In February, a South Korean television program called Meeting You featured a segment that was devastating to watch. A woman named Jang Ji-sung, who had lost her seven-year-old daughter three years before, was asked to don a virtual-reality kit—goggles, earphones, and gloves—and then stand on a stage, facing cameras, in front of a green screen.
Suddenly, the woman’s daughter, Nayeon, appeared to emerge from behind computer-generated scenery on the screen. Laughing and skipping, the little girl ran up to Ji-sung, who was suddenly choking on tears. Nayeon greeted her, playfully dancing around and talking as her mother bent down and tried to embrace her. Speaking through sobs, Ji-sung told Nayeon how much she loved her, how pretty she looked, and asked if she had been well.
This was one of the most pitiful sights I have ever seen. The mother, of course, was embracing no one. Nayeon was a figment in a hard drive, a CGI animation. Ji-sung was alone on the stage, wrapping her arms around a brushing of photons and pixels—an illusion with a machine-generated timbre for a voice; an algorithm masquerading as the child she had buried in 2017. When the weeping mother knelt down to hold her daughter, she had nothing in her arms but the sterile studio air. At the end of the segment, Nayeon, now projected on screen as being asleep, was transformed into a luminescent butterfly and flew away, leaving Ji-sung shattered.
For the past few months, many of us have been grasping at holograms, too, looking for our lost loves and companions in the maze of a virtual world. We HangOut, Skype, and Zoom, we FaceTime and Facebook, we Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, and e-mail. We interact through the phosphorescent wafer of a glass screen, and when our tele-workday is done, we switch to another, bigger screen to stare at images that don’t require any response from us. And it’s all utterly unsatisfying. Not only are we beset by an alarming pandemic, we also are fighting off a creeping sense of hopelessness—it wears us out to be so terribly alone.
But in fact, we were living in self-isolation long before the coronavirus burst out of Wuhan last December. For years and years, decades at this point, we have been offshoring our lives to cyberspace. We now realize how badly this has hollowed out our souls, which are not mere ghosts in the machine, as we are often told, but rather who we are, the puffed-out sail of the human person moving through the physical world. We thought we could live in both worlds, software and meatware (as the human component of a computer system is called). But it turns out that it’s not so much a both-and as it is an either-or proposition: Are we bodies and souls, or pixels and glass? Can we ever be truly happy if we choose to live as avatars rather than as human persons?
Ours is an age of connectivity, but what is it, exactly, that connects when we video conference across continents and seas? I have participated in more than my share of remote meetings recently, and have seen dozens of nodding busts jostling around in postage-stamp-size rectangles on a glowing screen. Flickering and stuttering like Max Headrooms, blinking in and out as the life-giving WIFI ebbs and flows, these strange visions populate the software platform for twenty minutes, maybe an hour, and then pop back out of existence, virtual particles in a seething quantum field bath between here and not-here. Now I see Jones, now I don’t.
Swaying a momentary shower of electrons is not what people do. People are physical beings. Jones is a person with a body and a soul. She shivers when it’s cold and sweats in July. She hungers and so puts meat and plants into her belly and is satisfied. She thirsts and so pours iced lemonade down her throat and is relieved. Jones needs blankets and pillows to sleep, because, unlike Jones the Zoom parallelogram, Jones the human person does not stick flat against a plane, and does not lie there indifferent in a draft. And when Jones is happy, her heart is light. Her insides tickle when she’s nervous; her face blushes pink when she’s ashamed. She feels sick when she becomes too sad, listless when she’s distraught, empty when she’s alone.
People are not virtual. They don’t exist in the narrow, visible band of the electromagnetic spectrum only, the band through which flit the images on our computer screens. People range across the created universe, taking in the whole world through the senses and the imagination, and storing the intellect’s bounty in memory—memory, which, depending on what we are calling to mind, has the power to pull our lips up into a smile or pinch our brows together into a grimace.
Ji-sung’s first encounter with Nayeon was not computer generated, not even an ultrasound. They first met when Nayeon was all of two cells tall, moving to implant in her mother’s uterine wall, bathing in her warm, nourishing blood. Unlike a virtual particle, Nayeon, the person, was furiously and unambiguously alive from the moment of her conception, loved into life in the crucible of two other human bodies becoming one. Her father embraced her mother when Nayeon was conceived; her mother, with misdirected tenderness, tried to embrace an illusion, long after her daughter had gone to await the resurrection in the body that must—if the universe is not as meaningless as a conference call—be ours to hope for in the end.
This silent spring, this season of lockdown and social distancing, of quarantine and desolation, has taught us many things. But above all, it has shown us that we are human persons, for whom the virtual can never be an acceptable substitute for the real thing. In fact, it doesn’t even come close. Yes, we can be instantly present to one another over wires, but we are virtually nowhere without the bodily company of our fellow human beings.