law & Order (17 times). They let me call my friends and patiently walk my father through vaccine sign-up forms. The screens connect me to my therapist, my doctor, my book agent, my editors (I’ll file when I feel like it!!!), my family in India, my enemies in Canada, and my friend down the street in Brooklyn who still won’t come outside. I can sit in front of any of my screens and do all the things I did pre-COVID: a half-assed Pilates routine that usually ends in a weepy, frustrated nap. I can attempt my daily crossword while listening to a podcast and thinking about how, you know, I used to do fun things like shots and Whip-Its. I can log on to Twitter and fight with anyone I want over anything at all, from the pettiest of grievances (everyone should be moisturizing their elbows) to things that actually matter (if we feed the raccoons, they will be nice to us when they inevitably inherit the earth).
This is the future we wanted, right? Isn’t this, to some degree, the world we wanted to build? I helped build this world too; I’ve always been an ardent defender of being on the internet all the time. It’s a place with its own culture and dialect, both of which I’ve always innately understood. A few weeks ago, I posted a TikTok on my Instagram stories featuring a teenage girl taking selfies at an incredibly fast clip. A few people replied to it with ire. They told me they hated her and the future she was heralding, calling it navel-gazing and “narcissistic.” But why be so harsh on a kid who’s trying to communicate the best she can in the language of her peers, the way she’s been conditioned to from birth, during a pandemic, when her main outlets for communication are digital? I mean, what else can any of us do aside from use technology to keep us tethered to whatever we need to remain alive?
After a year of reaping what we sowed, I am desperate for any kind of in-person, tangible, human experience, even if it’s a clearly negative one. I want to watch someone throw up on the subway and not have to worry about whether it’ll lead to me going into full organ failure in two weeks. I want to get in a fight that I can’t exit by furiously pressing “end call” or slamming my laptop shut. These days, my fantasies are almost all about going back to my third day of seventh grade, when I got into a fistfight on the bus with my “friend,” resulting in both of us getting suspended. God, how I miss the primal edge of a skin-to-skin brawl.
I know this is the best version of the world I could ask for in a quarantine. I know how lucky I am to have been able to stay at home all year, and it’s with remarkable privilege that I complain about the very technology that has kept me (and almost everyone I know) safe for 12 months. My mother moved from India to Canada in the early ’80s with my older brother, who was then a toddler. She always told me stories about the unbearable agony of not being able to get in touch with her parents for days at a time; my grandparents lived in a small two-room apartment without a phone line. She relied entirely on the kindness of their landlord, who would periodically bring my grandparents up to her home to talk to their youngest daughter. They went years without seeing my mom’s face. They never saw what her house looked like or how she dressed in her new Westernized life. I’m trying to be grateful that I can hide from illness and fit my mom in my pocket.
But the technology I use to stay bound to people I haven’t seen in the last year has limitations. FaceTime cannot deliver my mother’s tel malish on my scalp. (I needed it; months after the pandemic was declared, my hair started to come out in clumps, which no YouTube tutorial on hair stimulation remedied.) Instagram commemorations failed to give my uncle-in-law the funeral he deserved, to allow my husband a goodbye he had hoped he wouldn’t need to give for a few more decades. When my aunt died, there was no ritual that could be transmuted into a digital format. My mother grieved alone. She didn’t want to talk about it; she just wanted people to be nearby. We couldn’t make that happen either.
iMessage didn’t bring my friend’s newborn to any of the people who so desperately wanted to pinch her face, which now, eight months later, looks like a strawberry mochi. This is the best I can get, and it still feels like nothing at all. What’s the point of a baby if you can’t smell their head?
Every few weeks, someone writes an elegant thinkpiece about how this, now, is the COVID wall. For me, there’s been a cumulative effect; periodically, there’s been a new wall to climb. It’s never easier. It’s never predictable. It doesn’t feel like some adversity I need to overcome to better myself; it barely feels survivable. Every six weeks, my husband or my friends need to peel me off the floor and shake me back to life like an old rug full of dirt and cobwebs. I’ll start the timer again and, like an idiot with no short-term memory, forget that soon I’ll be back here again, listening to Aimee Mann on repeat in a dry tub, crying about how I haven’t seen the inside of a museum since November 2019. (How could I know I would one day run out of time for museums?)
I am desperate for any kind of in-person, tangible, human experience, even if it’s a clearly negative one.
In the middle of February this year, I hit one of my COVID walls at the same time my parents hit theirs. Fear of getting sick at a tender, vulnerable age had caught up with them after otherwise maintaining optimism about the future, mostly for my sake. “I’ve lost so much time,” my dad told me over FaceTime. That day, he looked gray and tortured — Canada’s vaccination roll-out has been agonizingly slow, meaning they’re unlikely to fully return to “normal” until the end of the year. “Two years, taken from me.” I hurried off the phone because I don’t need that indelible image, one where my otherwise chipper dad is finally crushed by unspeakable horror.
Earlier in the pandemic, I could try to feel better by going online, talking to friends, watching movies, and otherwise distracting myself with the endless supply of information I have access to in a digital age. Now, I just want to get on a plane without Wi-Fi and tolerate someone kicking the back of my seat while I drink lukewarm sky coffee.
When I play Jackbox online with my friends abroad — it includes trivia and Pictionary-style games that you can play in groups from afar — I laugh hard and loud, and it feels like a short-lived remedy. But then it’s midnight, the call ends, and everyone has to go to bed. My apartment is silent and cold; there’s no dull hum of the comedown from a night out with people you love. It’s like eating Twizzlers for dinner; you still need a real meal.
My parents are in western Canada and thus still a few months away from even the possibility of getting a vaccine. My friends in Toronto, who are all largely young and healthy, are expecting a vaccine around September. My friends in New York are slowly getting vaccinated, but that makes little difference in terms of whether we can press our wretched, hot bodies together in a hug, an action I’m quickly starting to forget ever existed. Our digital-only lives are not over when we get the poke. It’s but a reminder that we were never built to avoid in-person interactions or to live most of our lives online. Even for a homebody, this was never the point.
Turns out, this is the limitation of a digital-first world. I always thought it would be something else, like sorrow over not getting the newspaper in print anymore, everyone reading novels on Kindles, or movie theaters letting you tweet during the film. But it was much simpler: I just want the ineffable palpability of an offline experience. The digital world has plenty of virtues, but keeping us sane and comforted during a year of devastation and anguish isn’t its strength. Please, won’t someone give me what I so sorely need? It doesn’t need to be a good offline experience; I don’t need to like it. I’ll even take that teenaged fistfight. I’ll take anything — as long as it doesn’t come with a mute button, a dial tone, or a buffer bar. ●