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When the lockdown began — the orders to avoid travel, to avoid friends, to “shelter in place,” to shrink our worlds to the slightest physical dimensions endurable — my first impression was of how quickly and ingeniously we adapted. Abracadabra: Classrooms went online. Physicians and therapists used Zoom to see patients. Happy hour happened on FaceTime.
We’re going to realize, I thought, how much can be accomplished without the muss and fuss of actually meeting in person. Many of our activities will migrate into cyberspace forevermore.
Weeks later, I think the opposite. I know of exactly no one who’s satisfied with this way of doing things. Friends who have scores of faithful email and text-message correspondents tell me that they nonetheless feel out of touch and out of sorts. Colleagues who regarded the occasional opportunity to work from home as a gift concede that the office is looking better and better all the time. It has virtues beyond free pens and paper clips. It has, well, other people.
I’m suddenly a digital whirlwind, exponentially more fluent in emoticons and emojis than before. I never knew there was such bounty, such variety. But there’s not a one of them, no matter how colorful, that has the melting warmth of a flesh-and-blood smile that’s happening right in front of me, unmediated by keypad or keystroke.
Last week an eagle-eyed friend of mine, Eric Johnson, sent me an article by The Times’s Mike Isaac and Sheera Frenkel, in case I’d missed it, about the pressure on Facebook to manage the intensified use of the platform during this chapter of forbidden proximity. That subject interested him less than this particular passage:
“The strain has been compounded by Facebook’s work force adapting to working from home, which had been discouraged in the past. The company’s executives have long preached internally that face-to-face meetings and in-person collaboration were central to Facebook’s success. The importance of in-person conversation was so great that employees at offices from Singapore to New York were frequently asked to travel to the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., for quarterly meetings.”
Think about that, Eric wrote: “The champions of digital connection don’t actually believe in it when it comes to their own business.”
We’re not wired for “social distancing,” that ugly new oxymoron. We didn’t evolve to be physically separated from the humans at the core of our lives. It’s unnatural. More than that, it’s unhealthy.
A quickly growing body of journalism explores the possible wages of the isolation now thrust upon us. “In a time of distancing due to coronavirus, the health threat of loneliness looms” was the headline on an article last week by Joanna Silberner on the medical news website Stat. It spotlighted a recent report — by Dan Blazer, a Duke University psychiatrist and epidemiologist, and a committee of other scientists and policymakers — that linked loneliness in elderly people to increased risks of heart disease, stroke, dementia, high cholesterol, diabetes and more.
In The New Yorker, Robin Wright cited a 2015 analysis by Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a neuroscientist and psychologist at Brigham Young University, who integrated the findings of 70 studies to conclude that “loneliness increased the rate of early death by 26 percent; social isolation led to an increased rate of mortality of 29 percent, and living alone by 32 percent — no matter the subject’s age, gender, location, or culture.”
I called Blazer and then Holt-Lunstad to ask whether more creative and consistent use of digital communication could significantly lift that loneliness and mitigate those negative outcomes. Both said that my question was unanswerable in terms of the available science.
But both also said that, in their guts, they didn’t believe that the pandemic would teach us that such connection is anywhere close to the real thing. It’s a supplement, not a substitute; an in-a-pinch alternative, not a whole new norm.
Blazer noted that we have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste. Only the first two come into play when we interact with someone online, and even those are compromised, regardless of the hardware’s or software’s finesse.
“The quality of your voice can be different in person,” Blazer said — subtler, more fine-grained. He added: “I’ve worked with older people for many years, and sometimes, just putting a hand on their arm can make a big difference in being able to communicate with them.” It telegraphs good intentions, eases inhibitions and fosters intimacy.
Holt-Lunstad came up with a great metaphor for digital versus actual encounters. An online conversation, she said, “is kind of like processed food. It’s better than nothing.” It’s a convenience in the clutch, satiating in the moment and easily consumed by enormous numbers of people. Some forms of it have some nutrition. But it’s not an optimal or sustainable long-term diet.
And it has additives that make it more alluring and even addictive. For processed foods, those are high fructose corn syrup, monosodium glutamate and other flavor enhancers. For social media, those are likes, shares and favorites, which confer a hollow affirmation from people who won’t ever leave chicken soup at our doorsteps or, for that matter, cross the thresholds of our homes.
I keep thinking of those famous studies about the importance of touch to infants and how those deprived of it suffer greatly. We adults also suffer without it, if not quite as much.
When we connect only via laptop and smartphone screens, there are no handshakes, no hugs.
And when we clink glasses virtually, they don’t make a sound.
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Frank Bruni has been with The Times since 1995 and held a variety of jobs — including White House reporter, Rome bureau chief and chief restaurant critic — before becoming a columnist in 2011. He is the author of three best-selling books. @FrankBruni • Facebook