The COVID-19 pandemic has swept empty the avenues and squares, roads and streets, train stations and airport terminals, tram and underground platforms of the world’s towns and cities. Train services suspended, aeroplanes grounded, cars abandoned. With the emptying of public space, time seems to have come to a grinding halt. Time management, just-in-time production and delivery, working towards deadlines, time is money and no time to waste. The constant ticking in our ears has perceptibly slowed down. Now that supply chains have been interrupted, production stopped, offices, schools, universities and shopping malls closed, time is slowly melting away like Dalí’s famous clocks. All of a sudden, time seems so vast and abundant like the emptiness in cities like Madrid, London, Paris, Milan, New York, São Paulo, Buenos Aires and Wuhan.
As public places have been emptied out, as roads and streets and avenues haven fallen silent, most of us have anxiously withdrawn into our flats, apartments, houses and bungalows – and virtual reality. While millions of people across the globe may have left the public world out there, seeking physical distance from others, they have flocked to the platforms and spaces of the virtual world. What used to constitute an integral (but additional) aspect of our lives has become our principal lifeline to the world out there. Online grocery deliveries, online chats and discussions, online interviews and meetings. Many of us stay connected to the outside world, to colleagues and friends, through the internet.
The university has also been sucked up by these novel space-time configurations. University buildings are closed and campuses abandoned, and most of the academic staff are required to work (and teach) from home: virtual lectures and seminars (or webinars), virtual office hours and meetings, virtual everything.
My thoughts, however, remain essentially physical. To think and reflect, I need to walk, move my body, use my legs. When delivering a physical lecture, I usually throw in my physical body to give weight to my arguments. When teaching a seminar class, I take advantage of the physical infrastructure, rearranging the seating order, so that all students are required to face each other, look into each other’s eyes, study each other’s facial expressions – the inquisitive twitching of eyebrows, doubts expressed through an apprehensive look, and a question impatiently formulated through the nervous licking of one’s lips. The interactions of gestures and facial expressions produce the energy flows that keep a seminar going, and potentially transform it into a vivid experience. The way we use our body and its parts shape the way we think, argue, criticise, respond and react. When I deliver a lecture or a seminar, any connection I sense with my students is transmitted through our physical bodies, all trapped for one or two hours in one physical room.
I feel none of this in a webinar. When listening in, I am easily distracted. It is hard to concentrate, even harder to interact. There is no magic anymore; everything feels muted, drowned out by the occasional technical glitches and weak connection. When recording an online lecture, I feel tired right from the start. No curious, inquisitive faces looking at me, no vibes, no energy, no interaction, no connection.
We connect through physical bodies; we argue, think, reflect through physical bodies. The virtual world can be a valuable addition to our thinking, our reflections and our arguments, but it can never be a substitute. And if it ever turns into a substitute, it will impoverish the way we think, the way we teach, the way we feel about ourselves.
For the moment, I remain suspended in space and time.