Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Virtual Emotions in a Pandemic

Sara Protasi

Writers, cinematographers, and philosophers have often wondered what love could look like in a virtual age. Could we fall in love with a sophisticated AI? Will there be a time in which people think that having sex in person is odd or even gross? Will the children of our children ever leave their bedroom in order to have a date?

Maybe it is because sexual and romantic love plays such a fundamental role in our lives or maybe it is because it is just more fun to fantasize about, but other emotions have been less investigated in their virtual manifestations.

And yet, the current pandemic has proven that we can experience a whole range of emotions in the absence, or at least paucity, of face-to-face interactions. Even those who share a living space with others have found themselves engaging in many more virtual relations than physical ones.

Online hookups and on-nomi (the Japanese term for drinking online with friends) have joined the already-established video call with the (grand)parents (not to mention online porn) in showing that all forms of love and sexual gratification can be expressed through the internet. But that is only the tip of the iceberg. College graduation ceremonies, both institutional and private, painstakingly planned and impromptu, have blossomed all over the web and filled hearts with joy, pride, and relief for having, after all, made it. Virtual birthday parties and even weddings have made people wear their best clothes and share the excitement. I was surprised to see how much fun my four-year-old daughter had at her virtual birthday party (it probably helped that her gifts were not virtual). People have found unexpected ways of spending time together, even of renovating languishing relationships and reconnecting with long-lost friends.

However, also darker emotions have found space online. The omnipresence of virtual interaction exacerbates some well-known issues. Social media conversations are more likely to involve tone deafness, misunderstandings, equivocation, lack of tact, trolling, or outright abuse. A lot of evidence shows that emotions such as jealousy and envy, resentment and depression thrive on platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. Those effects are magnified by the isolation in which many of us still live: that photo of a “friend” having a fancy Martini on the beach could give rise to anything from a slight pang of envy to full-blown rage; the petty fight becomes a never-to-be-ended feud; the disappointment a heartbreak. All these negative emotions are harder to cope with under stress and without adequate access to mental health care resources.

Perhaps the worst of the virtual emotions is virtual grief: in the last few weeks, due to the security procedures in place in many hospitals, some people have not been able to hug their ill or dying loved ones, or have even undergone the trauma of seeing them die on a screen. In many countries, funerals have not been held, and those who have survived have had to grieve on their own, without the comfort brought about by human touch, or by mourning in the same room as other grieving people. And my heart breaks thinking of the fear and despair of those who have died surrounded by strangers covered in PPE. Their emotions are, too, in a sense, virtual, insofar as their only possible expression to their loved ones has often been through a phone or I-pad. And to those phones or I-pads the medical professionals have turned to pour out their horror, to share their grief, to confess their immense guilt for having been forced to choose between lives, for having witnessed such tragedies.

These painful emotions are real, just as are their happy counterparts. But there is something unjustly truncated, a mutilation of their natural aims. Sadness and grief are meant to bring people together, to bear witness to the value of what has been lost, to remind ourselves of our interconnectedness: how can they reunite us when we are so far apart? Pride, love and joy may well be felt online, but the range of their expressions becomes limited. My department’s graduation reception brought real tears to my eyes, but I still mourned the inability to shake hands with parents, hug my advisees, clink my flute with theirs, feel the warmth, the literal warmth, in the room.

And there are some emotions that demand physicality, that do not accept a virtual version. While online activism and protests are possible, the power of taking to the streets as a form of political activism remains unmatched. The recent protests for the killing of George Floyd, an expression of righteous resentment and indignation at the latest manifestation of the systemic, violent racism that plagues the United States, would just not be conceivable virtually. One could imagine a virtual action, such as for instance a certain kind of hacking, with practically more devastating consequences, but that would not be in any way an apt expression of the kind of rage that people are feeling.

Our sophisticated brains can make up entire universes, alternate realities, and provide the illusion that we can overcome our animal nature, that we can aspire to being liberated from organic matter. But we are, for the moment, still physical beings. We have a heart that swells with pride, or breaks with grief. We have guts that contract in fear, muscles that tense up in anger, hands that are made for caressing the ones we love. We are so fragile. We have cells that a virus can attack relentlessly. We have bones that can be crushed, skin that can be perforated, lungs that cannot breathe. Our virtual emotions exist only because we learned to feel them in a material world, filled with material beings. And in the end, there is no substitute for that.

About The Author

Sara Protasi

Sara Protasi is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of Puget Sound, Washington. Her book The Philosophy of Envy is forthcoming with Cambridge University Press....

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