Buffering virtual relationships

Ayushi Jain
May 19, 2020 · 4 min read

How are some of my relationships stifling in virtual space while others continue to grow? Can social theory give some clues into designing work-spaces and the world as virtual collaboration is being embraced?

Sometime in March, our lives turned inside-out or rather all inside. From the confinements of our homes, we struggled to make sense of how we were going to live. Thrown into digital ways of being and communication, almost all of our social interactions were happening through our many smooth glowing screens. As we struggled to grapple with this sudden change, we learned how to better use these new tools to communicate with one another and sustain our relationships.

When classes shifted online, I found myself thrown into a virtual classroom environment. The nuanced exchanges that would have been possible in a physical space — the little nod or a quick comment — were all lost in the mediated environment of Zoom. These otherwise insignificant conversations that I shared with strangers and acquaintances were suddenly all removed from my day-to-day. I could feel the void of white noise. This disruption made me aware of how much I relied on the quiet grunts and puffs, the silent nods and feelings of warmth and anticipation, or even unrest, to build a ‘sense of the room’ and navigate these social interactions. The core emotional interests of the room got lost in the digital transmission. It became challenging to read the mood of the Zoom room. Moreover, during these virtual meetings, I found myself often preoccupied with what to say next. What were the expectations of the other students? Was anyone else going to speak? In a physical classroom, this ‘information’ was readily available to me, yet I struggled to process it over this new virtual medium.

While my digital communications with acquaintances suffered, my relationships with close family and friends online continued to thrive. As someone living away from home, I’ve grown used to embracing digital communication to sustain my relationships for a long time now. And against what one would assume, my interpersonal relationships largely continued to thrive. I wondered how my mother would sometimes understand my mood without me explicitly expressing it. Sometimes an old friend would know just with the “tone” of my text if I wasn’t doing alright. If virtual communication lacked this sensitivity, how was this possible? And if I could share these deep relationships with my loved ones virtually, why was it so difficult to do the same with strangers?

Philosopher Merleau Ponty’s theories may provide a clue. In his book, Phenomenology[1] of Perception, he explores the nature of perceptual contact with the world. He argues that both traditional Empiricism[2] and Rationalism[3] are inadequate in describing how we perceive the world. Perception is not purely sensation, nor is it purely interpretation. It is an embodied experience where both psychological and physiological aspects overlap and influence each other. He emphasized that consciousness and the body that perceives cannot be disentangled from each other.

In simple words, the way we perceive the world is informed by our conscious knowledge and understanding of each other and layered by the sensory inputs we get during our interactions. My mother and old friends held a deep understanding of me that had been built over the years. They were able to make judgments based on this psychological understanding combined with little sensory inputs like my facial expressions or the tone of my voice. However, my acquaintances had little or no knowledge of me as a person so our disembodied virtual communication only made it more difficult for us to understand each other on a deeper level. New relationships suffered more under this fragmented sensory input.

Twitter recently declared that its employees are going to continue to work remotely for years to come. They reported enhanced productivity of employees during this period of working-from-home. This move is being dubbed as an early adopter of a trend that more organizations are likely to follow.

Having deep understandings of ourselves and each other becomes difficult when building new relationships virtually. However, the current environment is pushing us to embrace it. Perhaps the way forward is not either/or, but one where we can find ways of supplementing our digital communication with a strong conscious understanding of each other.

What is yet to be discovered is how the workplace will be re-imagined to allow for social relations to develop if most people continue to work remotely. While we embrace these new ways of being, we must not overlook the psychological and physiological impacts like social isolation will have on our lives. How must we organize our future societies to design for virtual, yet meaningful and deep relationships??

[1] Phenomenology is defined as the philosophical study of the structures of experience and consciousness.

[2] Empiricism claims that experience is the primary source of knowledge, and that knowledge is derived from sensory perceptions.

[3] Rationalism maintains that there are significant ways in which our concepts and knowledge are gained independently of sense experience.

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