Transition to a Digital Space
Bridging Distance Like Never Before

Everyday life has shifted to the virtual on numerous levels during the pandemic.
Everyday life has shifted to the virtual on numerous levels during the pandemic. | Illustration (detail): © Kanika Narang

While the pandemic brought the digital centrestage, it also foregrounded the way in which our lives are now “phygital”, a mix of the digital and physical.

By Paromita Vohra

Now that most photos exist digitally, many people save their memories in neatly labeled folders on their computer. The pandemic added a new space for many among them, titled:  Screenshots. A record of the many digital rooms people have been part of since March 2020.

The rooms are sometimes private, sometimes public. Some of them hold joy: friends collecting to raise a toast to someone’s wedding or birthday. Some record heartbreak: memorials for those who have passed on in the pandemic. Others record cerebral intensity: meetings held across continents, recordings of podcasts, conferences and talks. Most of them replace the traditional group photo that marks a gathering.

Digital rooms which at first seemed a restriction, overcame a past restriction of terrestrial events. A terrestrial event of larger scales would have been otherwise difficult - generating funds, and managing so many schedules. A big idea might have had to stay small. The digital rooms of the conference liberated it from such limitations to enable to a rich and lively scale, making it genuinely cross-cultural and intersectional. Take the example of my organisation Agents of Ishq that organised an e-conference featuring speakers from countries as apart as New Zealand, the USA, Europe, China, Japan and cities and towns across India. The ambition and scale of the conference would have been unimaginable in the past for organisations as small as ours.

Sometimes the digital room also liberated people from the hesitations of the past, enabling or encouraging them to undertake things never done before. Open-nights, where people came and spoke, hung out in café like spaces, and even performed, were some of the advances thanks to the digital rooms. Many performed for the first time, feeling relatively courageous to do so in an online environment, where the physical context might have intimidated them.

Digital rooms made possible a travel across time and space, a gathering across ability and familiarity. What made the digital particularly human though, was the conceptualisation of the event in a digital dialect. From the start, the event which was not simply an internet version of an offline event, was shaped to be one with the zoom window and all that it encourages us to try.

Events Transitioning Online

There had been other events like this over time where sometimes it was simply possible to listen to thinkers as unreachable as Judith Butler, watch the Royal Opera House London for free, listen to Erykah Badu for one US dollar, attend the Metropolitan Opera in New York – in fact the Met's At-Home Gala hosted live performances by over 40 of the world's premier opera stars from their homes around the globe: from Russia to France to Louisiana, an event series attended by over 700,000 people. In India, new performers like Shilpa Mudbi and Danish Sait emerged into public fame, performing at home via social media. Cooking classes, stitching classes, coding classes happened online, reaping the best what such online platforms had to offer.

Theatre, which had been impossible to do physically, slowly found different ways to exist online. People experimented with forms – The Lonely Hearts’ Club by Anuja Ghosalkar, which explored online eroticism, and Allegedly by Mallika Taneja, which used the zoom interface to create an interesting chorus while exploring questions of sexual assault – were just two of these. What emerged from them was a different intimacy and a different chemistry for viewing a live performance digitally. These shows were all ticketed and had substantial audiences they might not have had in a terrestrial performance. In fact platforms like Book My Show in India began to host a number of performances – comedy nights, sport events, talks – their digital expertise creating a new space for the arts and an emergent business model, a streaming service of their own.

E-Care as the New Normal

Some rooms that emerged were of a public kind, but with a personal compassion – Whatsapp groups to help find beds and oxygen, Facebook groups to help find rations for the poor, or care for the elderly. Others were of a simpler, more everyday helpfulness. For instance the Facebook group “Simple Recipes for Complicated Times” where habitual cooks helped those who had never cooked to care for themselves in the early lockdown days and which over time grew into a huge community of diverse recipe sharing for home cooks. These communities, where people shared their domestic everyday life – what vegetables they had managed to find, what they had made with the peels, how they managed their weekly routine – were ordinary, and old-fashioned, like neighbourhoods or tenement compounds. They had their warmth and their spiky disagreements as well. Of course without a centralised responsibility for such spaces, the rooms had their own volatility. Erroneous information or information leaked to others brought its own anxieties and worries.

Other more intimate rooms also emerged. There were rooms of healing – many more people were able to access mental health services digitally than could have afforded otherwise. Some people described seeking hypnotherapy through a digital consultation to deal with chronic pain. Doctors attended to COVID-19 patients through telemedicine, reducing the terror of home isolation if you were a single person. Yoga classes on zoom meant more people could embark on paths of healing than before. Art and singing, doll-making as therapy, cooking as re-connecting to traditional selves, all emerged to create a layer of thoughtfulness in life.

Intimacy in a Digital Realm

In some ways the digital room also nudged the dating app environment out of stagnation. Dating apps incorporated video interfaces very quickly and also offered “party rooms” for groups of video chat. While this helped people connect during the pandemic they also widened the idea of intimacy. People confronted the fact that a fulfilling personal or intimate life meant not only romance, but also friendship, and that at times the hedonism of hook-up life had left the satisfactions of intimate conversation behind. Dating apps recorded a rise in the duration of conversations and time spent getting to know a match, leading to the description “intentional dating” in contrast to the more distracted match-and-ignore routine that had set in pre-pandemic.

This is not to suggest that the physical is replaceable. The chemistry of the physical is different, its alchemy alive in different ways. But what we understood in the pandemic was that the digital has its own chemistry, and it is one we have not always properly engaged with. From its early days as a playground of innovation and outlier thinking, the internet has been increasingly colonised by large corporations, and in many ways, detaches us from ourselves in the name of connection. But the pandemic revealed that use with an awareness of the deepest human needs – connection, expression, intimacy and belonging, the digital world can be a sustaining and fertile one.

It nudged us towards a reality that has been around us for a long time: the phygital – a world where the digital and physical are intertwined and complementary, and not competitive.