You’re Virtual to Me

It's time to wake up and reboot the relationships.

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Photo art by Cathy Malchiodi PhD

Like many of you during the past year, I have spent the majority of my work life in front of a Zoom screen. Sometimes I am that talking head next to yet another PowerPoint presentation or merely a thumbnail presence in what we know now as a Gallery View. Or maybe just as a voice when technology goes awry and the audience never sees my face at all, just a set of slides with me holding forth behind the virtual curtain.

First, I would remiss to not say I am a fortunate person to have been able to work from a home office during a time when others have had to literally risk their lives to get a paycheck. I am grateful to have had the chance bring lectures and workshops to people around the world, sometimes through small events and other times, through large conference venues. I have reached audiences I never could have imagined speaking to; it’s one of the strange and unimaginable “blessings” of this pandemic. I appreciate that there are now colleagues and students who can access this information through cost-effective and convenient platforms, when only a year ago they were limited by finances and other barriers to participation.

In fact, since the end of April 2020, I have been grateful to be invited to be on various Zooms, talking about what I love to expound upon an astounding 137 times–and all from this desk chair and computer where I am now writing this essay. And I know colleagues who have likely given even more presentations than me, often multiple talks on a given day. This phenomenon is a story in and of itself– that a virus essentially made this happen.

But now some of the same speaking engagements for annual events that took place in 2020 are coming back around like some weird recurrent nightmare, a Zoom-ridden deja vu. While I am honored to be included, my mind and body are rebelling at the thought of reliving these events in the same virtual way as in 2021. Out of those 137 Zoom events I noted, can I remember anything tangible about them? Of course, not; they are just notations on a Google calendar, as flat and two-dimensional as the screen on the desktop where I give all those performances.

And while I am at it, I’ll continue this rant, but this time from the viewer’s perspective. As a participant in other events for my own continuing continuing or collegiality, I getting quite ornery at watching and listening someone else’s talk in isolation. It’s like watching a Netflix movie alone, even when there are hundreds of others in virtual space. If you believe the chat function is a form of social engagement, hello–it’s simply cellphone text in drag. And if you don’t know me, here’s a confession– I am finding myself regressing back to high school where I delighted in skipping classes that were putting my feet to sleep. I admit that I just can’t stick with the solitary confinement of watching another PowerPoint followed by the 15 minutes of “Q and A.” Or what is billed as a lively discussion during which I have no one to complain to when it goes south or to compare notes with while watching it stumble and die a painful death in the Zoom Graveyard of Boredom and Screen Fatigue.

During the past year while facilitating Zoom sessions, I have been known to say in jest that “I am talking to you from the International Space Station.” We really have been in our own separate space stations, fortunately able to see and talk with each other during these times of necessary physical distancing. Like the ISS, we have also been able to broadcast and connect with each other throughout the world, where technology is accessible. That is truly remarkable.

But now that many of us can leave, I can feel some hesitation from a few of my Zoom-addicted colleagues. Many are not so ready to get out of the home office [or bedroom or porch] where they have been broadcasting to the world. I want to jump the fence and get out of the corral, but I also am sensing not everyone in my personal and professional sphere is quite there yet. We are all going to have to work at bringing ourselves back into relationship and resonance with each other. It’s not as easy as we thought to leave that desk chair to get back into the messiness of the human community. But you and I, we are real-time relational beings, not Zoomers in search of a breakout room and, I hope, not just a name on a dark Gallery View screenshot. But most of all, I just don’t want to hear myself saying, “You’re virtual to me” anymore.

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