Remote Places

Last week, everyone was experimenting with backdrops for their Teams, Zoom or GoTo meetings – I have seen the Northern Lights, New York, beach resorts, outer space, and various exotic places. Quite a contrast from the mundane, domestic kitchens and make-shift home workplaces we have become accustomed to peering into. One of my PhD students, chose Hawaii for his backdrop (see above), and at one point during the meeting it looked like he was surfing as he moved his head back and forth against the palm-tree foregrounded sunset beach. The illusion is created because the backdrop does funny things with your own image when you move your head – your hair starts to look like it is moving with the wind.

It made a light-hearted change to the start and end of our meetings, talking about the funny effects. The reason my student chose the Waikiki beach backdrop was that a group of us were meant to be flying to our annual CHI conference – which was to be held in Hawaii. Normally, 3000-4000 rock up, from all corners of the globe, for a week each year at this time (last year it was held in rainy Glasgow) to network, learn and talk about our current research for a diversity of areas concerned with the design and use of tech. But like many other large events involving travel it was cancelled due to Coronavirus. For many of my students this was a huge disappointment as it was to be their first time going – but they put on brave faces. Next week, instead of using backdrops, we plan to get dressed up in Hawaii Hula clothing and leis. Well maybe. Anything to lighten the mood.

Many of us are getting the lockdown blues now, feeling restless and bored. As the weeks of lockdown drag on the need to look forward becomes ever more pressing. Some people are rebooking their cancelled holidays for next year, giving them at least something to plan for. The papers are full of ads now for big ticket holidays and cruises – costing £1000s for a holiday of a lifetime. The images of ancient sites, rain forests, glistening beaches and city skylines are very alluring but seem all the more remote. One can’t even begin to imagine what it would be like to enter a busy airport, let alone cram onto a plane with hundreds of other passengers for countless hours. How are we going to keep our distance if we are sat in a window seat and need to go to the toilet?

Many of my us are craving the embodied contact that comes with physically being with others. While we persevere with our remote meetings each day, trying to make the most of the impoverished bandwidth and the strangeness of seeing someone but not being with them, we are all getting tired of it. We are at that stage now wondering what our country will provide by way of a lockdown exit strategy. Some countries are further ahead and have already started taking baby steps. Singapore, China, Korea, Germany, Finland, Australia and the Czech Republic have begun to reopen schools, shops, gyms and other businesses.  In the UK, however, we continue to wait. Boris returning to number 10 soon will buy him more time – as our daily morbidity level continues to remain relatively high.

But whether and what it might mean to return to the ‘old’ normal is anyone’s guess – it could take months, possibly years. I looked at some photos today of Spanish children being allowed outside for the first time in two months – whizzing around on their bikes, roller skating with their arms flailing or simply just running around. The sense of joy and freedom on their faces was palpable. It gave me hope that it might not take that long.

Meanwhile, our governments continue to thrash it out with their scientific advisors. All sorts of factors have to be weighed up against each other, including wellbeing, unemployment, numbers of daily cases, relative change in daily deaths, availability of hospital places, medical staff available, who to safeguard, the likelihood of unrest, rebellion or uprising, and so on. The fear of relaxing too quickly and too soon is that it could result in a second spike, just as bad or if not worse than the first, meaning we would all have to go back to lockdown again. Keeping people cooped up for too much longer, however, is likely to have devastating and long-lasting effects; not least, a huge increase in mental health issues, economic disaster for many businesses, and many unknowns.

For those of us who see the glass half full, we continue to dream of returning to familiar but now remote places soon: re-imagining what it is like to experience the real thing rather than the digital substitute. To drink a proper cocktail rather than meet at cocktail ‘o’ clock, to go to a live concert rather than a livestreamed one, to go to a real football match and throng with the crowds rather than watch classic games on the TV, or simply to be able to walk into a coffee shop, enjoy waiting in line (not at a distance), having a banter with the other customers, and then take from the hands of the barista, a perfectly made frothy coffee with an emoji heart on the top.

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