Monday 13 April 2020

Head in the Virtual Cloud

Morning dawns. The streets are quiet, the roads empty. There are no bustling commuters setting out for work. Instead, they are brewing coffee in their dressing-gowns and choosing which end of the sofa to sit on as they spend another day working from home. We are truly working with our heads in The Cloud. And thank goodness for the wonders of modern technology, with remote connection to networks, allowing virtual meetings to continue, workflows to be uninterrupted (with possibly a little too much dedication – I, too, am guilty of sending work emails close to midnight).

When we think of ‘head in the clouds’ we think of the perpetual dreamer, the person who has the fantastical idea but often can’t translate that blue-sky thinking into concrete action. But this imaginative idea of self cannot be how we view our heads any more. Now, more than ever, it can be difficult to separate reality from pixels as we depend increasingly on a virtual reality. The Cloud that we’re currently firmly stuck in is an inter-connected network for work, family and friends. It is an immense support framework that, quite frankly, we would be utterly lost without. If you have a kid under the age of eighteen, I can guarantee you’ve weathered the no-you-cannot-have-screen-time tantrum and if you don’t, then trust me, it’s horrific.

If we consider the typical family for a moment, both parents are now praising their high-speed broadband as they login and try to get through their daily work. Older children sigh at how easily their school has been able to upload lessons for completion, whilst younger kids lean on parental indulgence in touchscreens and educational games online. It was only a few short months ago that screen-addiction, hours of productivity lost to swiping ‘next’ and the rise in game-rage were top news stories. What will the fallout be from allowing excessive digital and virtual consumption in our families? Or will we see a resurgence to the family dinner table, as people crave that companionship and interaction, that desire to have a real conversation and spend some quality family time together?

The energy that we would usually funnel into our work and leisure time has now fired us up to find unique and inspiring solutions for our connectivity problems. Apps like Zoom, Houseparty and Skype have been around for a while but perhaps not all of us were aware of them. In the three weeks since everything shut down, I’ve interviewed a fellow author on Zoom, been recording daily videos for my YouTube channel, I’ve been live on Facebook with my kids as we ventured outside for our allotted exercise and Skype’d my mum. I’ve met with my book club on Google Hangouts. We usually meet in central London and I haven’t been able to make a meeting for months, so I was doubly thrilled to ‘see’ everyone. I’m having weekly team meetings with my fellow Write On! Editors through Microsoft Teams. At first, I didn’t turn on my video feed, feeling too self-conscious, but then I realised how much I appreciated seeing the faces of my colleagues and so now I click ‘video on’ with wild abandon.

I have set up family groups for everyone on WhatsApp. Necessary, as  I have a complicated multiple step-parent on both sides configuration with half-siblings and step-siblings, so having just one group was never going to work. I think this is the most connected we’ve ever been. I haven’t seen my brothers for about eighteen months and next week we’ll be Zooming. I can’t wait!

Another thing I’ve noticed happening, is how everyone is taking full advantage of the extra time they have on their hands. Well, everyone apart from me; my workload seems to have trebled, but I don’t mind. I’ve seen posts from friends and family colouring, styling and cutting their own hair, making complicated recipes and baking their own bread, building complex Lego creations and digging out those dusty board games and puzzles. I myself have begun to learn French with my son, completing daily exercises. The two of us have also been learning how to code and draw shapes on the computer. It’s a small thing, but it’s something I never seemed to have the time for before. Spending those precious moments with him are definitely a huge plus for me during lockdown.

In fact, home-schooling has given me a much-needed distraction from the live news feed on the BBC, the disturbing death toll counter and the danger my keyworker husband faces every time he goes to work. This reliance on virtual support networks seems to me to be a positive result to a frightening situation we’ve found ourselves in, and maybe also a dry run for the next deadly virus that is sure to come our way.

Which brings me on to thinking about what happens next? Will my local cafĂ©, butchers, greengrocers and bookshop be able to open their doors when the lockdown lifts? Or will their customers have adjusted to virtual life and online shopping without a backwards glance? And what about all the people working from home, proving that they can perform efficiently without being in an office? Should they be made to return to a physical workspace and re-clog the environment with their poisonous commute? Will my book club decide that a virtual meet-up is just easier all round and we’ll never again meet for wine and literature in a London pub? If I’m honest, I’m conflicted myself as to whether I think we should return to our old ‘normal’ or not.

Instead, I cling to the faint hope that the ruling powers in our global economy will see the benefits of how work, shopping and connectivity has changed. That perhaps once people see the positive impact on the planet the reduction in industrial, air and travel pollution has had, they will really think hard on whether we just all go back to the way it was. We must remember what we achieve while our heads are in The Cloud; how we are allowing our creativity and imagination to grow without limits and then bring those experiences with us into the new future we are embarking upon.

Claire is a Pen to Print Alumnus, Deputy Editor at Write On! magazine and an award-winning author. Visit her website for more information about Claire and her books.

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