Virtual fatigue, virtual joy: In 2020, the screen was a door that opened onto experiences both welcome and exhausting
2020 is the year we lost. For those lucky enough to stay inside, it has been a year of diminished experiences.
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.
It’s called dimensional transcendence: the property of being bigger than you appear from the outside. Like the TARDIS, the telephone box on Dr Who that doubles as time machine/spacecraft. It is especially astonishing given that there are very few TARDIS-like things in the universe.
When I was growing up, we had one computer per home. There was precisely one boxy PC per household (if you were lucky), that you could use to Get Online. Getting online was a tedious process, and often required us to kick our parents off the phone. But even with the trouble, it was quickly apparent that the unwieldy PC was a miracle. Although I couldn’t do much more than listen to slowly-buffering YouTube videos or chat to possible internet pervs in various chatrooms, I knew I was witnessing an object that held much, much more than it seemed capable of.
Public sentiment is that millennials are ungrateful for the things we have been given.
“We live in an amazing, amazing world, and it’s being wasted on the crappiest generation of spoilt idiots,” said Louis CK on an episode of a late-night talk show. While unpleasant and trite, his old uncle shtick is not entirely unfair. How dare millennials be frustrated at the slowness of our iPhones? We had the unthinkable privilege of holding the sum of human knowledge in the palm of our hands — why didn’t we do more with it?
It’s a question I’ve been asking myself this year. I imagine I’m not the only one guilty of good intentions.
When it first occurred to me that COVID-19 was not going to be over in a matter of weeks, I thought about what I could do with that time. I had, after all, the gift of technology. I had screens. And therefore I made resolutions.
I would improve myself in this hellish year. I would learn things and practise things and give myself the gift of proficiency in cooking. I would subscribe to a platform like MUBI and watch foreign films instead of the parade of glossy Netflix shows that seemed designed to be nothing more than background noise. With high-speed internet, the sky was the limit — should I look into CultFit? Candle-making tutorials? Coding? There were so many things to learn and to perfect in this time. I could do anything!
This newfound enthusiasm had the shelf-life of an internet crush, or a particularly persistent cold. It was dead inside a fortnight. (Turns out I didn’t like chopping onions before each meal as much as I liked the idea of myself as someone who chopped onions before each meal.)
Remember that month where we all baked bread? It only lasted a month for most of us.
This, then, was the problem with self-improvement. You could do things — lose weight, clean your home, knit Christmas sweaters — at a blistering pace, as long as you had a set end date. Human beings can keep going only when we know we can eventually stop.
Because there was no clear end to the pandemic in sight, I ran out of steam. I lost focus.
The screen itself grew to be a chore. I looked at it day and night without stopping. (My phone screen; my laptop screen; my TV screen. I had measured out my life in screens.) I had Zoom hangouts that felt awkward because nobody had visual cues for when somebody else wanted to speak. I attended virtual gigs, because I had loved going out pre-pandemic. I searched for something that could replace the feeling of standing on the edge of a crowd; swaying gently to lush drumbeats with a well-made drink in hand. I tried to recreate that feeling as best I could by listening to live streams on weekend nights, but it wasn’t quite the same. No, it wasn’t the same.
2020 is the year we lost.
For those lucky enough to stay inside, it has been a year of diminished experiences. Of canceled grad-school plans, of deferred travel plans and small-screen movies. And yet — precisely because my terrain is so much flatter than it used to be — I am aware of each moment when life broke into something much richer and deeper than before.
Watching blurry videos of workers all over the country chant in solidarity with the farmers’ protest. Witnessing the unforgettable silence of a locked-down capital city for three weeks.
The first day it turned cold; the day I brought out the Christmas tree — the relief of knowing that time was inexorable and still flowing forward.
Other things: participating in a brunch with drag queens from Lisbon for my brother’s birthday. Marathoning all the Jurassic Park movies in a day with my partner, feeling as giddy as children. Reading classics like Moby-Dick for the very first time, on my ebook reader. Feeling the weight of my body as it bent toward its yoga mat; listening to the graceful voice of the yoga instructor. There had been virtual joy as well as virtual fatigue.
This year, I also read the fantasy novel Piranesi, by Susanna Clark. The narrator is a simple young man trapped in a heavenly place: a kind of lush labyrinth of waterfalls and seas from which he never wishes to escape. Like Narnia, it is accessible from our world through a door.
Sometimes, screens are doors. Sometimes they have the property of dimensional transcendence, and sometimes they don’t. The trick is in knowing which is which, but also in knowing that transcendence is possible at all. What a gift.
Priya-Alika Elias is a lawyer, feminist writer, and the author of Besharam (Penguin, 2019). She tweets @priya_ebooks
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