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What happens during a Zoom glitch? We’ve all experienced one. Maybe the video freezes and memorializes a hilarious gesture. Maybe the pitch drops and the audio slows to a comic crawl. When it ends, maybe we apologize for the terrible Wi-Fi. The glitch reminds us that technological shortcomings smother our social interactions. I’ve found few situations more frustrating, especially when I want nothing more than to be with people I cannot see without Zoom or the platform in question.
That assumption — that without Zoom, FaceTime, or Skribbl, I cannot be with others — is one I reinforce daily as the pandemic rages on. In a quiet, empty house while my family members work, I frequently brood over whether it’s worth expending the energy it takes to call or text someone for some liveliness and movement, or whether I should just bunker down and write my thesis. The fact that those are the only options often alarms me, because I’m actively buying into the illusion that other people are absent without my motivation to initiate the interaction and the technological media I have (or don’t) to access them.
Yet, the advice on isolation in quarantine has been overwhelmingly to take advantage of the many opportunities available to talk to people. That rhetorical phrase, “to take advantage of,” dominates the way college administrators gush about the abundant promise within technology. In such an instrumental view, it’s the technology that frames every potential human interaction, as opposed to the other way around.
Martin Buber, an existentialist philosopher who wrote about Jewish thought, presented a framework for sincere relationships with others in his 1923 book, “I and Thou,” that critiques the assumption that I and so many others make as we use Zoom and other virtual realities. For Buber, relationality is the fundamental truth of existence. He offers two “word pairs” as paradigms for how we participate in the world. One pair is “I-It.” The other is “I-You.” In Buber’s picture, the “I” is a subjectivity, an envelope of identity and experience, the first person. The “I” can encounter others in two ways. When the paradigm is “I-It,” encounters are objectifying, and the “I” perceives the other as limited to what one can observe or understand. In contrast, the “I-You” pair neither measures nor manipulates, but instead rises above words and facts and makes two people fully present to one another.
What does that even mean? It’s tremendously abstract, and in a way thinking or writing about the “I-You” encounter is impossible and even counterproductive, since it is by nature without language and definition. But Buber’s criteria are useful in the context of pandemic socializing. In the “I-It” paradigm, one simply experiences the other. The “I-It” encounter is a passive checklist, a calendar appointment, glazed-over eyes, a dutiful response to a professor. In the “I-It” paradigm, we frame staying in touch as holding on to, or keeping tabs on, other people. Where they are, what they’re doing. Whether they’re healthy. We frame connection as reliant on various conduits with concrete boundaries. As soon as the meeting ends—or when there’s a glitch—an “I-It” connection feels lost, or somehow diminished. On the other hand, in the “I-You” framework, one participates in the other. In the “I-You” the medium of connection falls away and becomes irrelevant.
It’s natural, I think, to drift toward the language of advantage or objectification, especially when we have so little else to rely on. But Buber’s framework renders the physical space between us surmountable and, in fact, important. It’s where we refuse, in quarantine, to allow our worlds to shrink to the handful of humans (if any) we interact with on a regular basis. Maybe it is something like conceiving of our realities with others in mind, going about our days knowing that there have been, and still are, others with a stake in how we act today. How we read or write. How we address problems. How we extend a hand. Whether we speak up or are silent. Buber would go as far as to say that noticing a friend’s new haircut is an observation-happy “I-It” relation, and I’m not sure whether such a total eschewing of sensation and emotional experience is possible, at least for me. But I do like the idea of cultivating continuous sensibilities, and not discrete expectations, for my participation in other people.
Perhaps the next time there is a Zoom glitch, or a scheduling conflict, or even a loud silence in the house, I can peel away my tendency to objectify, grasp, or seek attention, and know that people far away from me are very much still present—not because I can or cannot see or hear them, but because they simply are.
Pranati P. Parikh ‘21 is a joint Religion and Comparative Literature concentrator in Adams House. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
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