Shifting spaces, new horizons

It would be remiss of me not to record at least something about my stay-at-home experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. Forget about the lack of communication cues given and gained when wearing a face mask. Forget about obsessions with tracking statistics. Forget about that air ticket voucher wafting about in cyberspace for the much-anticipated trip not taken. These things will pass.

Now that those niggly things have been put away, I am free to ponder how my relationship with my two computer screens has altered within a few short months. How I relate to the information I consume every day has also shifted. These things have probably changed for good.

Speed and social life

Unlike many freelance translators, I did not experience any slowing down in the flow of work, except from one client. Other projects more than made up for this gap. I should also note that I normally spend a lot of time reading on-screen, chatting via video with friends, and devouring most things in my YouTube newsfeed.

For years, I have had a modest social life; some would say no social life at all. Apart from the odd foray to the supermarket for supplies, the new regime of staying at home presented no great challenge to me.

In other words, I had no spare time to speak of during this pandemic stay-at-home, and time spent in front of the computer was no different than it has been for years. This makes me the perfect lab rat.

Knowledge is wonderful!

Back in the day when I was first let loose in an institution of higher learning, I would often express with enthusiasm that the world is such a marvellous place full of endless possibilities for exploring and for indulging joyfully in the wealth of available knowledge as each new discovery is chanced upon. Not much has changed in the intervening lifetime, but I suppose I am less of a pain in the neck about it now.

To understand why a natural-born bookworm would get so excited about learning new things, I should tell you that I grew up before the age of computers far from the cultural hub of Europe. Books, magazines, and newspapers of the kind I was most interested in were in short supply. Most of the ones I laid my hands on were second-hand, dog-eared, and out of date.

Imagine my delight at my 1983 birthday gift from my mother of a subscription to Time Magazine. It arrived by post without fail every week at the aforementioned tertiary institution residence but did not always reach me; it seemed that it was intercepted by a nameless someone who was just as voracious a reader as I.

The information age

Roll on the Internet, and my enthusiasm for the world of information at my fingertips continued unabated. Right up until physical borders shut down and our front doors were all but boarded up, and the digital floodgates opened.

At first I did not notice anything more than the sudden surge of free offerings of quality material. Perhaps the pressure of work tamed my disappointment that participating in a huge online choir was not the same as giggling and playing the fool moderately as I usually do at in-person choir practices.

My favourite conference of the year normally takes place in October. It was cancelled at the end of March. I merrily used the money earmarked for that to buy, you guessed it, additional magazine and newspaper subscriptions and a couple of software subscriptions to boot.

My digital kingdom

The first intimation I had that all was not well in my little digital kingdom was when another annual conference was held digitally. It was certainly a feat and a half and, by all accounts, appreciated by many. I virtually attended one and a half presentations in the three-day programme. Admittedly, I did have a heavy workload, so there’s my excuse for paying for something and not deriving much benefit from it. I do still have access to some of it, I gather, and might still navigate my way there.

The truth is that I was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the additional online activity, merely one month into confinement. The online conference did not have the customary buzz experienced in a physical space. A bit like the online choir practice, it did not allow me to people watch, to gauge other people’s reactions, to mingle in the coffee breaks or, indeed, to change where I sat in the auditorium from one session to another.

I attended another workshop of sorts not connected to translation which was very well organised. It was a series of five-minute brainstorming sessions with strangers in Zoom breakout sessions. It was also a first for me, and by the end of it, I was proficient in muting and unmuting my microphone, and also exhausted. I discovered that I am much more forthright and curious about what fellow human beings think than many other people, so there’s that: I inflicted myself on the shy ones and made them talk!

The breakouts did motivate me, and helped me later to formalize privately what the landscape of my continued professional development and other activities will look like in the months ahead.

What it did not do was satisfy my need when learning either for a social connection or, at the other end of the spectrum, total isolation of the kind achieved when deeply immersed in reading. It was somewhere in-between, in a space that is both unfamiliar to me and alarmingly hollow, without substance.

Zooming in

Since then, I have mostly restricted myself to a translators’ chat group which was already in existence before the outbreak of the new Coronavirus, but which has now ramped up its frequency from monthly to weekly in response to the pandemic lockdown.

The group has migrated from Skype to Zoom and has followed the pattern of social groups in real life. The circle has widened to accept newcomers, yet the limit of ten per session achieves a level of intimacy that seems just right. Chats are typically attended by a mix of individuals who have met in person, those who have known each other online for years, and those who have met each other for the first time in the group itself.

I don’t attend these group chats every week. Work deadlines occasionally interfere. Also, I sometimes forget what day it is. You would think that all the extra notifications and a bulging inbox would make me more focused than before, not less so.

The dreary truth is that my disembodied self peering at similar beings also displaying their head and shoulders only on the Zoom screen, alternating with my whole self visiting the supermarket with my face covered, seems to have cast me away from my moorings, and searching somewhat absentmindedly for an anchor. Although more connected digitally than ever before, relationships without the promise of a handshake or a hug in the near future seem tenuous and even otherworldly.

I felt more connected to others before we all got so intensely connected, even to those whose voices I had never heard. Don’t get me wrong, the one-on-one online exchanges of all sorts that I have are gratifying and uplifting. This has always been the case, and I would not want to change those.

Tellingly though, someone with whom I have had frequent chatbox exchanges for several years, but see in person about once every three months, said the other day that she was “missing” me. And that’s just it: something is missing in all this Zooming around.

I am fortunate to have real, live humans in my home who provide me with the necessary grounding to sustain me in daily life, but that is something entirely different from acquiring the wherewithal to navigate these confusing online waters.

Zooming out

When we’re being online, we are all doing so alone. Granted, we are adults and used to getting on with things alone, but we feel a kind of isolation that is absent from more tactile, more animated exchanges.

Tactile for me includes aspects that do not specifically involve touching, such as observing hand gestures that are connected to arms and the arching or shrug of the shoulders. Then there are shifts in posture, the crossing of legs, the sipping of a drink, someone rubbing their eyes, stretching, or yawning. Body language studies say that we subconsciously mirror these gestures when in the physical company of others. Online, few of these things are visible.

Another thing missing from the Zoom talking heads brigade is movement. People move around all the time at real-world dinner parties and barbecues, and we watch them and move around too. In these face-to-face online changes, we sit as still as possible and are mostly on our best behaviour. While this is a boon to civility, it is a hindrance to the receiving of information. It induces boredom and promotes disengagement.

It induces boredom and promotes disengagement.

Perhaps one way that we can feel more comfortable in these online meetings (if we can tear ourselves away from the keyboard for a few minutes) is to distance ourselves from the camera so that those looking at us get a fuller picture.

While expressions on our faces might be less clear, we might convey and receive clearer messages, with more interesting extraneous detail to retain our interest when what is being uttered causes our attention to flag. To bridge the gap, I might try distancing myself from my computer during the next Zoom session, then zoom in from time to time and offer everyone a view of one eye and a nose, or something, when I attempt to type a comment without typos in the chat-space. Be warned!

One of these days

The overriding sense that online video encounters do not fully engage participants is emotionally and mentally tiring. So much so, that I find myself less interested than usual in all the new reading material to which I have subscribed.

Perhaps it is because confinement to our own passive bubbles gives us fewer opportunities to have conversations which include phrases such as “I read an interesting article the other day…”. It could be that our horizons have narrowed because our diaries are bereft of in-person meetings, events, and travel plans.

Who knows? Late adopters of most technologies usually find their way after a while, and probably will restore the disruption to their equilibrium on this complicated terrain of engaging in conversation, and I might too. Until then, I’ve got a heap of reading to catch up on.

Until then, I’ve got a heap of reading to catch up on.

©2020 Allison Wright

5 thoughts on “Shifting spaces, new horizons

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  1. I’ve been thinking about writing a blog post – or even an entry in my now sadly neglected personal diary – about the pandemic and how it’s made me feel, but fortunately you’ve done it for me! Pretty much everything you say applies to me, and it’s so nice to hear I’m not alone (except in a “you’ve had no meaningful real life contact with anyone since March” kind of way).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Very funny, janeishly; you can now write something else instead! Meanwhile, in real life, I had my hair cut yesterday at the salon – with a facemask on from start to finish, like the hairdresser. After washing my hair, the hairdresser wiped down the chair I had been sitting in and the basin where my head had been with sanitizer. That’s okay. Things can be weird and meaningful, I suppose.


  2. Hi Allison, I’m so sorry your trip has had to be cancelled/deferred. Besides that, we have been fortunate here in Western Australia – especially in the small settlement where we live. Life goes on much as before.
    Anyway, I’m glad you’re back writing the blog. I missed you.


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