The effects of virtual closeness and physical distancing

A fascinating thing is taking root in our societies these days. For years we’ve heard complaints about people loosing touch with the localities they live in while taking refuge in (sometimes extreme) online environments. It was often said that nobody knows their neighbor anymore, but that everyone could find like minded people online creating these virtual echo-chambers of opinion and populism. I think that the corona-virus will eventually have a bigger impact on shifts in society than it will have on public health, because: the physical distancing rules that are in place are pushing more people online to experience virtual closeness.

From social distancing to psychological nearing

Many of you will have worked from home and will have used various online conferencing tools (maybe for the first time). At first that might have felt awkward and strange, but I bet that after a few times it is already beginning to feel more natural. I’m beginning to hear remarks around me that people actually enjoy the fact that they don’t have to travel for meetings anymore and that an online meeting can be just as effective. In some instances (when you are in a one-on-one video conference) it might even feel more intimate than when you would have met the person in the physical world. Even psychiatrists are pushing their practice online.

For many of us, this time of social distancing will begin to feel more and more like an emotional nearing to the other (be it online). By the time we reach the end of this pandemic many organizations will question their old ways of doing things and wonder whether they should keep up with part of the online practice as it saves time and money. This experience of meaningful connection is spreading throughout all layers of society and age cohorts just as fast as the corona-virus is spreading around the world. A big societal shift is thus already under way.

Distancing in the physical world

At the same time, when you are walking outside, the distance you feel to the people that you live in close proximity to is growing each day. You literally take a step back, to get out of someone’s (private) space. Cashiers have glass windows in front of them to separate them from their customers (everywhere now); massive gatherings are prohibited; children don’t meet and connect in their schools anymore. All these signals in the physical world are shouting at us: keep away from the people close to you.

It is fascinating to see and at the same time worrying if it is going to last too long. I hope that in the near future we will forget the distance we kept to our neighbors and that every community will throw the biggest party ever to celebrate that we’ve lived through this. But more importantly to celebrate being able to hold on to each other again.

Yes, we should learn from the effectiveness of online collaboration for the future, but let’s also not forget to hold on to some things from the past that are worth to cherish for the future.