When I was a student, I was often grateful to technology for bridging the gap between myself and home. I Skyped with my family on a regular basis, chatted with my friends, and was video-called in for birthday celebrations and festive occasions. I listened as my parents told me of their own experience away from home in the 1970s and wondered how anyone could survive in a time before the internet, when long-distance phone calls cost an arm and a leg and snail mail took three months to travel in one direction.
Fast forward several years (fine, more than just several), and the world is essentially depending on technology and the internet to keep things running. With the SARS-CoV-2 virus still cutting its path of destruction across the globe, everything that can be moved online is either there already or on its way. Classrooms are now virtual, people are chairing Zoom meetings wearing pyjamas from the waist down, and online shopping is booming. Even groceries can be ordered with a click of the mouse and delivered without the need to ever set foot outside the house.
Behaviour once seen as socially unacceptable is now the new norm as efforts to halt the Covid-19 pandemic turn society on its head. Where once upon a time children were scolded for spending too much time attached to their gadgets, such devices have gained legitimacy as their only point of access to education. Where radio ads were once broadcasted imploring people to put away their phones when having a meal with family or friends, screen time is now the only time many have with their loved ones as border closures and travel restrictions keep them physically apart from each other.
But as necessary as the internet and technology have become to even the simplest of daily activities at this time, the question is perhaps how long things should continue this way.
A report in May, relatively soon after the pandemic began sweeping across the globe, said a growing number of schools and universities in North America were preparing to extend remote learning indefinitely.
It cited how education institutions had been ill-prepared for the shift online and said many teachers were considering incorporating aspects of virtual learning in their approach to teaching.
Even before the pandemic hit, many things were on their way to becoming digitalised. As Gandalf told Frodo in the 2001 movie “Fellowship of the Ring”, “All I did was give your uncle a little push out the front door.”
But just because things can be digitalised doesn’t mean that everything should be, or that everything will necessarily work better that way. While we acknowledge the lifeline technology has thrown us and which we should certainly use to our best advantage, we should be careful about celebrating it as the be-all and end-all to everything under the sun.
Activities that depend primarily on social interaction would do better to resume at a face-to-face level once it is safe to do so. The same North American article, carried by CNBC, said the decision to move towards virtual learning was despite an “overwhelming” number of students preferring the physical classroom to the virtual. It also referred to studies showing that school closures due to Covid-19 could result in “substantially lower achievements”.
Earlier this year, the government announced that it would be replacing the term “social distancing” with “physical distancing”. The health ministry, which made the announcement shortly after the country progressed from the conditional movement control order (MCO) to the recovery MCO, said the latter would be a more accurate term.
The implied reasoning behind the switch is clear: while people are asked to keep a minimum safe distance of one metre between themselves and the next person, they shouldn’t feel isolated or as if all social bonds are gone. In other words, you are not alone. #KitaJagaKita.
But the truth of the matter is that face-to-face interaction remains very much an important part of our lives. While we appreciate the conveniences of technology and how they have allowed us to continue learning, working, earning a living, and maintaining communication with those we care about, there is a limit to how much things can be moved online.
Parents with young children worry about the effect that prolonged isolation from others their age will have on their development. Students welcome the shift online insofar as it allows them to wake up later, forgo the battle for parking, and attend lectures from the comfort of their rooms, but miss the personal guidance they would otherwise be receiving from their teachers. Some have gone as far as to postpone their studies by a semester or two in hope that the situation will improve and on-campus classes will resume, while others have lobbied for a reduction of fees in the absence of face-to-face interaction with lecturers.
It is the great irony of this pandemic that we both fear and long for the company of others. We miss our Friday mamak sessions and yum cha outings with friends but worry about getting too close to them or anyone else, for that matter, just in case we catch or pass on more than we bargained for.
But with any luck, life will eventually return to something resembling the old normal, and when it does, we should think seriously about what belongs online and what doesn’t. While moving online may have helped us survive, it may not necessarily be what helps us thrive.