How I survived the Zoom-bie apocalypse: 2020 offered (virtual) front row seats to everything we wanted to see

For every closed door this year, a window opened virtually.

Kusumita Das December 29, 2020 11:36:00 IST
How I survived the Zoom-bie apocalypse: 2020 offered (virtual) front row seats to everything we wanted to see

Illustration © Satwik Gade for Firstpost

This essay is part of a series examining how the screen shaped our experiences of work, leisure, socialising/connections, the outdoors, outreach/activism, learning, record-keeping in 2020.

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People got to do and not do many things in the year 2020. But this was the year that I chose to move to a new country. That was of course (what now seems like) two seconds before 2020 became 2020 — the new and updated version of Murphy’s Law that no one saw coming. On the very day I moved into my new home in Israel, the headlines announced an indefinite lock-down. And thus began my ‘new country’ experience. First, looking out of my window at the swaying maple trees, their leaves dripping wet in the winter rains, and then looking inward, not into my soul, but into my phone and computer, that were slowing down due to multiple open tabs of boredom.

Among the many lessons that 2020 taught me, was that few things change human behaviour quicker than unadulterated, uninterrupted and compulsory boredom.

As hidden singers and painters and mandala creators and banana bread-makers began to emerge on my Instagram feed, I was also turning into a new person. Not necessarily improved, but new; unknown to the previous me. I was finishing four web series in a month instead of one, I was no more offering excuses to avoid video calls with friends and family, I was downloading dubious gaming apps on my phone, and I signed up for Hebrew classes on something called Zoom. What on earth is Zoom? Oh was I going to find out!

Soon my weeks began to revolve around a virtual whiteboard where I first learned to decipher the hitherto alien Hebrew letters. Prior to 2020, I don’t think they ever bothered with teaching the Hebrew words for “isolation” and “lockdown” and “quarantine” to the beginners’ batch. But, here we were, the class of COVID-19 . There were people from China and Spain and Germany and France and more cities around the world, united by a screen, in this magic room called Zoom, learning the trending Hebrew words for survival in 2020, among other things. We watched videos, played online flash cards, listened to music, sat in private chat rooms, and even made a cooking video in this all-new classroom. Yes, I made a video on how to cook dal palak, in Hebrew. My text-over-call, call-over-video-call self had died and resurrected on a screen near me.

Also in this seriesVirtual fatigue, virtual joy: In 2020, the screen was a door that opened onto experiences both welcome and exhausting

While I felt deeply betrayed by the coronavirus for shamefully shallow reasons, in some ways I was slowly beginning to see some positives — although, I’m not entirely sure if it was the kind of glass-half-full mindset that manifests when one is left with no choice. But, I was beginning to see the good in how accessible things were becoming. In a normal world, I don’t think I’d have managed to attend a film festival and a local symphony orchestra in the same week, with little or no cost, within two months of moving to a new country. For starters, mustering the confidence and the basic know-how of negotiating a completely Hebrew territory, right from taking the bus to making myself understood at the ticket windows, would have taken me months. So, it did feel quite surreal watching the Jerusalem Symphony Orchestra perform, as I sipped adrak chai, lounging on my couch, in the most unpresentable and comfortable attire imaginable.

Through seasons of full lockdown and semi-lockdown all year, the new country opened up little by little for me, on a 15-inch screen.

My virtual calendar filled up as I went on walks in the Old City of Jerusalem, navigated the shuks, found new love for Hebrew cinema and TV series, attended webinars on Israeli-Palestine conflict, toured a holocaust museum, heard talks by holocaust survivors, and even managed to attend a holocaust survivors’ Hanukkah party. It was a lot more than I could have bargained for, offline. For every closed door this year, a window opened virtually. And 2020 made me realise that the virtual world is nothing if not a great equaliser — we all have front row seats to everything we want to see.

Towards the latter half of the year, some things came a full circle too. I found myself using my Zoom learnings as a Hebrew language student to teach English to a class of 12 adults at an NGO. One of these days, I might just ask them to make their own cooking video. A year ago, if someone had told me I’d be learning Hebrew and teaching English, all on a virtual platform, I’d not have placed much stock on their powers of prescience. Look how that turned out. As a person who has always turned her nose up on all things online, this year sure made me eat humble pie. I even read e-books now, and I don’t miss “the feel of turning the pages” anymore — a Kindle-d soul, if you will.

For many of us, 2020 has been a Kafkaesque year — like a house of cards in front of an open window on a stormy night. And there are many arguments to be made for and against the Zoom-bie apocalypse. But every time you feel like complaining — and with good reason perhaps — think of the small joys. Like for all the times you wished there was a mute button on someone — this is the year that made it happen.

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