Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “A day without learning is a day wasted” so today I have tried to draw some lessons from the strange circumstances that we now find ourselves in. As I look to pass my 100th day in lockdown and working from home, there are five strong messages that have become apparent to me.
Continuity of work
Although my work has a different dynamic these days, it has continued relatively smoothly in my new office environment at home. Much of my work was already in the online environment, with email communications, videoconference meetings, and discussing web-based resources with distance-learners. In this new situation, I am aware that I have been luckier than many others, but I am also aware that lots of my regular work colleagues are in a similar position to me. We have swapped the financial and time costs of commuting to work with the extra costs and time spent at home. We may miss interaction in the same physical space, but there have been some amazing and innovative ‘workarounds’ that have brought some groups closer together, extended networks, and enabled a ‘new normal’ form of work to continue with scarcely a blip.
The global shift to online
After a faltering start, it has been impressive how many individuals, businesses, organisations, and services have quite comfortably shifted their activities into the online environment. In addition to my work with the university, I have been impressed by my recent personal experiences in interacting with the HNS, with Third Sector voluntary organisations, and with retail shops and outlets that previously did very little, if anything, using the online environment. Even the government is having its fling with business-as-usual-at-a-distance. Some would no doubt never have made such a move unless they had been forced into it, but many have discovered that there are real benefits to working online, including greater geographical inclusion, cost-saving in travel requirements, asynchronous viewing of missed meetings, and so on. How many of these newly realised benefits will continue to be pursued after lockdown ends and some sort of pre-COVID19 reality returns remains to be seen?
A fortunate space
In the offline world, there are also revelations. A rural environment, in particular, the Isle of Lewis, (and even my specific village) has long been my preferred bastion of retreat. The necessary restrictions of social distancing and locked-down premises, has brought into sharp focus the many benefits of living in a beautiful, safe, and spacious personal location. If I have to withdraw temporarily from the world and ‘self-isolate’, I cannot think of anywhere that I would prefer than precisely where I am now. I realise, of course, that a great many people do not have that option, and I wonder to what extent this realisation, in combination with the previous point on shifting possibilities for distance-working, will mean that we might see a renaissance in thinking about rural areas as ‘the place to be’ once things eventually begin to settle down. Certainly, the flight of some urbanites to the safety of their rural homes might be a sign of things to come. The rural idyll is dead, long live the rural idyll.
The intensity of connectivity
Nevertheless, despite all of the benefits of being able to buy online, work online, communicate online, and more or less continue life with some veneer of normality (whatever that was) there are gains and losses in the current iteration of normality. Although I am accustomed, indeed habituated, to email communications and videoconference discussions, the present emphasis on these options and these options only, can take its toll. I am fortunate to have a distinct study-place, but its proximity to the bedroom, kitchen, garden, and the croft outside, means that I need to be more disciplined and more regulated in my distinction between work and play. This is difficult for a person whose job is interesting and whose idea of fun is what they are already paid to do for a living. As the lockdown continues, I see growing frustration and (say it gently, but say it) mental health issues in some of my colleagues. Across a table, there is some physical distancing, but when the computer screen is barely 30cm from you, the person on the video-link ranting on their personal soapbox is literally in your face. The interconnectivity of the internet, despite it now becoming recognised as a great leveler and all-encompassing source of information (not all good), means that whenever I end a meeting, somebody, somewhere else, knows that I am ‘free’ and seeks to make contact. A strict self-policing of my ‘availability’ needs to be implemented!
The darker side of social media
Despite being an enthusiastic, (no, that’s not correct) an atavistic user of succinct social messaging (i.e. Twitter) I have recently experienced, much to my surprise, (after 40 years of online activity) some of the unsavory aspects of ubiquitous online accessibility. My simple response to an incorrect post led (with frightening alacrity) to a spate of online messages pointing out the error of my ways. It didn’t matter that the (perhaps, positively intentioned) people posting those messages know nothing about me, or that they obviously had only read part of the (very short) post. Undoubtedly there were some naïve comments and some genuine misunderstandings that would normally have been speedily resolved, but there were also some pretty nasty Trolls. The frustration of not being able to set the record straight, the disinclination to throw oil on the fire by responding, and an almost physical revulsion to some of the posts, was a strange combination. I can truly empathise with people who have been the subject of online abuse, false accusations, and spiteful comments. Subsequently, a subject expert (unknown to me) wrote a post to substantiate my original point, but the damage had been done. Now reaching for my mobile phone has a hesitancy that was not present previously when I went to check-up on comments from my friends and colleagues. Do I block these Trolls? No, for the present I simply ignore them, for I am very comfortable in my own skin and among those who actually know me. It has, however, presented a distasteful glimpse of the future online that is every bit as unacceptable as racism, misogyny, civic violence, sectarian bigotry, and the fascist intolerance of political diversity.
Welcome to the new normality.