I woke up at 2 AM, and unlike every time I flew back to Thailand, it was not because of jet lag. It was because I had to take an exam at 3 AM. An ungodly hour, perhaps, but only for me; it was for a 1 PM class in California. I got out of bed and trudged along to my desk, powered on my laptop and turned on Zoom.
An application few had heard of just three weeks previously, Zoom has quite suddenly cast a preposterously outsized shadow on the lives of college students everywhere. As someone who has never been a fan of video conferencing, I was almost surprised by how powerful Zoom is the first time I used it. It is packed with features: virtual backgrounds, hand-raising, screen-sharing, you name it.
But as useful as Zoom is, that an exam was to be taken while your video call is on so that a professor can proctor you digitally still feels quite silly to me — it does little to prevent cheating — but it is what it is. The exam is over by 4 AM, and we are congratulated on the start of spring break. A break to be spent, not on holiday in some exotic location, but in government-mandated 14 day self-quarantine at home. How the times have changed.
I like to think that I’m pretty used to states of crisis, or at least big moments of uncertainty. In Thailand, I’ve lived through two military coups (2006, 2014) and multiple large protest movements (2008, 2009-10, 2013-14). The most I’ve been impacted was during the historic floods of 2011, when I couldn’t go home for two months. In Berkeley, I’ve seen the conservative fiasco known as Free Speech Week, wildfires and air quality crises and artificial power outages. Many of these events caused school closures. When the news about coronavirus began trickling out of Wuhan, I will admit to not seeing much reason to be unduly alarmed; resilience to disruption has been built into my DNA at this point.
But this spiraled into an unprecedented global crisis. If someone had told me three weeks ago that I would be taking exams at 3 AM on Zoom during a (admittedly comfortable) state of self-isolation Bangkok, I would have been very confused. College life was upended very rapidly. One day, Berkeley’s chancellor announced that classes would be moved online for the next two weeks. A few days later, we were told that there would be no more classes for the rest of the semester. It was relatively less chaotic than at other campuses — here I glance at Harvard — but to say that any of us were ready for how quickly things would change would be absolutely false.
A History professor at Berkeley wrote an email to the class to provide a sense of perspective, and his words have been something that I’ve given quite a bit of thought to.
The Baby Boom generation in the West…is an exceptional one, extraordinarily fortunate by any historical standard, and our own experience today is ultimately closer to the norm. In other words, we are joining countless past generations in a shared experience, which may not be enviable, but which is survivable and eminently human.
Unwittingly, we have all been turned into the Zoomer generation, one suddenly experiencing more disruption to our ordinary lives than many of us would have known in living memory. But it is true that this shared experience is, in his words, “eminently human”.
And of this human side I have been impressed. Impressed by the adaptability and resilience of everyone during this crisis.
Take college instruction, for example. There’s been a lot of hiccups, and the online learning experience is undoubtedly subpar. But the fact that it can be done at all, and at the speed that it has been done, should not have been taken for granted. There are septuagenarian professors, whose abilities to operate Microsoft PowerPoint would have been doubted by many students, now successfully holding online classes. Many of the things that I was doing on campus before I continue to do in the comfort of my room: attending class, taking exams, going to student government meetings. To be sure, it all feels very different. It is a testament to how nimble our society is and to the willpower to make things work despite the markedly changed circumstances.
Yet while most things have been changed to adapt to the times, I also find very beautiful the efforts of many people to maintain even a semblance of our pre-coronavirus lives. Digitally our interactions may have morphed, but many of the same rhythms of life still holds. Berkeley is famous (or infamous, depending on who you ask) for ‘Berkeley time’ where all classes start 10 minutes after the clock. The reason, ostensibly, is so that students have enough time to transverse the campus from class to class. Yet even as this need for self-transportation has been eliminated by our ability to instantaneously enter a Zoom room, Berkeley time continues to be observed religiously. It is silly, but these throwbacks to a now bygone era helps, I think, to anchor everyone to remnants of sanity from an earlier time.
But there is a cost to the digital lives we now lead. After all humans, Aristotle once observed, “is by nature a social animal; an individual who is unsocial naturally and not accidentally is either beneath our notice or more than human.” Anyone who could be so self-sufficient as to live a solitary life, Aristotle said, “is either a beast or a god.”
By Aristotle’s metric, at this point the state is trying to turn us into beasts or gods. The day before I flew out of California, the Bay Area imposed a statewide “shelter in place” order which mandated that everyone stay home except for essential errands. The order was quickly extended statewide. A day after I flew back to Thailand, the local authorities began an effective shutdown of Bangkok. For the first time, we were told to ask not what staying home can do for you, but what staying home can do for our country. Sitting on a couch all day has become our patriotic duty.
Social distancing is a must. Scientific advice has demonstrated quite clearly by this point that mitigation would not work against coronavirus; only suppression would do, and for this I applaud both California and Bangkok for doing the right thing. But the costs on our social lives, minuscule as they may be when weighed against the human cost of coronavirus, are profound. Man may by nature be social animals, but they may not be during pandemics, and that is grating.
This Zoomer generation, now all summarily quarantined at home, are trying to find ways to cope. Over the past few days, I have learned of so many multiplayer online games that can be put on video call that I otherwise would never have had the time nor the inclination to play. Small talk on Zoom might be mundane and repetitive when everyone is shut in their rooms, but it is reassuring nonetheless. I see people doing virtual boba hangouts and virtual frat parties. Some are meeting up on childhood legacies like Club Penguin.
Yet, of course, it is not the same. Take, for example, Instagram, which has been transformed into a scrapbook of throwback photos. FOMO — fear of missing out — has been eliminated, but there isn’t much anywhere to miss out on. (It’s harder to get angry at not having been invited to a Zoom hangout.) But while this has doubtlessly helped reduce anxiety for thousands of people, it surely has also sparked some introspection on the parts of many that life where everyone has become hikikomori, drawing oranges on Instagram stories all day, is one that is less than ideal. Individualist our society may encourage us to be, but in the end we thrive in the company of others.
I don’t know if I would call myself a “glass half full” kind of person. But in an effort to provide even an ounce of optimism, I think that this generation’s shared experience will yield an important social benefit: the realization that we are all interdependent. And if that is what our generation of Zoomers will take away from this crisis, perhaps it is a worthy silver lining.