More than a century ago, the British writer E. M. Forster published a parable about the solitary endgame of technological progress. In his story, “The Machine Stops,” the humans of the far future live underground in isolated cells, with all of life mediated through an omnipotent computer—the Machine. In this hive-like complex, Forster writes, “people never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete.” Contact with others is controlled through buttons in one’s cell, which activate Forster’s prescient vision of video calling. He describes how one inhabitant’s room, “though it contained nothing, was in touch with all that she cared for in the world.”
We haven’t climbed inside Forster’s Machine just yet, but Covid-19 and the necessary strategies to contain it have certainly narrowed the sensuous aspects of our lives. Touch—contagion’s fast lane—has become the most ominous of the five senses. Outside the precious seal of the home, every touch must be considered carefully: Do I pick up the basket in the grocery store or stagger quickly around, cradling my canned goods as though they’re a restless baby? Yet we also miss touch’s consolations, all those gentle moments of physical contact. We remember the last person we hugged, unthinkingly, outside a bar or leaving a party, drawn together into unexpected intimacy.
With touch now taboo, other senses are being drafted in to compensate. Visual experiences fill in for tactile ones. Early on in the pandemic, the adult site PornHub made its premium content free for locked-down Italians. The business of porn has always been to convert touch into an audiovisual event, commodifying it in the process. This alchemical conversion is a defining feature of the culture of self-isolation.
In the ideal, computer-modeled lockdown, all touches between different households have been paused. Perhaps what we need in this moment, then, is an archive as capacious as PornHub of touching old footage from film and TV—the Love Actually airport scene, the carnival in Grease, Chandler jumping into Joey’s arms. Any housebound developers with time on their sanitized hands might consider working on an aggregator for platonic affection. PornHug? ForlornHub? Thank you, I’ll be here for the foreseeable future.
In the Covid era, “keeping in touch” is the new touching. There was an arcane time when I said the word “zoom” out loud about once a year, but those days aren’t now. When I teach a virtual class or join a virtual faculty meeting, I brace myself for the almost complete sensory deprivation of the first few Zoom seconds. I’m getting to know that lull, that loud silence of the default muting, before people’s audio feeds kick in, one by one. We wave hello and goodbye—shy gestures that reveal our uncertainty about where we are in space. A wave was developed to attract attention at a distance, and yet, via the webcam, we’re in each other’s faces. So are we far apart or intensely close? The dizzying answer is: both.
For practical reasons, Zoom’s conference settings turn speech into a spectacle. In Active Speaker mode, the person talking floods the visual field; the screen becomes a stage for our temporary overlord. If you choose Gallery Mode, the speaker’s hutch is framed in glowing chartreuse. I’m reminded of William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, in which the group of stranded schoolchildren, literally isolated on a desert island, devise the system of the conch to determine who can speak in meetings. Only the boy holding the shell may make a declaration.
All this seeing and being seen is producing a new kind of fatigue. It’s tiring to be so relentlessly spectacular. Zoom offers some solutions to this visual overload. Virtual backgrounds, which are meant to limit the power of our digital sight, create a shield against the intrusion of professional life into private spaces. Once you’ve loaded up your backdrop, you exist for others in a kind of non-place, somewhere that’s neither your room nor their room. And to give a full retreat into public-privacy, there is the “stop video” option, so that a seminar becomes a conversation between stern movie credits or petrified profile pictures. They say that hearing is the last sense to go.