Confinement has brought us a new and paradoxical form of fatigue: the fatigue of video calls. Paradoxical because, despite the fact that now the bodies do not move through subway corridors, crowded streets or endless traffic jams, they end the day, however, more exhausted than before.

Bodies caught on the screens

The first reason seems obvious: if they do not circulate freely it is because they are caught between uncertainty and fear, anguish and grief. Fatigue is one of the classic signs of depressive affect, along with others such as sadness, crying or lack of desire (appetite, sexual, pleasure …). But there are other reasons specifically derived from the use of technology. The virtual rooms where we “meet” by video call with colleagues, patients, friends or family dislocate the image and the body. On the screens our image appears for all to see, yes, but more fixed and rigid than usual, sometimes even temporarily frozen. While in (familiar) intimacy we have the body.

That simple fact has its consequences because, when in person, body and image are accompanied and sustained together, with the addition of speech. The three are knotted according to the style of each person (introvert, extrovert, extravagant, discreet…). Holding ceaselessly the image and the gaze on the screens is tiring, because we also do not count on other expressive resources (facial and body gestures). Even silence (which is part of the voice) cannot be used as we wish. It should not be ignored that, sometimes, this silence is imposed on us by deficiencies in the connection without us knowing whether it is intentional (from the interlocutor) or alien to it. We have no other option, then, than to look at the screen and scrutinize the multiple gallery stimuli of all the other participants, in a desperate attempt to reduce the distance of the bodies.

Same place, same semblance

We have also lost the option of the changes of rhythm that displacements imply and that lighten the mind and the body. Now we “meet” in the same space with friends, family or colleagues, all without leaving home. The supposed diversity comes down to more of the same. To this is added that, in face-to-face life, speaking-beings invent a semblant (appearance) to go about the world. A way, each one their own, of knotting the body, speechand the image, which is composed and decomposed in the ceremonies of the encounter: greeting, contact, farewells, different according to each culture, custom or style. Now, however, those ceremonies have been reduced to a single version: the digital one. And in the end it turns out that this repetition of the same exhausts us and bores us. There are even those who look for wallpapers to imagine other spaces and other sensations in their digital meetings.

Attention is money!

This phenomenon, to which the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, has dedicated his latest book (The disappearance of rituals, Wiley, 2020) already has a certain history. It arose a few years ago from the concern of some technology firms, desperate for a new business model that involved capturing people’s constant attention. This led to studying the “economy of attention”, because dividends depended on such attention. As content and information grow unlimitedly – increasing supply and devaluing it economically – the scarcest and most valuable resource is attention. This creates wild competition and propels novel formulas to retain the consumer for as long as possible. In this way, the extraction of information that occurs during the connection is made possible, which increases and produces more benefits. It is the base of Big Data mining. Fixing the attention is above all fixing the gaze, which should not be confused with an exercise of intellectual concentration that would produce analytical knowledge. To fix the gaze is to enjoy that gaze, to satisfy what the psychoanalysts Freud and Lacan called the scopic drive. The drive is a push to a repeated activity, which does not stop and whose satisfaction lies in the very fact of its repetition. If this can also be monetized, as it happens digitally, it’s the icing on the cake! Everyone wins: the Internet user and the providers. Hyperattention is also a therapy for anxiety, different and more acceptable than anti-anxiety medication. If I have doubts about who I am, my social value, how others perceive me, what they call self-esteem, exposure to screens offers me some answers. Although it must be admitted that they are usually unsatisfactory or short-lived.

The virtual does not replace the presence

The virtues of connectivity are evident, and more so in times of pandemic. They maintain and create some links, and even form virtual communities. This effect should not be neglected or radically separated from the live presence, as Han does. The key is not, as he thinks, in communication, but in the satisfaction obtained. All rituals – including virtual ones – veil the fact that our satisfaction has an inevitable autistic tinge. They hide the fact that we enjoy alone with our object (the screens). Hence the need to reproduce those same face-to-face encounters on the net.

The problem arises when the abuse of video calls and screens –the non-stop fixation of the drive– ends up producing boredom and tiredness. The good news is that there is life beyond this kind of constant buzz from the zoom life we ​​are in. For this, it is convenient to separate a little from the hypnotic effect, reduce virtual encounters and veil the gaze (screen) from time to time, restricting it to the voice.

The current crisis should not make us forget that the virtual can complement, but not replace, the face-to-face meeting, the presence of the bodies in the flesh.

 Originally published in The Conversation. Available online. And also Zadig Espana. Available online.