laptop

"Screens let people in - and with all of them switched on life became hectic." Photo: Louise Kennerley

A few weeks ago I contracted whooping cough and was quarantined. Thanks to the internet, my isolation was far from lonely. Whilst I would have appeared to the casual observer like a consumptive on the couch - in my mind it felt more like the party scene in Breakfast at Tiffany's.

There was a massive, never-ending multi-tribal gathering going on inside my virtual world. There was music and YouTube clips being swapped, shared and played, people talking loudly and over the top of each other, someone brandishing a fistful of holiday or baby snaps trying to hold someone, anyone's! interest. There were people flirting, many arguments, the drunks whom people ignored. There was the sad woman crying and her friends flooding her with positive affirmations. And there were the wallflowers, lurking on the edges, mostly silent.

In my quarantine I usually had between four and six screens going at any one time: a tablet, two laptops, a touch phone, a Kindle and a television. Screens let the people in - and with all them switched on life became hectic.

Several writers I greatly admire who write about modern life are circumspect about technology.

The American novelist Jonathan Franzen has said ''Liking'' (on facebook) is for cowards and to go ''for what hurts''.

Zadie Smith, reflecting on the movie The Social Network, talked of the rise of 2.0 People, their virtual networks and the implications: ''we lose our bodies, our messy feelings, our desires, our fears''.

They are sceptics for the same reason I was: the things that make us human can only happen in a human-shaped space, not in an internet-shaped space that sucks time with the force of a black-hole.

I was an enthusiastic supporter of the ''techno-sceptics'' believing authentic connection could only occur IRL (In Real Life). I yearned for a way of life that was extinct - an agrarian socialist ideal where all conversations were face to face, where eye contact and body language was the interface.

But my quarantine sparked a rethink. Maybe screens are all we need?

I set my Skype to ''available'' and started booking up friends. These calls - scheduled for an hour or so - were on video and felt no different from meeting in a cafe.

On the laptop I signed in to two instant messenger (IM) accounts. This is the real life equivalent of casual banter, perfectly capturing people's voices but in text. A friend who pauses a lot in conversation, who likes time to think, may include lots of ---- (dashes). While friends who talk a lot IRL will IM as if their fingers are on fire.

Facebook was the place I sought sympathy and solace for my whooping cough. Twitter was where I got my intellectual kicks.

With all the ways there are to communicate, far from technology making us all homogenous androids - people's personality quirks shone through. With Sharon we communicated by email but she never answered her phone. With Lee it was through Gmail instant messenger. Was this not the essence of what it means to be human - that we are not one-browser-fits-all?

I found living a wholly virtual life was not incompatible with the values espoused by the radical humanists whose writings I admired. Only connect - asked E. M. Forster? I couldn't disconnect. I also discovered there can be depth in the virtual world.

Facebook opens you up. The lives of others wash over you - as relentless as a tide. As for depth - in my quarantine I was reconnecting with friends who lived far away.

I felt I could stay here - in this new land called Quarantine - scrolling and clicking, connecting and commenting, living in the world of the declarative Tweet, the meme, the Instagram photos, the status update, the text message, The ''Like'', the breaking news, the live cross, the Skype hook-up, the Youtube video, the IM conversations.

But when the fever broke and the course of antibiotics ended, I reluctantly stepped back into the world.

Going out IRL, I felt strangely apprehensive. The resolution was too bright, the pixels too sharp. Eye contact made me feel awkward and I missed the witty banter that now only seemed possible on IM. Boarding the bus, I accidentally touched the driver's hand and his skin felt weird. I had become used to touching plastic and chrome, sliding my hand across the touch-screen.

This other world would take a bit of getting used to again.

Brigid Delaney is a freelance journalist.

Twitter/BrigidWD

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