The Sacred Illusion

If you told me two months ago that today would be the first day of quarantine that I would digitally get pen to paper, two-months-ago-me would have been outraged at quarantine-me. With no competition for my attention, I assumed that every creative pursuit that I’d put off for lack of time would come bursting out of me in a personal Renaissance like Bob Dylan producing The Basement Tapes.1 If Shakespeare wrote King Lear during plague quarantine, surely I could do something during my quarantine.

This tweet made me a neurotic mess for a month.

But my time so far has been a lot less King Lear and The Basement Tapes and a lot more eating mac and cheese, wearing sweatpants and reading 2000 pages of Game of Thrones.2 My unstated assumption before quarantine was that I have this bright star of imaginative creativity burning white hot within me, waiting for everything else in my life to get out of the way so that it could have an unimpeded outlet into the world. But this muse, so independent in concept, has shrunk in proportion with my smaller social life, smaller set of experiences, and generally smaller world. I’ve felt increasingly lethargic and drained as my star of creativity has proven to be more like a generator, where the fuel is relationships and experiences, and the output is activities of greater societal value than eating mac and cheese. I admire the Henry David Thoreaus of the world who can use extended solitude to produce works of brilliance, but despite our similarly terrible facial hair, I don’t think I’ll ever follow in his footsteps. Just sitting down to write this required drinking an inhuman amount of coffee and listening to super loud indie rock to trick myself into thinking that I have energy.

But, if we’re honest, everyone is tricking themselves a great deal during this season. As shelter-in-place rules keep us trapped at home, we’ve taken as many of our beloved relationships and activities as possible online. Happy hours that used to be in bars are now on Facetime; musical performances have moved from concert halls to Instagram; churches meet via Zoom; friends watch movies together at a distance via Netflix. I’ve slotted tons of these digital activities into my calendar in place of their physical, pre-COVID equivalents, and sometimes I spend more time digitally with others than I did physically before quarantine began.

So, why am I so drained? Why am I cancelling video calls with people I miss desperately out of pure exhaustion? Because, despite the fact that we can still connect with others digitally, there’s something fundamentally missing. We desire to actually be together, and technology like video chat promises to give us the togetherness that we so desperately crave. But no matter how connected you feel on that call, sooner or later it ends and you snap back to into your surroundings, realizing that you’re not in a room full of people, but instead at home alone staring at a blank laptop screen.3 In the end, the togetherness you felt was an illusion.

But it’s a sacred illusion — one we desperately need. Similarly to how we suspend our disbelief in magic while watching Harry Potter to allow us to engage with the story, we suspend our disbelief that we’re not actually in the same place as our friends when we call them to allow us to feel the connection we crave. And similarly to how great special effects can make fantastical elements of a movie easier to believe, the radical improvements in digital communications technology over the last few decades has made it much easier to believe that we’re with the people we love as we see their faces streamed to us in glorious, real time 1080p. As quarantine carves a massive hole in the lives of all but the staunchest hermit, the illusion becomes necessary and almost impossible to live without — something sacred, at least in our strange times.

But as we demand more and more of the illusion by moving all of our social events and relationships online, we stretch it to its breaking point. When our deep human need for connection can only be met via Facetime and Zoom, at some point the gap between the promise of physical togetherness and the reality of simulated togetherness grows too large — we’re unable to suspend disbelief anymore and the communication that once gave us energy now saps it.

The Illusion of Digitization

Just like video calling, much of our Internet technology exists to allow us to digitize social activities so that we can conduct these activities in ways we couldn’t before. We’ve digitized going to the store (Amazon), playing games with friends (Xbox Live), attending a performance (Instagram Live), and many forms of work (every knowledge worker working from home right now). All of these digitized experiences require the same illusion as the video call, as our imagination fills the space left by the imperfections that are inherent in taking a physical experience and putting it online. Reddit, for example, is the digitization of local meetup groups. Taking these communities online is incredibly powerful, as it allows people to connect over niche interests with no regard for physical distance. If I’m a part of a group of ping pong enthusiasts on Reddit, I can discuss ping pong, watch videos of matches, or learn about technique seamlessly. But the illusion breaks down when I finally want to find someone to play against. That physical need can’t be met digitally.

Digitizing a physical activity has benefits and drawbacks, but it is always a limited version of the real thing, stripped of some amount of depth and richness.4 This limitation is inherent in digitizing an activity. As a software engineer, one of the first decisions you make when creating a new software product is the decision of how to model your data. This requires deciding exactly what information is going to be stored, how it will be structured and how it will be presented to the user. As a result, when creating a software product to bring a social activity online, certain pieces of information that are present in the physical activity will be left out of your data model by necessity,5 creating a gap between the real activity and the digitized version. As a result, no matter how hard we try, our digital approximations are always incomplete models of their physical counterparts, resulting in the illusion discussed earlier. But, as the famous quote by statistician George Box goes:

“All models are wrong, but some are useful.

Since we’re not going into the office right now, my team at work meets via Zoom. There are aspects I miss about meeting in person that simply are not supported by Zoom’s technology — seeing people’s body language clearly, having side conversations to catch up on the weekend, or eating cookies that someone made over said weekend and brought in to share. In those moments, the illusion is made obvious, and I remember that we’re not together in a conference room in the office. But that’s ok. The most important thing of those meetings is not sharing cookies (sadly), but being able to discuss ideas and make decisions, and Zoom allows us to do that really well. We can share screens, present slides, and discuss freely in a group. The model of a physical meeting is wrong, but incredibly useful.

When we use digitized activities to replace the parts of their physical counterparts that they model well, the illusion holds up. Sure, sometimes screen share freezes at a crucial moment, but generally the Zoom model of collaborative work together is good enough to allow me to suspend disbelief and fully engage in work with my team. The trouble comes when we use the digitized activities to replace things they were never meant to.

The Failed Digitization of Social Life

The weird thing about Zoom fatigue is that, at first glance, it seems like video calls should be a decent approximation of most of my social activities. Social life consists mostly of talking to different people in different places — happy hours, meals and parties are largely just vehicles for conversation. It seems like talking to these same groups of people via video chat should be able to keep me socially afloat for a couple months.

But instead, each video call leaves me more burned out. There have been tons of articles about the phenomenon of Zoom fatigue, all by people that did far more research than yours truly. But I think two interesting threads can be drawn from our discussion of the illusion of digitization that are helpful for understanding our current moment and thinking about what it means for the post-quarantine future.

Digitizing anxiety

First, part of our Zoom fatigue problem is that video calls digitize the wrong part of social interactions. In every conversation of significance, there’s both joy and anxiety to be experienced. We feel joy when we connect with someone else and are able to meaningfully share life with one another. This might look like making a clever joke that only that group understands, being listened to and accepted when sharing about your problems or fears, or expressing feelings about a common experience. We makes us anxious when we feel judged, self-conscious, or not accepted in a conversation. To share life in the ways listed above, we risk exposing our emotions and who we truly are to someone else, which always brings the threat of rejection. If the conversation makes us aware of this threat, we feel anxiety.

Video calls take all the anxiety-provoking parts of conversation and amplify them, while dulling the joyful parts. Spotty connections and other distractions on the other person’s screen can make us feel unheard and uncared for. You can’t make eye contact, a crucial part of building trust. Seeing a video of yourself during the call stokes self-consciousness — I find that I am much more self-conscious of the way I’m being perceived when I can see a video of myself speaking in real time. Latency makes it harder to have flowing, natural conversation that leads to deeper connection. And, most crucially, no matter how connected you feel to the other person, at some point the screen goes black, and you’re snapped back to being alone. Every conversation ends with a sort of involuntary Irish goodbye, which feels deeply uncomfortable.

Video calls promise the world and seem close to the real thing, but often leave us feeling empty. The illusion holds up — it just models the anxiety-provoking part of social life better than the joy-giving part of it. As a result, we long to disconnect and hide from video calls with friends, even though we’re lonely and in need of connection.

A lot of life has this combination of joy and anxiety, which makes me wonder: what if there was technology that amplified the joy part of an experience while dulling the anxiety part? Would it be like the opposite of video calls, where instead of hiding from it, we instinctively gravitate towards it?

WALL-E Fat People

WALL-E scarred my generation of kids, making us think that playing GameCube would make us turn into these people. Maybe it was for the best.

This sounds great (free joy!), but when you think more about it, the result is chillingly similar to the fate of the fat humans from WALL-E.6 These people get all pleasure and no risk — what could be better? And yet, there’s something about responsibility, risk and sacrifice that makes the pleasure of a deep relationship or climbing a mountain or learning a skill much richer and more lastingly meaningful.

The apps we use want to draw us in, so they (indirectly) optimize for a high ratio of dopamine hits to negative feelings,7 resulting in the sort of gravitational pull that services like Instagram have. It’s the opposite of Zoom, offering the positives of the experience of “social life” with none of the negatives. But in reality, this optimized experience of social life also fails to give us lasting joy or fulfillment.

Video games and virtual reality in particular escalate these questions even more. Imagine a VR game that is perfectly optimized to digitize the pleasure of social life with none of the anxiety.8 Is playing a game like that good for us? Considering our addiction to normal games and apps, a game like that could have the gravitational pull of a black hole, where anything that enters never comes out. In some sense, it’s a blessing that our technology is still flawed at modeling the activities in the real world that make us joyful. If the illusion was perfect, we might not return to the real life equivalent at all.9

Our inescapable physicality

Second, even if Zoom perfectly modeled conversation, creating the perfect illusion for every non-physical aspect of talking to a friend, our social interactions would still be deeply impoverished. No matter how well we digitize experiences, the physical nature of our humanness is essential.

We are inescapably physical. We often think of ourselves as having a body, but we are our body — there’s no you without your physical body. And as physical beings, our needs for friendship, community and love are physical needs as much they are emotional needs.

Jesus, my role model, understood this. When you read about the way he cares for people in the Bible, it’s usually in a deeply physical way, which can be counterintuitive for a guy who is supposed to be super spiritual. When Jesus heals sick or disabled people, he always reaches out and touches them — even the contagious lepers who are shunned physically by their community. He shares meals with all kinds of people, he lets kids climb all over him, he makes food for hungry people to meet their physical needs. He gets down on his knees and washes the dirty feet of his followers the night before his (very physical) death. Unlike our common perception of a spiritual teacher considering himself above the physical, Jesus enters into the physical reality of life, meeting people’s needs physically as well as spiritually and emotionally.

Furthermore, the belief that Jesus was the human embodiment of God demonstrates the necessity of the physical for deep connection and relationship. If we were primarily minds with a body, there’s no reason God could not have just beamed information or experiences to people’s brains instead of becoming a physical person. But to truly connect with physical people, he needed to enter the physical world and care for people physically. The incarnation of Jesus shows the fundamental importance of the physical in relationships.

We all deeply miss the physicality of our relationships in this moment. We spend a lot of time talking, but the ways that we care for each other physically matter just as much — a hug, sharing food, eye contact, singing together, throwing a frisbee. It might be obvious, but there’s something to physical presence that is not and cannot be captured by a video camera and a screen. Our digital substitutes for physical presence are good, and despite burnout, I’m thankful for the ability to see the faces of my friends and family to help ease the social pain of quarantine. But we need the physical, with all of its messiness and danger and inconvenience, and I’m hopeful that when we get it back soon enough, it will taste a little bit sweeter having known its absence.

Huge thanks to Johnny Rodriguez, whose encouragement to start writing again helped me to shake off my quarantine lethargy long enough to work on this. He’s one of the many friends I can’t wait to see in person again.


1. If you don’t know the Basement Tapes story, the Wikipedia is worth a read. I wanted to reference Justin Vernon’s mythical story of recording For Emma, Forever Ago alone in his father’s hunting cabin in Wisconsin, but that was even more obscure than the Bob Dylan reference and I forced myself to settle for linking it in the footnotes for the curious.

2. Which, to be clear, I do not regret in the slightest.

3. Another language must have a hyperspecific word for the abrupt disorientation you feel when a Zoom meeting ends and you go from feeling like you’re surrounded by people to realizing that you’re alone.

4. There is also emergent behavior from digital systems that are simplified versions of physical ones, resulting in entirely new and unique interactions that weren’t possible in the physical world. One example is rickrolling — the simple technology of hyperlinking, which originally modeled the practice in physical books of citing other works, was able to be combined with one iconic internet video to create a prank that isn’t possible in the physical world. Emergence is fascinating but I will completely derail myself if I start down that path and there’s only so much indie rock on my playlist, so I will leave it for another day.

5. These could be left out for any number of reasons — data might be technologically impossible to capture or intentionally not stored because of privacy concerns. But most data is just plain useless. Think of how many useless things you see daily — you probably forget most of them the moment you see them. Now imagine trying to store all of them in a useful way. It’s impossible, which is why making wise decisions about what is important enough to store as a part of your data model is so important.

6. My outline of this article verbatim says “somehow include WALL-E”. I think the reference fits, but even if it didn’t, this image was going to be a part of this article no matter what. WALL-E is a timeless film.

7. This is egregiously oversimplified — for example, some algorithms, like Facebook’s, indirectly optimize for outrage because it also leads to high engagement with content. If you’re interested, the Center for Humane Technology’s podcast Your Undivided Attention is a great place to learn more about apps, algorithms and attention.

8. In my imagination, this is just like an ultra-immersive, virtual reality version of Animal Crossing.

9. At some point, continuing with this thinking will result in rewriting the script to The Matrix, and that series has already had more than enough sequels.