Collapsing Six Feet of Separation

What has the world come to? What are we becoming in the age of social distancing? It’s a frightening proposition: we are a social species, we thrive on human contact, closeness, intimacy, and the physical embrace. Our instinct to gather together has been upended by Covid-19, instead, the old adage of six degrees of separation has been socially distanced to six feet of separation. This is the dark reality we are facing, the inability to respond naturally to contact: the handshake, the hug, the kiss… all but foreboden.

And now, the virtual world of telematics, our vast tele-communications system that for decades has been wiring us together in a planetary embrace, what Marshall McLuhan predicted in the 1960s would become the global village, is the umbilical cord that keeps us connected & alive. Were it not for the neural network of the Internet, which weaves our collective nervous system into an intricate Web of online relations, we would be doomed by the virus. Not that this epic pandemic isn’t already wreaking havoc on the world’s political and economic conditions, but at least via the network we can find food, medicine, supplies, and the comfort of one another. The Internet, which began as a utopic vision of the global village, has now through brute force become our technological salvation.

Once upon a time in what seems like a long ago time of optimism & innocence, those who have been exploring the outer edges of the online universe as new artistic territory talked about the medium as a mechanism to defy the physical laws of the known world: to collapse time & space & distance & geography. They learned to achieve “impossible” recombinations of movement, media, and interaction in tele-virtual spaces. The pioneering network artists, such as Kit Galloway & Sherrie Rabinowitz, Nam June Paik, Douglas Davis, Don Foresta, Roy Ascott, Adrian X, Paul Sermon, and so many others, organized telematic events that opened up the possibilities of networked exchange, tele-collaboration, composited space via satellite connections, fax art, slow-scanning and so many other creative transmissions over low bandwidth telephone networks.

Satellite performance created by Kit Galloway & Sherrie Rabinowitz, circa 1977

Yes, there is indeed an extraordinary, and relatively unknown history to the explosion of Internet migration taking place before our eyes. We are seeing in the midst of Covid-19 a resurgence of creative solutions to collapse the six feet of separation that now keeps us apart. Due to the catastrophic nature of a pandemic that is challenging our very ability to survive, a renaissance of networked interactions is emerging from the disaster. Intrepid “Zoomers” are rising to the occasion to organize virtual book clubs, online parties, streaming concerts, Webcasted church services, anything you can imagine. Universities have shut down as students and professors alike are forced to dive head first into virtual environments to continue their education. You can see from the Zoom screenshot below the young tele-collaborators who are creatively designing their own collapsed, telematic spaces like the avant-pioneers who preceded them.

College students at a recent Zoom party.

Yes, the Internet is having its day. How is this different from the onslaught of social media that has dominated our lives in recent years? It’s because we no longer simply choose to connect via the network, we are compelled, all of us, to become full-time cyber-inhabitants who must re-invent our lives in order to adapt to six feet of separation. We must redefine what it means to be human without physical contact. We must conduct our daily business from our laptop computers and mobile phones. All of a sudden, we find ourselves collapsing the space between us to realize what McLuhan really meant when he announced the future of the global village. Now we are entrepreneurial villagers who can no longer congregate in physical environments, rather, we must learn to design & create & engage in virtual, telematic worlds of our own making, or sink.