This Digital Weight

Sam Dover

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Long before the currently mandated separation, I felt familiar with this distance. As a child of the internet age, I often recall episodes from my past that never entirely happened — at least not in the physical world. Moments of real connection and emotional substance neutered by pale colour palettes and sterile displays. Now that my COVID-19 social world is made up of these isolated interactions, my friendships feel lonely, like phantom pain.  As we step further and further into this social distancing you might find yourself haunted by the same ghosts. If you’re sensing the idealistic promises of social media starting to erode as loneliness seeps in, this piece is for you.

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But, how are we capable of this strange dis[connection]? After all, is social media not the saving grace of humanity, touting itself as an extension of — if not a replacement for — traditional means of communication? As the virus holds us and our loved ones hostage, the warnings of the old-guard that “long-distance never works” and “they’re not worth emotionally investing in” are beginning to seem like ancient commandments.

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The idea that ‘real connection’ must be bound to two sets of matching x-y coordinates was already beginning to seem alien. For this is the new limitless social pool, bound only by time zones and bandwidth allowances. Now, with the COVID-19 crisis, our online infrastructure is facing its biggest test thus far: can it truly be an effective substitute for face-to-face connection?

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I feel because of my age and Gen-Z status, it’s almost sacrilege to say this, but: of course not. I think this is largely user error, as our ancient monkey brains require something more substantive than this digital format. Minds that were trained to read reality through the five primary senses have had its stimulus whittled down to just one or two. We crave this connection so badly we’ll even invent our own realities based on the most unassuming of instant messaging prompts. Social media offers nothing but empty information without users. It gives us a platform to exert the full depths of our imaginations and to project our hearts and dreams onto its pale landscapes.

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We try our best to fill these landscapes with the full sensory spectrum. Our minds, the great scavenger-thieves that they are, have cobbled together a catalogue of images, smells, even tastes through archives of previous occurrences, first-hand observations, novels, and perhaps — most importantly — the mass-media library of the internet. We draw from all of these and, suddenly, a conversation mediated through apps on a phone or computer monitor suddenly becomes embodied in our mind, alive with colours, smells, and flavours.

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When we turn that phone off or shut that laptop, we’re reminded that — no matter the internal tinkering and complex emotional arithmetic — we are just two individuals lost in the complex machinery, fishing for whatever interpretation feels the most appealing. Every conversation is a great globe-spanning endeavour involving distant, orbital satellites, cell-phone towers, and intricate communication networks filtered through a chic interface to simulate a closed, private space.

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Besides, while video calls and chat rooms feel personal and private, these platforms (and our data) should not be mistaken for our property. Not only are social media platforms the arbiter of communication, they have now become the gatekeepers of our memories. First confessions of love, reconnecting with old friends, and the rekindling of flames all birthed from 1’s and 0’s. I am part of a small group — growing larger each day — of those whose foundational memories have taken place in offshore accounts. Human connection, corporatized and harvested for advertisement revenue, inflating the commas of awkward tech billionaires. The threat of a data wipe that takes out a decade’s worth of digital investment has me perpetually petrified. I can’t log out from that.

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So, here we are, making innumerable disembodied memories with friends, coworkers, and peers right in our bedrooms. Perhaps, this crisis and these new forms of communication and connection only help to illustrate how alone we are with our thoughts and feelings, no matter the degrees of separation. Instead of arriving home after a night out, we finish our call, take off our headphones, and crawl into bed. A room once filled with life, conversation, and tired jokes from old friends, now nearly empty — except for an impression.

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Holding familiar faces in our hearts in the dark, they’re hazy sketches at best. We do the routine of checking in with all of the social threads, quantify online feedback, post the Instagram story chain-mails, and pray, pray, pray for a time when we can stop pretending that this is enough. That someday soon we can see, feel, or simply breathe in the company of our species without this digital weight.