There is a trope in science fiction that sees the human consciousness divorced from the physical form. Our essence is extracted and allowed to roam free across the net or re-embodied in a robot form. It’s a fascinating but flawed idea.
So much about who we are is connected to our physical form. Our identities are not just software that can run on any hardware. Our brains, isolated from the chemical and electrical processing and information streams from the rest of our bodies, would not still hold the same person.
The separation of body and mind is such a cliche of science fiction – and fantasy, and spirituality before that – that I think we often forget this. We think we are the voice in our own heads and that voice can be freed from the shackles of humanity and exist without the experiences and infrastructure of life around it.
The bandwidth of being there
I think this is part of the reason behind the current over-confidence in the possibilities for remote working. And the recognition of it is behind some of the backlash.
There is something different about being there, in person, with all of your senses engaged. It’s what I called a few years ago, ‘the unbeatable bandwidth of being there‘. What gets transmitted and received through the screen and headset, mediated by a million miles of fibre optic cable, is not the full experience of meeting.
Nor does it allow for all the things that happen around those meetings. I’ve talked at length about the need for peer support, the subtler parts of staff training, and the mutual inspiration that happens when you’re sharing a physical space. But what about all the other stuff?
In light of (ongoing) harassment at work, office romance is a complex topic and one that many HR departments would probably like to ignore. Nonetheless, nearly a fifth of couples in the UK met their partners through work. Romance (almost) inevitably leads to sex, and this is something that also isn’t going away.
Sex is just one of the many human experiences for which there is not, and will not be, replaceable by a digital alternative in the foreseeable future. Yes there is all sorts of sextech. But that’s no more a replacement for human contact than a postcard is for a walk on the beach.
When we are thinking about the future, particularly in light of the ongoing lockdown, we need to remember this.
For me, the starkest loss on the horizon is that of Christmas. I realise this puts me in the deeply privileged camp, when compared to those who have lost friends and relatives, or who are facing the next few months without work. When compared to those who have been isolated alone for much of the last six months.
Christmas is a big thing for me. I don’t see my parents and sibling that frequently. There’s a couple of hours travel between us and we all lead busy lives. But at Christmas we all get together. Like most families, it’s a time for feasting and drinking, lots of chat and plenty of hugs.
The prospect that we might not be able to do that this year has really brought home just how vital that period is to me. And how pale a digital chat is in comparison.
Christmas, eating out, live music, dating, competitive sport, going to the pub, school sportsday. These things are important. They are core to the human experience. Whatever we do to tackle this virus, and the next virus, we need to remember that. We can give them up for a while but eventually, we need them in our lives. Without them, we are like the brain removed from the body. Conscious, perhaps. But not human.