What Social Distancing Means for Humans

As COVID-19 spreads around the globe and the world’s governments try to keep the cases at bay, a new phrase has cropped up: social distancing. In a nutshell, it means keeping away from people to limit the spread of infection, particularly when transmitted through the air.

For many of us, this means staying at home when we’d normally be out and about – whether it be shopping, dining out, or simply going to work. Some governments have outright prohibited all non-essential travel (the definition of essential, of course, is up for debate), meaning that for many of us, the normal social contact we would have with other people is at an absolute minimum.

At first, the introvert in me would want to think of this as a good thing; who wants to have to interact with other people anyway? But as the days wear on, it becomes increasingly evident that, even for the most antisocial among us, human contact is an essential part of our nature.

You see, humans – like many, many other animals – are inherently social creatures. We thrive when we are in a community, and perish in isolation. There’s a great deal of study into the psychology of this, but the bottom line is that people need each other to stay sane.

If this is the case, then what happens when we are forced into isolation? Whilst many of us are in isolation with a few other people, there are nonetheless some of us – those who live alone – who now have no physical connection to other people for days, if not weeks, at a time. Even if you live with someone, the limited social interaction of just a couple of other people is no comparison to the wealth of stimuli that comes from being able to simply talk to different people, with different perspectives, throughout your day.

Even as a fairly hardcore introvert (I get easily exhausted interacting with people), my day is usually filled with human interaction and socialization, and I use alone time to recuperate. Now that I’m working from home, the conversations with my colleagues and clients are at a bare minimum, and I find myself at times bored to tears.

Perhaps the only good news is that this particular pandemic has hit us at a time when we’re still able to socialize to a reasonable degree remotely, through technology. In fact, for our children, who are so used to socializing virtually, I suspect this quarantine is having a significantly lesser impact that it has had on adults who grew up having to interact in person. Through FaceTime, social media and online servers, we’re able to at the very least get the input from others that create intellectual stimulus, even if we aren’t benefiting from the more visceral reactions of being able to physically see, hear, and speak to others in person.

I have regular virtual meetings for my work, as does my wife; my son is taking online classes from school through which he can directly interact with his teachers. I can call, text, or message people anytime I like. I can still interact.

But none of this replaces the need we have for physical human interaction, and I worry that society as a whole may soon face a terrible choice: do we maintain our physical health at the expense of our mental health, or do we venture out and about, risking exposure to a potentially deadly virus, just to stay sane?

There are no easy answers at a time like this, but with COVID-19 seeming unlikely to disappear anytime soon, there may be some drastic changes that will have to be made, simply in order to protect the survival of human society. And what happens when the next viral outbreak comes? What happens when a plague of considerably greater deadliness comes around? Without sounding too apocalyptical about it, humanity may have never faced a greater threat to our overall societal well-being.

What are your thoughts? How will we survive this, mentally and physically? And what do you think the long-term prospects for our culture and civilization are?

For Seven Days, I Turned Off the Internet…And the World Didn’t End

Last week I got to do something very cool, and it was something I’ve never done before. I turned off the internet.

I suppose I can’t really claim that the entirety of the internet went down entirely, although if it had I wouldn’t have noticed, because I experienced a week of digital abstinence. The worst part is, I meant to.

Wow. What an admission that is. Imagine choosing not to receive emails, or text messages, or RSS feeds, or (horror!) WordPress hits. Imagine that, if you wanted to write something down, you had to use an archaic instrument known as a pen. Imagine not knowing whether you had new Facebook friends!

Such a world I lived in for an entire week. To give a bit of context, for most of the time between 12:00 PM one Saturday and 2:00 PM the following Saturday, I was in the middle of the ocean somewhere between Port Canaveral and Nassau in the Bahamas. I didn’t get wet, though, because I was on a boat. The boat was big, and in the end we had to share it with a few other people as well, but the captain was from Sweden and so I didn’t really mind.

I suppose I can’t actually claim to have shunned all technology entirely; I did bring a digital camera with me, as well as my iPhone (just for recording video, I swear). Between them, I captured 1,200 photos and two hours of video. I don’t want to look at them, because if I do I won’t ever stop. These pixellated memories are so numerous because my plethora of iDevices weren’t dinging and pinging and swishing every few minutes with something I decided was really important to know about. I didn’t receive an email. I didn’t get a text. I didn’t read a tweet, or update a feed. In fact, I ended up with such an awful lot of time on my hands that I had to look at the ocean sometimes, which was nice because there were quite a few sunsets to be had.

Another thing I had time for was thinking. After all, when you don’t have Wikipedia, you have to come up with your own answers to things. An astronaut told us that the body’s immune system doesn’t work in space, and gosh – we had to dig deep into our own poor wisdom to try to figure out why. My wife and I felt like scientists, trying to answer a question no one knows the answer to.

Above all, I was inevitably forced to spend time with my family. Man alive, the distraction of the internet is certainly a blessing for those who want nothing to do with their loved ones! I’ve been trying to keep a few chapters ahead of where my son and I are in the Redemption of Erâth, just in case one week I don’t write something, but I used them all up because he really, really wanted to know what happened next. At the end of chapter 12, I had to tell him that there actually wasn’t any more yet, and he nearly beat me. As for my wife, I had to share a jacuzzi with her, be sympathetic when she got seasick, eat a dozen chocolate-covered strawberries with her, sing karaoke with her, kiss her, and simply just be with her for seven days straight. Can you imagine?

At first, I was very worried. What was happening at home? What if someone at work really need to get in touch with me, even though I’m not really in charge of anything at all? What if my mom called? What if someone read my blog? What if a groundhog made a nest under the house? What if something really, really unimportant happened somewhere in the world? I wouldn’t be able to answer calls, say thank you to blog likes, take goofy pictures or read all about it on my iPad. I felt lost. But then, an odd thing began to happen. I slowly came to the following realization:

None of it matters.

Nope. Not one bit. Not one single thing in the imaginable universe was more important than spending seven entirely uninterrupted days with my wife and son in the Caribbean. Because you know what? I could always find out when I got back. And if I missed something in the meantime? Well, if it was something so ephemeral it only lasted a week, it probably wasn’t important enough to know about in the first place. If my schedule changed, I’d find out when I got back. If scientists discovered life on Mars, I’d find out when I got back. Hell, if my mother died, I’d find out when I got back.

In the end, of course, I got back. I came back to 101 emails, 91 tweets, 8 Facebook notifications, 66 RSS updates, 3 voice mails and 30 app updates. And you know what?

None of it really mattered.

I feel really happy right now. I don’t think I can live without connection in my working, every day life, but never again will I go on a holiday without turning off, leaving behind or utterly disabling my many devices. It is beyond worth it.