Paul Barnes shares his personal reflections and experience dealing with the changes brought about by the shift in behaviours caused by COVID-19.

The patterns and tempo of modern rural, urban, and city life many of us have long enjoyed and become familiar with has changed throughout 2020, continues into 2021 and possibly beyond. Nevertheless, COVID-19 testing, contact tracing, social distancing, protective masks and in several cases, enforced lockdowns remain critical factors in establishing control of the incidence and spread of infection.

Throughout much of 2020, many of us not only discovered the challenges of working remotely from home but the unexpected pleasures of ZOOM meetings. Also, for some, online home-schooling added to the complexities of an unfamiliar disruption. This new take on sheltering-in-place was significant for both newly 'home schooled' and their parents/caregivers. However, the technical aspects of the experience may have been familiar for the 'born digitals' our younger generations are known to be.    

Those who have adapted well to our always-connected world seem to rely on the ubiquitous digital sources of information and communication to assist them in making sense of the world around them. For example, the dulcet tones from a 'crowded house' encouraged us to 'always take the weather with you' over many years. However, a modern lived experience increasingly means that wherever we go, and have gone, we also take our virtual worlds with us: as seen through the looking glass of the screens of our hand-held devices: all enmeshed to the virtual web that surrounds us.   

The reliance on - and immersion in - personal digital spaces supports a new means for risk and threat communication and, as a result, provide a means for effective delivery of advice on self-protection. 'Checking in' to bars and coffee shops - via mobile device - is almost a universal action now. As is staying updated on inter and intrastate travel restrictions and that pesky list of locations provided by public health officials deemed to have been places frequented by COVID-19 'positives.'

It also means that for these periods of isolation, either in small family groups or alone, we may have had to adapt to more time spent engaging with a virtual means for communicating with the world outside our homes and places of shelter.   

Some might argue that a propensity for familiarity with virtual environments would make this time alone easier, but the isolation might exacerbate tension and separation equally. Thus, while not wanting to channel Susan Sontag, a la 'illness as metaphor,' isolated living during and after the pandemic may become a metaphor for normalising a deeper engagement with solitude. A solitude driven partly by the emergent existential risk arising from the complex social, health, environmental, and technical contexts surrounding us.  

Self-imposed isolation, entirely separate from any public health measures, is known in Japan, especially among younger adults and teenage people. While the notion of social reclusion exists globally, the Japanese experiences of it - coined 'Hikikomori' - could be considered a culture-bound syndrome.

In such settings, individuals, as depicted in the media, can become entangled with personal computing and online activities. Our hyper-connected virtual world enables the existence of such behaviours.

Life adaptations, which for many will continue after lifting COVID restrictions, may include both enforced and voluntary reliance on the internet and virtual spaces. This reliance could enable remaining active in social networks, working and filling null spaces that emerge from isolation. On the other hand, new forms of solitariness or even agoraphobia may become habituated burdens. It may be that the social and self-isolation required as part of public health responses to the pandemic has highlighted for many the profound nature of humanity's dependency on and access to the world wide internet.  

On a personal note, my experience during the early days ofCOVID-19 isolation didn't galvanise a sense of technological dependency. On the contrary, working from home led to a realisation of the value of the internet as a means for remembering my past—both rediscovering music and discovering new interests were outcomes of solitude.  

I entered lockdown with an under-used Netflix account; I was more familiar with the potential for discovering interesting - and potentially distracting - offerings on YouTube. One of the fascinating and macabre aspectsof YouTube, beyond searchable content only limited by one's imagination, are the plethora of short vignettes, often slightly contrived, of people sharing aspects of their life for all to enjoy! These may range from the sublime 'let's tour my new Tokyo or London apartment' to instances of the mysterious Korean video phenomenon - the 'mukbang.'

Having lived in north Asia for several years and having more than a passing interest in and experience of aspects of Japanese culture, it might not be overly surprising that I discovered online content about modern Korean society and its entertainment industries.    

One surprisingly enjoyable Korean reality show was 'Hyo-ri's Homestay.' In this program, a mega-famous retired KPOP singer (Lee Hyo-ri) and her musician partner (Lee Sang-soon) open their Jeju Island home as a homestay for real (albeit vetted) holiday guests. 

Over the two seasons it ran, the program also included celebrity housekeepers who are famous current KPOP artists.  

Web-enabled cameras carried the filming throughout the houseand gardens. While there is probably a general set of guidelines for interaction with guests, the human contact comes across as very natural and engaging on a personal level: potentially surprising given the fame of the homeowners and their equally famous helpers.  

I discovered other aspects of online immersion - fleetingly- including 'live streaming' (see Twitch interactive). Often the basis for interactive online group gaming, recent applications have enabled the widening prevalence of online personalities filming and interacting in real-time with their 'followers' who join the live-streamed session as the 'personalities' go about their activities. YouTube showed me that the genre of vicarious observation has gone way beyond the 'Kardashian' mansion.

One personal discovery that I am not embarrassed to admit anymore is an acquired liking for selected KPOP artists and their music: again, discovered slowly by online meanderings. Of note are the Darwinian nature of the industry and the many years of training expected of the artists. However, those who get to the top have skills and talent polished to extreme levels. Add to this that the music they perform is often a fusion of the old and newer styles from the US and international genres, creating interesting fusions of musical form.  

Another surprise during my COVID isolation was discovering exquisite fusions of soundtrack music and cinematography in some Korean television dramas. I am not a fan of the genre; however, a few caught myattention. Close camera positioning and angles, expert direction, and the actors made some scenes feel as if the viewers intruded in authentic relationships and social settings. In addition, the films explored a range o fmodern Korean societal taboos - familiar to many other north Asian societies - in confronting ways.

Beyond the cinematography, character development and storylines, these films progressed slowly, often over 16 weekly episodes, each lasting an hour. 

The slow pace created a serial immersion in storytelling and an experience beyond the 2.5-hour Hollywood blockbuster. The juxtaposing of these factors created some unexpectedly memorable 'online' experiences.

Re-discovery of music from my past also factored during my'waiting out' the pandemic storm! The wonder of the early collaborations by Brian Eno and Robert Fripp, music from the Windham Hill collections, and other contemplative pieces were brought back to mind via the accidental archive of YouTube.   

The isolation requirements of 2020 may have created an ideal fortress of solitude wherein I took my mind away from the challenges of a pandemic with extreme global mortality rates by immersing myself in accessible diversions. However, I am sure I am not alone exploring the past and new places by time spent online.  

As COVID restrictions lifted and infective cases diminished, life regained degrees of pre-pandemic normality. But, while professionally I appreciate the ubiquity of ICT technologies in business, education and commerce, I also came to think about the importance of being 'connected to the net' not just to fill the silence of pandemic isolation and, for many, the unfamiliar burden that this brought with it.  

I also wondered how we would cope without access to this critical technology to revisit our past and make discoveries in our current world. Finally, I realised the importance of stability, reliability & resilience of ICT infrastructure beyond being functional to being vital. Our inner and external lived (and remembered) experience would be less without it.

Dr Paul Barnes

Senior Advisor

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