It is time to sleep and I have just changed into my night gown, when the phone rings. It is a Whatsapp call from a family member. You never know who needs what help in these corona times, so you pick up.
“What is this? Shift to video mode. We can’t see you!” the caller reprimands. Hello! I certainly don’t want you to see me in this state of undress. But then people think a lockdown is a good time to keep connected, so anything and anytime is good. Next online, are a group of friends from school. Same request. I want them to glare at a fixed profile image, but they want to ‘see’ me and my wrinkles in zoom mode. Predictably this is followed by comments on my greying scalp. Aargh!
I receive an email. Someone somewhere on this globe wants me to speak during an online course. I agree. And then I notice the fine print. “You are advised to be dressed like a presenter. End your presentation in 5 minutes.” The sender surely didn’t notice it was almost midnight in my part of the world at that hour. And I’m expected to be all dressed up for a 5 minute comment at that unearthly hour. Why are webcams allowed to intrude into our privacy so blatantly?
I connect with my students online for my teaching session. It is my one bright spot in the day when I can chat informally and find out how they are doing. There are discussions on data limitations and speed. They know more about technical aspects that I don’t understand myself. Their questions are tough and I find myself saying “I don’t know the answer. Let us look it up together” very frequently. But then I’m thankful they are processing and questioning what I am saying. A few sessions later, there is a problem. They have online coaching sessions every afternoon which are training them for postgraduate entrance exams. So could I wrap up sooner, or take sessions aligned with that schedule. I agree.
The constant refrain in our academic circles is that people have nothing to do during the lockdown. So start a webinar. As a result, one is bombarded with flyers on email, Twitter and Whatsapp. Three medical equipment companies want you to listen to ‘Safety guidelines in the times of COVID-19’. Every title ends with ‘… in the times of COVID-19’ irrespective of the content. And they all impinge into your lunch time. They forget that you are still at work, unlike the rest of the world. Each of them have over a 1000 doctors online, half of whom are simply saying “Hello, has the webinar started?” or “You are not audible”. And the game of oneupmanship continues as they claim to be the best. After my third webinar I need artificial tears, as my eyes are smarting from staring at the laptop screen all day.
And then there is the good news. Several top-notch academicians across the world have been herded by academic societies to deliver educational webinars. For free. You know you are never going to get this opportunity to listen to world experts so easily. So you click, click, click and register for all. I have a world clock helping me convert international times to IST. It is extremely hard to keep pace with all of them, as they are back to back. Two webinars later I realise that I am no longer listening. My brain has switched off long ago. There is something called ‘cognitive overload’ and there is only so much that you can assimilate.
It is here that I pause. To introspect. There was this big revelation which everyone seemed to be posting online two weeks ago. Positive thoughts, they called them. Telling us to slow down and look at the world outside and our worlds within. But just as quickly everything has changed. All we seem to be doing is staring at monitors and screens. The hurry and stress of the workplace is replaced by back-to-back webinars. It is worse than the workplace. Because at least there, the schedule was 9 to 5. Here there are no boundaries of time or space.
We will never learn as a species. Once part of the rat race, we will continue to find ways to be rats.