A strange kind of efficiency has been amplified by the pandemic. It has always been among us, necessary and unwelcome. During our lockdowns, along with masking and social distancing, this has come dangerously close to becoming the norm. As we look forward to a spring and summer without masks or crowd limits, we need to be aware.
The problem was highlighted yesterday when I bumped into an old friend outside of Sweet Life Patisserie. Sweet Life (like so many others) hasn’t offered seated services for the better part of the past two years, so bumping into people on sidewalks has been pretty much our only option to bump into these days .
My friend has spent most of the pandemic feeling lonely and separated from others. In any other city, she would be known as an activist. In Eugene, she is considered an ordinary person. She recently adopted a puppy, which brings her joy despite headlines about war, environmental disaster and economic upheaval.
His partner has been a community organizer since I’ve known him. The pandemic has particularly affected him. He’s always been happiest when he can bring people together for a common cause. But people could not come together, even though the causes have never been more frequent. They suffer but they don’t complain. Others have it worse.
We all share this pain to some degree. We are social creatures. Has the coronavirus caused our pain? Or was it our adaptation to that? Or, even worse, our willingness to accept adaptations as normal?
We’ve relied on computers to give us a sense of connection to others and the world for the past two years. See you on Zoom. We do our banking online. We use our phones to arrange curbside pickup. We trade memes on social media. We train with video partners from our living room. We relax at the end of the day with Netflix.
Computer algorithms can make our movements more efficient, but less human.
This inhuman efficiency must be eradicated. Ask yourself, “Am I relational right now, or transactional?” Is the exchange only about what changes hands, or is it also about the hands and the people connected to them? Transactions can be well defined; the people involved cannot.
The problem with being human is that our deepest needs and values are not easily defined, let alone calculated and tabulated. We are built to be non-fungible.
The efficiency of capitalism would prefer that we all become interchangeable. Then, the different parts can function smoothly, serving the economic whole and the company. We find ourselves richer in pocket, but poorer in spirit. It cannot continue without our permission, which we must fiercely and deliberately refuse.
We see faces all day long, framed in space and time by our screens. They are like humans, but with an “off” button.
Like Plato’s allegory of the cave, the shadows on our screens are all we’ve had for so long that they seem real. But they are not real. They emanate from what is real. Soon we must leave behind the shadowy efficiency of transactions and reacquaint ourselves with the carnal frustrations of relationships.