The Body and Technology: Keeping in touch during a pandemic.
We usually associate face-to-face communication with talking to someone in the same physical space and time. Similarly, keeping in touch, or keeping in contact are usually linked to physical bodily presence. Before the covid19 pandemic we had an array of choices about how to communicate. We could meet someone in person, send a text or instant message (IM) or make a phone call to them.
Indeed, prior to the pandemic and UK lockdown we had many conversational opportunities, at cafes, libraries, gyms, workshops or classes. However, during the UK lockdown our opportunities for physical face-to-face contact mainly take place with those who live in our household or those who live in the same neighbourhood. At the same time, mediated communication using Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Skype and House Party have intensified as social contact between family members, friends, colleagues, teachers and students is restricted. Indeed, online communication has been a crucial way of extending our communicative reach during the pandemic.
My research focuses on the ways in which online and offline communications are entwined. Indeed my forthcoming book Digital Reality: The Body and Digital Technologies, explores how digital technologies can supplement rather than replace our physical bodily contact and communication with others. However, in some cases, the increasing use of digital technologies is regarded as having a negative impact upon our bodies. For instance, writer and poet, Diane Ackerman (2014) claims myopia (near sightedness) is increasing due to our usage of digital devices and screen interfaces. She also refers to an emergent condition known as “urban eyes” which is connected to spending a significant proportion of time indoors gazing at screens. Offering an alternative view, technology scholar, Mary Chayko (2017) admits that sedentary lifestyles involving screen-based activities can have a negative impact upon our health. But she also points out that digital devices can be used on-the-move; for instance, virtual reality gaming and augmented reality applications such as Zombies Run! (Naomi Alderman and Rebecca Levene, 2012) and Pokémon Go (Niantic, 2016) combine physical movement with screen-based activities. Furthermore, during the UK lockdown when our bodily movements outside the home have been restricted, fitness coach Joe Wicks has provided online PE sessions and now has 2.45 million subscribers on his YouTube channel.
Our bodies have become a central feature of media coverage of the pandemic, especially in terms of who we contact and the surfaces we touch. In an article in The Guardian, Naomi Klein (2020) refers to the increase of contactless technologies during the pandemic as a way of minimising human interaction. Klein also quotes Anuja Sonalker, CEO of Steer Tech, a company which sells driverless parking systems. According to Sonalker “Humans are biohazards, machines are not.” Sonalker’s claim suggests the human body is tainted and outmoded, ripe for replacement by gleaming clean technological systems and devices. Even so, Sonalker’s quote overlooks the ways in which technological systems are also vulnerable to viruses, hacking and can malfunction.
My research explores representations of the body in contemporary culture (2014, 2020). In doing so, I unearth the ways in which technology is often promoted as a way to transcend the limitations of the human body. For instance, the popular science fiction film Ready Player One (dir. Steven Spielberg, 2018) presents a scenario whereby due to environmental destruction, the majority of human interaction takes place in immersive virtual environments. For many of us, our daily lives during the pandemic have come to resemble Ready Player One, as we study, shop, exercise, seek entertainment and communicate through technologically mediated systems, whilst our bodies remain in one place (at home).
Yet technology is not a way to escape the body, for visions of a technological future, in which human touch is minimised, overlook the ways in which we access technological systems with our bodies, through the movement of our eyes, fingers, wrists, shoulders and so forth. Furthermore, despite all the technological paraphernalia at our disposal during the lockdown, arguably many of us are longing for the day when we can physically meet again.
Senior Lecturer / School of Cultural Studies & Humanities
Melanie Chan completed a PhD on Representations of Virtual Reality in 2007. She is now Senior Lecturer on the BA (Hons) Media, Communication Cultures programme at Leeds Beckett University.