Living from home: The COVID Venus fly trap

The comforts of living 'from home', needed now, can trap us into lessening our face to face social interactions later. Op-ed.

Dr. Chaim C.. Cohen ,

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צילום: istock

The COVID requirement of social distancing has caused all of us not only to spend many more hours living 'at home', but has also forced us to conduct many more of our social interactions living 'from home' such as the social interactions of work, zoom learning, internet shopping, and zoom visits with friends and family. The result is that the amount of social interactions that we do person to person, ‘live’, has dramatically plummeted.

This article argues that the ease and comfort of living our lives 'from home' is a Venus fly trap. I fear that we may very well soon lose the drive and energy to return to our previous higher level of face to face, in person social interactions. And over the long run this will be a disaster. Living 'from home' will derivatively cause many more people to suffer from the social diseases of isolation and loneliness. And a society in which individuals feel isolated and alienated is a society that lacks the sense of unifying bonding and purpose that is a necessary condition for providing its citizens with sufficient social sustenance and support.

Look at how many social interactions we are suddenly doing 'from home':

Where did we once meet people? We used to meet people in family settings, at our work place, educational centers, at the library, at the post office, local supermarket, downtown stores, at shopping malls, bars, movie theaters, restaurants, social clubs and synagogues. Necessity, not social choice, brought us into social interaction with others, and created, even among the more introverted of us, a fairly varied, far flung social network.

Now read this list again, and see how many of these once necessitated social interactions can be done via the internet while living 'from home'.

Current examples of us suddenly living so much 'from home'

Let me cite three personal examples. For six years I would travel at least an hour and a half in and out of Jerusalem once a week in order to eat breakfast together, talk, and have a Torah learning session with a very close friend. The friendship piece was at least as important as the Torah learning. But now we have gotten used to learning over zoom. The Torah learning over zoom still has 80-90% of the quality of our
Social distancing, while acutely necessary now for combating COVID, was the last, the very last, social phenomenon that our highly secular, post modern, secular society needed in order to sustain its social health.
previous ‘live’ Torah learning, but the friendship piece has only 50-60% of its previous ‘live’ meaning and quality. And now that we have the opportunity to return to face to face meetings, I suddenly have certain hesitations because of the strain of an hour and half driving. It is just too darn convenient to dispose of the driving and simply learn with zoom, despite the inevitable loss of quality, face to face social sharing and intimacy. I know what is truly good for me - to meet face to face. But the ‘Venus fly trap’ of convenience, and gaining time for other worthwhile pursuits, has become a very, very seductive inducement to continue to zoom.

Another example of the ‘Venus fly trap' seduction of zoom convenience is also what happened with the Torah learning at our local retiree Torah learning center - our Kollel. After the easing of the first lockdown, only half the participants returned to attending in person to learn. The other half preferred the convenience of continuing to learn on zoom at home, despite zooming’s price of social isolation .Some may have been afraid of COVID, despite relaxed restrictions, that is true. But as retired persons we really emotionally need to gain the substantive social support of meeting face to face, but again the Venus fly trap of learning by zoom, living 'from home’ had become too seductive.

One of my wife’s retired friends proudly testifies he has not been in a supermarket for two years as he buys all his food online. In this period, people are even receiving physiotherapy and psychological counseling while living 'from home'. Online peer, social support groups are helping many people I know. Similarly all of my neighbors in high tech and other office jobs are positive that the five day, at the office, work week is definitely a thing of the past. In the future they will probably have to travel to work only two days week. Colleges are adjusting to having a significant part of learning online and off campus as a means of budgeting.

COVID has thus done a rushed job of ‘pushing the future’ into our laps - is it good or bad?

The virtual social interaction future is here- The benefits

The obvious benefits of conducting virtual/zoom social interactions are that they allow for a greater number (breadth) of social interactions, and greater accessibility/flexibility in conducting our social interactions.

I will illustrate this point with a few concrete examples.. For example, you can now do academic learning, at any level, in any subject, all over the world. The haredi can now attain a secular education, with greater privacy - on a lap top in the corner of his bedroom, for example - without worrying about either community disapproval or immersing himself in a strictly secular environment. You can buy a cheaper version of any product in China or Vietnam, and be employed in businesses all over the world.

The example of the benefits of virtual social interactions most relevant to the observant (dati) community is the possibility of working more flexible hours. Working 'from home' can make possible more hours of positive parenting with our children, greater access to synagogue minyanim, and more flexibility in gender sharing in domestic roles with spouses. Theoretically, working FROM home could help improve the quality of our dati religious family life

The virtual social interaction future is here - The dangers.

I now want to warn about the dangers and failings of virtual social interactions. Any student struggling to learn from distance on zoom, any grandparent trying to maintain family contacts by zoom, and any project team leader in business trying to boost team bonding, morale cooperation and productivity via zoom staff meetings will eagerly tell you that virtual social interaction is not the REAL thing. Face to face personal interaction is the original, the authentic, and virtual social interaction is the imitation.

There are a lot of basic tasks you can perhaps more easily accomplish on zoom, but the real price of this efficiency is that the actual quality, depth and meaningfulness of the social interaction is only 50-60% of what it could be if they were done face to face. Fifty –sixty percent quality may still be worth something in our very quick paced world. People are often willing to buy a product whose quality is only 60% if the price is reduced 40%. It is better than nothing, but it is not the real thing.

Simply put, virtual versus in-person face to face social interaction is like kissing a bride through a veil, like enjoying a dripping, calorie full ice cream versus eating a diet ice cream, like made in America versus an imitation ‘made in China’, and like watching a thriller football game sitting in a stadium with another 80,000 screaming fans versus watching the game in your quiet living room opposite a home screen. Only in-person social interactions are the Real Thing.

Warning: too much living FROM home may lead to social isolation and alienation

Social distancing, while acutely necessary now for combating COVID, was the last, the very last, social phenomenon that our highly secular, post modern, secular society needed in order to sustain its social health.

Simply, the social values of post modern social values correlate with the fact that more and more people are living many, many years alone. People get married late, if at all. Singlehood is a socially accepted status. There is negative fertility in many countries, fewer children are being born. There is a high divorce rate. The geographic mobility necessary for careers has separated parents and siblings from each other. People no longer are active in voluntary associations or social clubs. Most people have little sense of living in a definable social community.

A growing sense of loneliness, social alienation and isolation is the inevitable result of these rapid social changes. And they are accompanied by an ever increasing sense of anxiety and depression, often reaching degrees of emotional illness.

(Clarification, given its strong religious-ethnic communities and much larger families, Israel suffers less than America from the problems of social alienation and loneliness, but they are also present and active here.)

Maybe and most significant, many more people may be suffering from a decreasing sense of belonging, and believing in, a common cause and vision shared in a face to face, interpersonal way with either community neighbors, fellow religionists, or those who share an ethnic heritage.

People now discover their self identity not from primary social relationships (community neighbors, fellow religious or ethnic members) but through the polarized media and social web, and they themselves then become polarized in their self identity.

And the result can be a growing polarized, paralyzed citizenry which has great difficulty working together.

Increasing living FROM home in isolation, via zoom and the internet, with a lessening amount of face to face (the Real Thing) social interaction is like putting kerosene on the growing wildfire of social loneliness and alienation that is rapidly spreading in post modern society.

Dr. Chaim C. Cohen, whose PhD. is from Hebrew U., is a social worker and teacher at the Hebrew Univ. School of Social Work, and Efrata College. He lives in Psagot, Binyamin.



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