The pandemic is messing with my sense of place as well as time. By “place” I don’t mean anything topographic (for instance, the fact that I’m writing this in the Bonnie Doon Community League Park as opposed to Casablanca). I mean the building blocks of spatial awareness - what is here, what is there, what is near and what is far.
The Great Withdrawal sucked people out of public spaces, but the public part of my life - my work and volunteer commitments - didn’t stop (and I’m very lucky that they didn’t because if they had I would have bigger concerns than chasing the cognitive weird things about COVID). The public parts of my life just came home. Feminists have deconstructed the myth of a public/private divide forever, so the idea that work was home and home was work was not new to me, it was just intensified by the pandemic.
However, the technologies on which I rapidly became utterly dependent had a treacherous effect on my ability to sense what was where, or more precisely, who was where. It’s commonplace wisdom that technology has shrunk or collapsed the distances separating people, starting with those century-old inventions with the ubiquitous prefix tele- and ending with Zoom 2020, in which tele- is so obvious it doesn’t bear mentioning - but my experience was not that distances had collapsed but that they had gone away entirely. In normal times I had Skyped or occasionally Zoomed with colleagues, but I usually had a visceral sense that the other person was somewhere else, somewhere not-here. I had this sense because I had met them in their place or work (or mine), or at church, or at a conference, or in someone’s home, or in some other location where we had physically overlapped in real time.
However, during COVID, I am encountering and interacting with people whom I have never met off the screen, and so I can’t place them anywhere other than on the screen. The screen is in my bedroom, as an I, for up to 20 hours each day. In my bedroom there appeared, over the past six months, several completely new acquaintances, including an American anthropologist whose grandparents had been friends with mine, an Australian global health expert who collected COVID diaries, nine of my oldest friends from high school (displayed as a panel) and a reunion of over sixty people who had been staff at a summer camp I had worked at in the 1980s.
Where were these people, really? In theory, they were far away in southeastern Illinois, in Queensland, in The Hague, and so forth. But I had no experience of them being anywhere except very close, sharing the same oversized IKEA armchair and jury-rigged laptop apparatus. Meanwhile, people who had been materially, corporeally, typographically close to me before COVID, people I might see at work or in the course of other local commitments in Edmonton, either receded into that same screen or decorporealized themselves even further, turning into emails or text messages.
After several weeks of not seeing real people in real time, the people I knew in Edmonton started to seem vaporous or insubstantial, as though they too didn’t have a physical place to which I could pin them in my mental cartography. That mental map of who is where - this person is in the neighborhood, that one is in Tanzania - dried up and shrivelled and blew away. There is here and here is there. No one is closer to me, or further from me, than the little figures in boxes on my screen.