BY E.M. FORTIER
“I created the OASIS because I never felt at home in the real world. I didn’t know how to connect with the people there. I was afraid, for all of my life, right up until I knew it was ending. That was when I realized, as terrifying and painful as reality can be, it’s also the only place where you can find true happiness. Because reality is real.” – Ernest Cline, Ready Player One, character James Halliday
In Ernest Cline’s book Ready Player One, the premise is that humans live their physical lives on earth while living their social and emotional lives in an alternate virtual world called The OASIS. I’ve been pondering whether we too will soon realize that we have faltered into a false sense of normalcy in a virtual reality of our own making. While people argue and debate whether children should return to school this Fall, they seem to be missing something. Regardless of when or how they go back, none of the options are for the schools to be the same as they were prior. This is a new reality and to hide behind “remote learning” or “hybrid learning” as “the new normal” is markedly wrong because normal means it is something we are used to, something we know how to handle. No matter how often the students see their teachers on a screen or how many times per day there are messaging exchanges between students and staff, these virtual accommodations are not the same. And they do not fully meet the emotional or social needs of the students or the staff.
Why can we not just embrace that these times have changed the whole landscape of life and that we will behave differently? Why are the institutions that purport to be there to serve mental and emotional and social needs of people so quick to place technology as equal to the personal. Why are the expectations of life the same though the life we are living is so markedly different?
There is nothing wrong with technology itself; in fact there are great advancements and enhancements in living that come from technology. There is nothing wrong with enjoying all the escapes from reality that technology can bring, such as playing the next installment of a beloved video game or watching a show or movie. I can tell you as someone who lives thousands of miles away from my home of origin, technology has been a true blessing in keeping in contact with friends and family.
Yet, for all the great blessings technology has given us these past four or so months, it cannot be said to be a true replacement or substitute. A teacher meeting his or her students on google hangouts for a half hour a day is wonderful but it isn’t the same as in a classroom where you can see their faces, where you can overhear their little (or not so little) voices as they overflow with emotion and thoughts and hopes and dreams without even realizing they are doing so. Being on the other end of a video conference with a victim’s family to tell them the news of a case isn’t the same as being able to breath the same air of the courthouse steps and to feel the palpable emotions emitting from two feet away. To hold in your memory the color of the deepest blue sky, and the fluffy clouds that you both gazed at when speaking to someone before meeting eyes again and to see in those eyes every emotion – that isn’t the same as sitting in your dining room while video conferencing with them sitting in their kitchen.
When we say “things will be different” we need to realize that those words mean something. It isn’t “the same as before but just virtual.” We must realize that different can be worse and we need to make a concerted effort to do right by ourselves and those in our lives. We don’t live in the world of yesterday, we live in the reality of today and with the unknowns of a tomorrow.