The Internet was first developed by scientists for scientists, to allow scientists around the world to share data and enhance their ability to add to the body of scientific knowledge. A noble concept!
With the now ubiquitous use of the Internet – for almost everything we do, and also for many nefarious and illegal schemes – there have been an increasing number of people troubled about our reliance on the Internet for everything; perhaps it is no longer the instrument for good it might have been. These concerns have some justification, as we see face-to-face interaction lose out to online communication and the reporting of facts lose out to the search for preferred “alternative” facts, not to mention hacking, spam, etc.
However, looking at the Internet through the lens of a pandemic puts it right back into the land of the good. People are working from home through the Internet, they are continuing with their studies through the Internet, they are staying in touch with friends and family nearby as well as further away through the Internet. And more and more people are coming up with creative ways to continue with the group interactions they miss because of social distancing. In other words, technology is helping us be able to create and maintain community bonds during this time of self-isolation and social distancing.
There are virtual choirs. Virtual concerts. Virtual book clubs. Virtual exercise classes. Virtual lifelong-friends-getting-together-for-beer hours. Virtual neighbour wine-tasting evenings. You name it. This week I had experience with three such experiments in virtual communal gatherings through the Internet. Each of them had technical difficulties, but, after all, this is a learning experience. Where there’s a will there’s a way.
A virtual weekly philosophy group.
I belong to a philosophy group that meets every Tuesday afternoon for a few hours. Six to eight of us retirees take turns hosting; we drink our coffee and eat our goodies while discussing the readings we had set for ourselves the week before. As I’ve mentioned in other posts, this is not a gathering many people I know would enjoy – certainly not any of our spouses – but we all love that time together. (Yes, sometimes none of us have understood what we’ve read, and, no, we don’t always agree; that’s half the fun!) We cancelled our meeting a week ago, on March 17, because of the new concern of social distancing and then missed our time together so much that we decided to try a group video conference meeting for this past Tuesday.
We all signed on to Google Duo, but we couldn’t form a virtual “group” in Google Duo without providing Google with each of our cell phone numbers. Since I don’t have a cell phone (it’s true, don’t start) and wasn’t planning on getting one for Google’s benefit, we decided to use Skype for group video. After a few minutes trying to have us all show up in video windows on our screens, we switched to voice-only because some people’s connections were too challenged by the requirements for video. So we each spent 2 hours looking at our screens, which displayed 6 static circles with our images or initials in them, and chatting away merrily, discussing our views on our current topic, the philosophy of medicine. Definitely worth doing. We need to do better at figuring out who wants to speak next when we can’t see each other, but we’ll get there. I’d call our Skype experiment a big win for keeping this much-enjoyed activity going in this time of isolation. We just bring our own coffee and cookies with us to our screens!
My husband and his bridge buddies haven’t figured out a way to have a virtual bridge game … yet.
A virtual World Speech Day with my family.
As I mentioned in a previous post, it was World Speech Day on March 16. I had great hopes of having everyone give a 3-5 minute speech while our son and 2 grandchildren were visiting from Ottawa during their March Break. They were due to arrive on March 16; it seemed like it was meant to be … at least I thought so. Of course, this thing called COVID-19 took over and their trip was cancelled on March 12. Their March Break has now turned into an indefinite time of learning from home. So, although I would have to say that the level of enthusiasm for giving speeches was somewhat low (me – great idea, Grandpa and both grandchildren – you must be kidding, and son – noncommittal), I decided to forge ahead. Let’s try a virtual speech. So I got the Ottawa family to at least agree to interrupt their busy days of working and studying remotely for 5-10 minutes to listen to Grandma’s speech, and yesterday was the appointed day. Instead of choosing a topic on how to make the world a better place I decided to start with a topic that would maybe hold their interest better: Choosing my favourite holiday with their family.
Their availability – several days after I asked – gave me time to do a PowerPoint instead of my initial idea of holding up a few pictures I’d print off as reminders of each holiday and hold them up to our iPad as I FaceTimed my speech. I sent our son the PowerPoint file and the plan was that on his end the PowerPoint would run off their laptop and display on their TV screen, while they’d use their phone to FaceTime with us. On our end we would display the PowerPoint on my laptop so my husband could follow along and I’d do the speech with FaceTime, using our iPad propped against the sofa. Perfect. What could go wrong?!
Just before we were due to connect, our son sent me an email saying that it turned out he doesn’t have PowerPoint on his laptop so he’d have to install it on his phone (!) and they’d watch it on the phone while my giant face was on the TV! I don’t think so. So my poor husband held up my little iPod Touch (with FaceTime running) in front of the PowerPoint screens on our laptop while I clicked the screens forward and gave the speech with no face showing (the one saving grace). Grandpa’s arms were shaking from holding them out with the iPod at an uncomfortable angle for so long, so I’m pretty sure the PowerPoint wasn’t as compelling as it might otherwise have been. But we did it. As I said earlier, where there’s a will there’s a way!
I’m told that I’m allowed to give another speech next week, so I remain hopeful that I may eventually entice someone else to try giving a speech. Meanwhile, my son will install PowerPoint on their computer.
A virtual coffee hour.
Earlier this week my UNB computer science colleagues and I (they are nice enough to include their retired colleagues) received a lovely email from our dean, observing that although working and teaching from home was proceeding more or less satisfactorily, we were missing our social interactions. He suggested we try having an informal coffee break together, using Zoom, the video software most of them have been using now that they’re all teaching their students remotely. I wasn’t going to attend because it was the same day as my family speech, but just before they were going to try this virtual coffee hour our university computing department sent out a message to the university community saying that Zoom seemed to be overwhelmed and suggested everyone switch to another recommended product. Soon I started seeing emails from CS colleagues saying that they were trying to connect, but were having difficulties. This all in aid of an experiment in maintaining a healthy work community by having a virtual coffee break together.
I love that our dean thought of this idea. I love that some of my colleagues were trying to come together that way. And clearly if anyone can make the technology work for them in the end it should be my computer science colleagues! Technology being used for good.
Stay safe, everyone. And keep connecting with friends and family using technology. That’s what it was originally designed for, to build community and share ideas.