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  • Chris Vlahonasios

Brave New World of the Cyber Citizen


We are indeed living in very interesting times. Due to Covid-19, people around the world have been forced indoors. Things we took for granted – work, school, shops, social life and worship – have dramatically changed. The very fabric of society has gone nearly entirely virtual.

A couple of decades ago, futurists predicted a world where everyone would work and live from home thanks to the computer and Internet. Before Covid-19, this vision did not fully come true. We did not live a completely digital existence, we still had the freedom to go outside. Now, due to the virus, we cannot function without the Internet and digital technologies. This is reminiscent of the film, Surrogates (2009), a world where people live within the safety of their homes while their robotic surrogates, which they control with their minds through a secured network, go about their daily lives. Just like this movie, technology has transformed the very nature of society and its citizens. Now, as we adapt, we need to be aware of what this eRevolution means, because, even after government restrictions have eased, things will never be the same. Spiritual life One of the most interesting effects of restriction on movement and congregating has been on the practice of religion. Whilst this tragedy has come at the lead-up to the holiest time of the year for Christians, we can perhaps make the most of this bad situation. The fact we cannot freely go out and spend money on material objects and pleasures is in tune with Lent: a period of struggle, sacrifice and reflection. Whilst it has been difficult to not freely attend services, people have realised not to take the Church for granted which has intensified our need for God. Just like during the times before St. Constantine the Emperor, the Ottoman Occupation and Bolshevik Revolution, these periods of closure strengthened people’s faith. If our houses were not already ‘little churches’ – icons, icon corner, crosses, use of incense etc. – then, this is the perfect opportunity to establish this practice. We should use this time to become more educated in the doctrines and traditions of our Faith. Even though we are not in church, the use of live streaming has transported the experience of Liturgy directly into our homes. We now get to have ancient Byzantine chant echo throughout the household whilst we burn incense. This is perhaps the first time in history where the ‘big’ Church and ‘little’ church have over-lapped. Workforce Those who worked in an office had to deal with many difficulties: interruptions, office politics and time away from family. Now, time lost from commuting has been regained and they can work more productively as they have fewer distractions. Along with higher productivity, an employee now has greater work-life balance to manage house duties and more family time. However, there are many unexpected downsides. Working at work means no interaction with others: just their computer and work. Social interaction is so reduced even the simple act of buying a barista-made coffee robs an employee a change of atmosphere and a break from the monotony of work. Also, no separation between work and home-life can create tension within the family unit, as they cannot take ‘time-out’ from one another when they get on each other’s nerves. Another grim outlook is the creation of the ‘digitalised employee’ has now given employers the opportunity to consider restructuring their businesses and decide whether some people can be replaced with computers or even the need for a physical office/store. This current situation is particularly brutal on those who cannot work from home, namely manual jobs. Not working makes a person lose their sense of purpose, which can lead to depression. Reskilling is ideal in order to prepare for the future. This is not intended to create alarm, but for people to think over what steps to take in their career. Entertainment & Art A limitless world of entertainment is merely a click away thanks to streaming services. Though we have film and music to keep us sane, the unprecedented demand for data has led some streaming companies, like Netflix, to reduce image quality in order to keep up. So, while we have this modern convenience, it can also ‘disappear’ from our reach. We also have to remember art – such as, paintings and theater – were not designed for screens, but to be experienced in-person. One needs to be careful of unlimited streaming and mindless social scrolling. Despite having so much free time on our hands, the sheer volume of content makes it easy to waste that precious time. Lost time, which could have been used for more important things, leaves a person feeling cheated and unfulfilled. Socialising Though people cannot spend time with each other or meet, social media has been crucial in keeping people connected. However, regardless whether through Skype, ‘balcony serenading’ or online events, these virtual gatherings cannot replace real, direct human contact. The emotions generated during face-to-face get-togethers cannot be replicated through digital exchanges. In Surrogates, when Bruce Willis enters the real-world without his humanoid remote-controlled robot, he sees and feels how things really are, completely void of any artificialness. Experiences shared in the real-world are what strengthens relationships. Physical contact is a vital component of the human experience and can never be replaced with an App. Technology is limited in recreating a tangible atmosphere which is uniquely experienced by a person. The many stimuli and emotional triggers – touch, temperature, facial cues, smell and proximity between participants – greatly impact the nature of a conversation; in digital communications only sight is the main human receptor. As these stimuli are lost through digital transmission, this greatly reduces the intrinsic value of a conversation. Education The virtual classroom has become every child’s dream! No more school, no more teachers and no more detention. It is too early to say, but a student’s education may greatly benefit because of the lack of social distractions and clearly structured online classes. But, students will lose out on invaluable socialise experiences, a crucial part of their development. Their mental health will suffer because friendships will be limited to online, which does not equate to healthy socialisation, resulting in poorer social and language skills. Also, students will miss out on discovering new opportunities, knowledge and skills which come from being within the physical school environment which is designed to stimulate curiosity and interaction. They will also miss out on P.E classes and recess time affecting their general health. The classroom and schoolyard are where real life skills and conflicts are leant and conquered. Physical & mental well-being It is without a doubt isolation and digital communication will result in a decline in human health. Though Australia has not gone into total lockdown (at the time of publication) people are being conditioned into increasingly sedentary behaviour. Many companies are offering the convenience of contact-free delivery, tempting consumers to adopt these new habits. Changing peoples’ behaviour to be less active leads to poorer health, such as, weight gain and other related health problems, including: cardiovascular disease, spinal/posture issues and vitamin D deficiency. Though there are online fitness programs, doing these at home does not offer the same level of enthusiasm or encouragement as would be found in a gym environment or peer-pressure from a group. There has been an over reliance on digital media as a means to preoccupy house-bound family members. This inactivity generates restlessness, boredom, loneliness and depression. Despite the obvious anxiety many people are feeling about the future, a lack of purpose and meaning is the main driving-force that leads to declining mental health. Too much screen-time also affects eye health, mental alertness and sleep quality. Self-improvement Though society has been greatly restricted, this should by no means dishearten us. This period of isolation can be of huge benefit for one’s physical, mental, intellectual and spiritual well-being. There are several things one can do to escape our ‘digital prison’: - Exercise outside regularly. Take up new sporting activities which respect the current social distancing rules, such as cycling and running. Having a healthy body helps keep one’s mind and emotional state in balance. We do not have to imitate Forrest Gump’s cross-country marathon, but the park is a good start! - Spend time in nature. Reflect and meditate upon the things in life that are bothering you and how you can make positive changes. This is a perfect time to slow down and set things right in one’s personal life and relationships. Hikes in the wilderness and even gardening reminds one of God’s Creation and the acquisition of new skills. - Challenge your mind with good literature. It is too easy to rely on ‘digital-pulp’ – mindless popular entertainment found on social platforms, such as TikTok – as one’s main source of cultural enrichment. Such entertainment does not exercise the mind or imagination. Reading not only improves one’s language skills, but makes them more culturally-aware and better at critical thinking. - Learn new skills. Use this time to become a more competent and resourceful person. - Pray and learn more about your faith. Use this time to get closer to God and learn more about yourself. Reading the Scriptures and spiritual books are key to helping one gain a sense of peace and reconciliation in their lives. Last words At this stage we have only temporally become a fully digitalised society, what will happen after the pandemic passes is not yet clear. Though the world is becoming more digitally-enabled, we still have time to reassess how much we allow technology to change what it means to be human. As digital communications continue to encroach on every aspect of our lives, we still have the choice to be creative, productive and loving beings in the image and likeliness of God.

Published in TO VEMA newspaper, April 2020, Australia

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