Our ability to stay connected online has brought us light in a time of darkness.
As I write this article, the world is coming out of lockdown, as governments around the world lift quarantine restrictions in place to prevent the spread of Covid-19. I often write about the negative impacts of technology on well-being: how technology interferes with relationships, sleep, physical movement, safety, well-being, etc. All these challenges are very real, but during this pandemic, one reality has emerged very clearly: When other options are removed, people can and will turn to technology for well-being.
For the most part, technology has been the hero of the coronavirus story. As schools closed, students and teachers went online to continue their education. As parks, beaches, swimming pools, gyms, spas and yoga studios closed, the world turned to streaming video classes and online training to maintain their health and fitness routines. And as “social distancing” became the new cultural norm, people turned to new technology platforms to connect with each other both socially and professionally.
Most of the time, it is easy to complain about the disruptions caused by technology. Usually, technology seems to tear us apart more than it brings us together, it distracts us from our most meaningful goals, and it has made us all busier than ever as it breaks down the barriers between personal life and work. But during the pandemic, we have seen a different side of technology emerge. In this case, technology has helped people to stay employed by being digitally connected to work, it has helped us to stay connected to friends and family while remaining isolated, and it has helped us to turn a very dark and difficult time in our history into an opportunity for learning, growth and the practice and adoption of new wellness lifestyle activities.
I am optimistic that this is a positive correction in our collective relationship with technology. The more we find good, meaningful uses for technology, like connecting with loved ones, furthering our education, or learning new wellness practices, the less likely we will turn to technology for mindless distraction and unhelpful social comparison. But as the world reopens, a question remains about what our relationship with technology should look like going forward. We are already hearing a lot about how technology will allow “working from home” to be the new normal. As offices increasingly move online, what other aspects of our lives will find the virtual world so compelling that we are reluctant to return to the real world? Might video yoga and fitness replace the yoga studio and the gym? Might family Zoom calls replace the family reunion? Might online learning replace the traditional classroom? In some cases, the answers to these questions will be a powerful yes. And as we have seen during the pandemic, technology can be an amazing tool for delivering these kinds of experiences, sometimes even more effectively than the non-digital world is capable of. But I think we should just be aware of the sacrifices we make at the altar of technology. While technology has been an absolute blessing, there are certain things that are lost when we forgo real-world connections.
As we consider what kind of world we wish to create post-Covid-19, I think it’s OK to celebrate the fact that we come out of this period with a new appreciation for and new skills around our use of technology. But let’s also remember the sense of community that we have when we do things together with other people. A strong company culture is not created in Zoom calls. It is created by face-to-face interactions, many of them impromptu. Some of the education previously delivered in a classroom can be delivered virtually, but perhaps not the social education that comes from sharing the process live and in person with your colleagues. And we have learned that people can get very good fitness training and instruction while staring at a screen. But they can’t get the connection with nature they might get from training outdoors, or the sense of “comunitas” from training alongside other members of a group.
As is often the case with technology, the time of coronavirus forces us to confront a difficult paradox: Technology is often the solution and the problem all at the same time. Finding the right balance in our relationship with technology is what allows us to extract the benefit without paying too high a price.
JEREMY MCCARTHY is the group director of spa for the Mandarin Oriental Hotel Group. He is the author of The Psychology of Spas & Wellbeing.