And so this is Xmas, and the Covid is here …

December 15, 2020 § Leave a comment

We do not know exactly what we have lost due to the forced re-arrangement of work, distant care and studying at home. It is a new and complex human, technological and social problem. Here I suggest a few simple ideas, perhaps self-evident and conservative. I’m a ‘digital aboriginal’ and know that the net is full of suggestions on how to use the digital paradise for any possible purpose. However, here I take the opposite approach and encourage you to chain the power of technology, with human chains.

This may sound as an extremely conservative and old-fashioned approach (I’m indeed 73), but it can serve as a looking glass for magnifying the human and social problems we now experience. Some of them are frequently discussed in the media, typically as symptoms while very little is offered to se to their deeper nature. I hope this can inspire to think, how to best enjoy and benefit from the coming holidays, a break in the psychological isolation during the pandemia.

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New normal or new pathology?

You would think that by now we know how the pandemia has impacted the homes and families and it will continue doing so. Browsing through a flood of news on it, the scope of the problem still seems to be underestimated. What does it mean that families and homes have, for the first time in modern history, become the true nodes of the huge, newly organized global network of communication and work?

Nothing like this has been experienced before, not even during the times of war. Bombarded by warnings concerning social distancing we try to protect each other from infection and it has had its human costs. Now it’s time to think how to use the coming holidays for rest, recovery, recharging and getting ready to survive the coming 6 to 9 months. I have taken a somewhat unconventional look at the role of technology in guiding and controlling what we do: modern communication technology is to blame and it will not let us loose during xmas and holidays unless we decide to control it in a human way.

What we have missed due to the pandemia? How has it impacted our behavior? There would be too much to say about this, and I focus on a few, often forgotten aspects of it that are now relevant during the holidays but even this is only a sample.  Recognizing these can perhaps help us rest, recover and share the joys of the holiday and xmas time.

Stop, take a break in the use of mobile and other communication devices at home.

Hundreds of millions of homes and families in US and Europe alone have been touched by the new work arrangements and social distancing. It has been an absolute transformation in home logistics, use of space, ways of daily communication, commuting, timing of activities, matters of family discussions and negotiations and even rest. The invisible hand guides this new mode of living with the communication technology we use for care, work, communication and socializing. Not a minute is lived without the demanding presence of this modern force.

Reaching for the best in human rest, socializing, interaction, being present and in love, we must become sensitive to the objective effects that technology has on the precious moments of our life. We have adapted to these social practices, especially during the Covid and as a result, it is not easy to see the indirect consequences of even the best network technologies. Not many see that this as a serious failure in the (human) design of technology, but this is the essence of it. Of course, not all technology uses carry or hide a social disaster, but there is more hidden damage than has been recognized.

The invisible power of digital technology at homes

The pandemia has forced us to communicate in a continuous ‘rational mode’ where the priority is to get things done, to survive in whatever we do, and to be available even when we are not physically visible. We have been advised to use technology in a reasonable, human and social way, even limit the use, but everyone knows how difficult it is.

In the active distance work mode, we don’t always feel the stress, because it is actually a fight mode. Only after the work we become aware of the consequences of this and feel the psychological aftereffects of continuous electronic presence. This is not far from the situation at war fronts where the soldiers had to be available and ready to react,  at any time.

Many suffer from an unusual or new form of tiredness after work. Week-ends have become an extra relief to this continuous strain if one is wise enough to live them so, but if the continuous presence and interrupts continue even then, there is not enough healthy rest and recovery becomes impossible. True, some have benefitted from the distancing, being relieved from the stress of long-distance, daily commuting and the extra two hours have been valuable. Many say that meetings have become more efficient, but these can be short-term effects.

Survival has its invisible price

In Finland I have seen how quite a few firms have been successful in dealing with the distancing. As a nation, we have a good history in technology use and were able to move fast – in March – to the distance arrangements of work, entertainment and education. As a result, some may entertain the illusion that we ‘just did it as before’ and the firm performance survived, and we even managed well during the exceptional times.  I don’t have data on this, but some of my observations suggest that people have invested a lot of extra work and time for keeping up the pre-pandemia performance level. Here our traditional working ethos and values serve this well.

A major part of the critical distant activity occurs outside normal organizational vision – at homes –  but it can be the de facto force and resource that has led to survival. Usually when the personnel show exceptional performance it can be rewarded in one way or another. But how to reward for a work, which does not necessarily mean improved performance but only a reasonable survival in very difficult conditions? There is no standard way to do this and research will tell us more about such situations. Before the holidays, firms could remember this and be aware of the value of any signs and symbols of gratitude for what the personnel and their families have done. Further, why not reward each other at homes and families for what we have done. No doubt, we will soon have research data on these invisible human resources and commitment.

Displays, keyboards, VR and headphones have a new meaning and all of it is not good

A year ago, when a mother, father or another family member put on headphones, or even VR glasses, it was a sign of modern work, even somewhat exciting and futuristic. Children knew that father or mother, dressed in these gadgets, would be back to normal in an hour or so. Today, the same episodes have a new powerful meaning: it’s about serious human and social distancing, perhaps several hours and the imperative of not to disturb. Any child, spouse or friend now experiences it, stronger than ever before.  It happens all day long. We are all sensitive to this social deprivation, separation and isolation.

For a child the experience of psychological distance from a parent is painful. It will be associated with any visible context of these situations, which in this case consists of the technology used, the home office arrangements and social practices. These disturbing experiences can then be triggered every time the familiar, threatening context becomes active – a warning that the parent will be ‘gone’ again. Of course, children adapt to this and parents try to do their best to care and react to the needs of their children but it is not easy. Adults can suffer from similar pains although its roots are then more difficult to see: we have our own different (difficult) near and far histories in how we have been isolated or distanced and what it has meant to each of us.

During the holidays we can launch a totally different behavior mode, based on true and continuous social-physical presence. To achieve this, it is time to take distance from the pandemia’s distance behavior and its automatic routines.  We can put technology with its constraints and new symbolism aside and become captivated by our love ones, children, friends, and the family, with the same intensity that captivates us during a meaningful work. This is meaningful now.

My guess is that new forms of neurosis are emerging from the pathological socio-technological family situations, and not only among children. The holiday is a perfect place to correct and avoid this, but it does not happen automatically. It means abandoning some if not most of the ways we use technology at work and even for entertainment. After the holiday we will continue the distance-work mode again, of course, but we might have learned something new for the holiday experiments and experiences. When we are together with friends and the family, seeing each other avoiding the use of technology is a significant event and we enjoy the feeling of intentional presence, the shared commitment to each other, something we now need, perhaps more than ever. We might even come up with human-social innovations that could help us in the future distance work.

Share the classic and traditional moments

We have the tradition to buy, or if possible, to fetch the xmas tree from our own land, from the summer cottage, for example.  It is a wonderful, traditional moment, almost a holy routine, full of serenity and joy. Kids love it and would also enjoy making a video of it, to share it with (distant) family members and friends. It will be something to remember already next year, perhaps signified by our new symbols like the mask and the lack of grandparents’ presence. We can share the joy of surviving and reuniting when we then view these mementos next year, together, healthy.

We once arranged for a dinner with our distant friends, a couple, and had made an exact plan what menus and wines we would each have, on both sides of the virtual connection, identical in every single detail. Creating such a shared ‘context’ was fun and we enjoyed the expereince and the preparations immensely. The point being that whenever, over the dinner, we discussed the food, wine, atmosphere, and other services we had, we knew immediately what it was about and could join each other’s experiences. Today, you can pre-order identical xmas meals for you and your grandparents, for example, or for other willing relatives and friends to share with them virtually. Many of us have excellent audio and large displays so setting up such an occasion can be extra fun. Kids and teens love it, they can be the directors.

Give life to what you have missed the most 

Probably the most disturbing effect in the use of home office for distance work has been the continuous and visible isolation of the loved ones and other family members. It is a very natural psychological phenomenon: we have learned what it means when someone goes to work or out of our own sensory reach and we adapt to it without any effort or pain.  When someone is physically present but psychologically away, we can feel the disturbing impact; this relates back to our early childhood and to the presence of a secure parent. In case of serious mental disorder or Alzheimer, for example, it can be a tragedy. The psychology is now here.

The display of a laptop or a mobile phone captures a person’s vision and gaze, ear phones block the audio, and the keyboard and mouse declare the lap a forbidden personal space. This is a no-brainer: don’t let this happen during the holidays. Cherish and protect the ‘holy moments of presence’ and behave accordingly. Many if not most of us have become addicted to the continuous use and browsing of our mobile devices and it takes extra commitment to put the gadgets aside and rearrange the human and social priorities. For children this not easy at all and a good plan, for everyone to follow, is needed. It’s about the kind of family drama we want to build and direct. It is best achieved when we all work for it together. Mechanic rules and instructions spoil the joy. If we continue as before, forgetting the souls of each other, the technology will determine the drama.

Has work conquered the holy spaces of your home?

The talk of the bedroom can be work, it’s outcomes, problems and colleagues. If this is happening to you:

Bedroom, you have a problem!

Today, this is more probable than ever before. Long days, the unpredictable tomorrow, the continuous mental presence and distance of colleagues and trying to guess their views, feelings and moods, all these lead to the need to deal with them somehow, to talk about them. They will then find any free place at your home unless you decide not to let them invade there at will.

Imagery can help: imagine all the stuff and people conquering your bedroom and what it feels like to try to relax and rest in the middle of it all. What would be their right to do so? Then, there are people whose ghosts indeed have nothing to do in your bedroom or anywhere else at your home, especially during the best of times like holidays. It’s good to arrange for a private closure and open the home psychologically for the things, topics and themes dear to you, to your spouse, friends or children.

Read a book or comics – it liberates

Book is not a gadget. It is easy to handle, it does not close you out from the environment and it is easy to stop, put aside to wait for the next suitable moment. A book is an absolutely open device, an ideal one really. There are no personal secrets hiding on the book pages. You can give it to anyone to enjoy. It does not surprise you with something that does not belong to the story. You can read it aloud to your friends and love ones and see them join the story and experience their enjoyment. When you are quiet and read a book, everyone around you knows what you are doing and even thinking. Even if you cannot hear what others are saying when you read an exciting chapter, they will know what keeps you so immersed and they can enjoy that, too. With mobile devices, the same situation becomes social guessing, what might be going on? It can be anything, but it is not known.

Take a swift lesson on not-reading during xmas

You can spoil your own and others’ feelings and kill the pleasures of a feast in a minute by falling into the traps of social media. Make a good plan on how and what not-to-read. Why – isn’t it our everyday practice already and for sure it’s about media literacy? No. It’s about the mental content you want to introduce to and let flourish in your mind and in the minds of your close ones, especially now when it’s time to rest, a time for a holiday and xmas.

You decide how you furnish your mental space using – or not using – the social media which has become a necessity during the pandemia. This is not ‘toxic positivity’, it’s a way to avoid something you know is harmful, paints your private world black, invites conflicts and which always carries over minutes, hours and even days on your mind. It makes you what you are during the coming precious moments and what is worse, your close ones don’t know what is ‘eating’ you.

Some of us have difficult and problematic times, perhaps sorrows. Especially then it’s is a place to be selective in the search for consolation, empathy and whatever human support is available through the net. We who do not suffer from such problems right now, can do our best to support, open virtual doors,  and help and be available, from the distance when it’s the only option. We should be masters of it now.

A successful feast is synchronous. Interrupts spoil it

 One of the benefits of modern communication media is that it can be used in ‘asynchronous mode’. What does this mean?

Definition of asynchronous (Merriam-Webster).

1: not simultaneous or concurrent in time not synchronous

2: of, used in, or being digital communication (as between computers) in which there is no timing requirement for transmission and in which the start of each character is individually signaled by the transmitting device

We have learned to communicate digitally in asynchronous mode. We rely on it when deciding to meet people but do not fix the time or place and just decide on the fly. We can run projects in that mode. We feel liberated from timing by doing this and contacting anyone any time and change a plan with a simple message when we so want.

But there is a snag: many human occasions and behaviors require sensitive synchronicity. A dance without synchronicity is just haphazard movement and so it is with our human relationships. Especially feasts and celebrations, intimate moments and family gatherings are synchronous in nature, both externally and psychologically and they get their power from a special kind of human flow and continuity that should not be interrupted with irrelevant content. Breaking the synchronicity demolishes the flow of the gathering. It’s like a band playing, when a massive, uninvited solo, however skilled, but out of tune, takes the floor and kills the common performance.

During the holidays, try to avoid asynchronous queries, suggestions and approaches that require or even imply a response. Make a feasible plan for synchronizing your own behaviors, your own xmas party and other events with your close ones. Knowing when something good will happen makes waiting exciting and a special kind of a joy. The non-liberating aspect of asynchronous communication can be a disturbance and it puts pressure on the recipient.

Don’t send photos of food?

However delicious the food might be, xmas and holiday season is about people and our connection with each other. If the food photos can contribute to that, then fine, but they have already become signs and symbols of push technology you don’t need now – you have real food before your eyes and other senses. Well, food photos can carry a familiar and good message to those who know you, expect it and it is possible inspire the xmas party, but in the end, it’s about quality and drama – playing with messaging takes away social time from the sender and the receiver, it can be an interrupt.

The joy of helping

Xmas is the time to remember those having difficult times. Restaurants especially, have suffered from the pandemia and many of them have been active and been innovative in offering their services. We have ordered food home and now it is especially easy – and why not remember the people who serve us, from our favorite restaurant? For those who are not used to the distance services, this is a good time to try and the young generation can help.

We can decorate our homes with beautiful flowers.  It is easier than ever to send money to those we trust and who we know help their clients in need. Some of these organizations don’t have a possibility for face-to-face meetings where we could support them during the xmas time, but we can try to remember them virtually. For decades, I have given something to our “Pelastusarmeija”, Salvation Army, whose people I’ve met on the street corners when I’ve been xmas shopping, often the first snows falling in Helsinki, but this is not possible now and I have to rely on net payments. This requires planning and it’s something to do together with the family or friends.

Being alone

Often we know who lives alone and some of us just live alone. Pandemia has made this different.  Again, a well-planned communication and even common activities can have all the benefits described above. Knowing when and how we communicate makes it fun and we can invest our best thoughts and actions in them. Asynchronous, ‘surprise contacts’ can now work for all of us – they have a special value if we know whom to approach and how.

Then of course, at the time of the Teams and Zoom – persons living alone can make up a temporary family or a team. It’s a matter of creativity to design a plan for such gatherings, with people who can enjoy it and can contribute to the common good in these encounters. For some it can be the first time in virtual. I don’t know these matters well, but I would think there are public events taking place during xmas holidays where it is possible to join from a distance. There are risks, of course, but much can be achieved with honest planning.

Finally, why all this?

We still have time to prepare for the holidays. I believe that by restoring carefully what we have lost during the pandemia, we can have a holiday and xmas that not only helps us rest physically but also revives our psychological energy we will need again next year. We can re-learn simple things of us as human and social beings and perhaps see the harmful powers of technology. These are historical times. For our children and the young generation it’s a key epoch of life.  We will return to it and remember the strange experiences when we are back to the almost normal life and living. We have human things to remember.  Nobody remembers what technology was used.

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