Do Androids Dream of a Virtual Life?

Let me say up top I’m not a big fan of TV commercials. I usually hit “mute” and bask in the several minutes silence before the news/baseball/whatever resumes. BUT the Progressive Insurance holiday ad featuring the agency’s icon “Flo” and her PI family in a 16-way Zoom confab—that one I watched every time. Too funny.

And too true.

We had our own multi-multi Zoomfest over Christmas: Ed, me, our four adult kids and their partners for a total of nine people on six screens.  

All those “memorable” Zoom moments when one or several screens freeze and you’re not sure if the frozen ones can hear or see you? We had those on steroids. Also, rounds and rounds of the joyous confusion where everyone talks at once, followed by total silence. Major awkward pause. Apologetic clearing of throats. Everyone glances around their little boxes. Then everyone resumes chattering—all at the same time. It’s nice to see the faces…  

And then there are the Zoom conferences and forums put on by various orgs. What Zoom meetings lack in confusion, they make up for in tedium. To be fair, I’ve only attended one, a get-out-the-vote postcard writing “party” hosted by National Nurses United for then-Senate candidates Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff—but one was enough. I stayed for the first 18 minutes, left the link open, and went off to do something more exciting—as I recall, it was a load of laundry.

It was a great cause, and the organizers were trying to create a festive atmosphere. Heads popped in—Hi everyone!—and out on three different screens. There was a sifting of papers. A fiddling with computers. Christmas decorations floated near the top of one screen. Disconnected chatter ensued, relieved by much hemming and hawing, as the organizers attempted to “get the party started.” The real action seemed to be the participant comments scrolling down the right side of the screen. So good to be here. I got my postcard packet yesterday. Is it too late to get extras?

Well, how much can you really say about crafting a handwritten message that must fit in a 3” x 3” space? Write very small? Okay, party over.

The New Eating Out: Eating In

Rod Long

Ed and I enjoy eating out. From the rooftop bistro of the local brewery to the “eclectic locavore” cuisine of our favorite “dress-up” restaurant. And we are not above sharing a footlong and fries at the ice-cream stand on a hot summer night. We also both cook, and if it’s not too bragga-dacious to say, we cook rather well. Eat out. Cook in. I’m good with either. What I like less, and what has been the only dining-out option the past year, is “take away.” The COVID option.

Case in point: On my birthday last month, Ed and I decided to play hooky all day and skip the kitchen duties. Solution: Take-away from a favorite Indian restaurant. Mangalorean Shrimp Curry and Chicken Vindaloo. Dreams of coconut gravy with ginger and tomato. Fantasies of tangy hot-and-sour chili vinegar.  

Reality? Lukewarm mush in aluminum plates that needed: 1) re-plating, and 2) reheating. A jumble of condiments in teensy plastic containers. All devoured in the usual dinner “spot” (on the sofa, watching MSNBC, The Crown, Endeavour, or a movie), while dressed in jeans and house slippers.

What do restaurants and cafes have that even the best take-away can never duplicate? The theatre of it all: The sizzle of fajitas. The buzz of conversation from the bar. A world filled with other people that somehow creates an intimate space for lively, funny, thought-provoking chatter with your dinner companion. At the end of such an evening, you feel you’ve had an experience. Bonus: Someone brings the dishes, clears the dishes, cleans the dishes.

At home, you just rebox any leftovers and rinse the aluminum plates for the recycle.   

Surf ‘til You Drop?

I’m not a shopaholic. In fact, I rarely go shopping as an activity in itself. Of course, “shopping” during COVID has largely meant surfing Amazon or other online purveyors for everything from socks to fancy espresso makers. In the first six months of the pandemic, the fleets of Amazon, UPS, and FedEx trucks were virtually the only traffic on the local roads. Piles of boxes tumbled across the front porch of nearly every house I passed in my daily walk. What were all those people ordering? And more to the point, where were they stashing it all? As the comic Steven Wright used to quip: You can’t have everything. Where would you put it? In the digital shopping mania of COVID, it seems many of us were endeavoring to answer that question.

I must confess, I have done virtually nothing to enrich Jeff Bezos in the past 14 months. My pandemic purchases have fallen far short of a “spree”: two pairs of jeans from the Gap, a Ruth Bader Ginsburg facemask, and some holiday gifts for family. Amazon may be the world’s largest bookseller, but it is not my local bookstore with its overflowing shelves and jumbled stacks of titles, all waiting for me to turn pages, sample passages, digest jacket copy. For the same reason I gravitate toward print books and eschew Kindle reads, I prefer the tactile delights of real-life commerce, Main Street or the mall.     

Surfing through endless digital pages of consumer goods is no substitute for clothing or shoe stores, jewelry shops, gift bazaars, or kitchenware emporiums. The sensory pleasures of browsing shelves and display cases, feeling fabrics, hefting pots—it cannot be duplicated by an online image in a 1” x 2” box.  

With Real Life shopping, you can pause for a latte or a glass of wine at the local café. Enjoy the passing scene. Chill with a good read. Shopping online, you’re lucky to have this morning’s reheated coffee (rapidly cooling) within reach.         

My only Real Life shopping the past 14 months has been the weekly trek to the grocery store, something of an endurance feat as the narrow aisles are packed with employees filling bags for the store’s home delivery service. I understand the convenience—and I’m sure, in some cases, necessity—but I want to browse the selection of red peppers and cucumbers, see the freshness (or otherwise) of the seafood, read labels, compare brands.     

Is it Live or is it … (sigh) Virtual?

As big fans of dance, Ed and I have been regular attendees at Jacob’s Pillow Summer Dance Festival in the Berkshires. The Pillow hosts some of the best dance troupes from around the globe. Everything from audacious tap-master Michelle Dorrance (Dorrance Dance) to the Ballet Hispánico. From Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to the Royal Danish Ballet.

Obviously, none of this happened last summer. Instead, the Pillow has been hosting “virtual” dance performances. A sample invite from my email:


The Pillow Lab is a continuing series of online short films begun last year, which capture works in process by artists during their on-site residencies at Jacob’s Pillow. Join us for the screening of our newest film… and live-chat with flamenco dancer Nélida Tirado and her collaborators as well as audiences from around the world…

So, instead of an evening or matinee live dance performance with all its grace, athleticism, and dazzling brilliance—an event which even in a building that could use more fans on an August day, leaves you energized, inspired, transformed—we have only videos of six-inch-high dancers on our tablets and laptops. True, you can hook up your computer to the TV and double the size of these flamenco virtuosos and ballet legends, but you can’t capture the electric, pulsating buzz of the real thing, the synergy between performer and audience.   

The Pillow notes “a private virtual reception” will follow the performance: These gatherings provide a unique platform to share your reactions, feedback, and questions with the creative team. Oh joy, more viewer comments scrolling down the side of the screen…

One is the Loneliest Number

In no way do I fault The Pillow or other arts orgs for doing all they can to survive the COVID shutdown. The arts are already underfunded in the States, their primal role in feeding our souls and nurturing our humanity underappreciated. A virtual performance is certainly better than no performance at all to those of us starving for live art—dance, music, theatre. But listening to a radio broadcast of the Boston Symphony Orchestra will never be like sitting on the lawn at Tanglewood on a star-lit summer night, the genius of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms drifting across a moment in time you’re sharing with hundreds of others. And a taped production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet will never be like watching actors perform that miracle of a play from a gallery seat in The Globe in London.

It has been posited that communal storytelling began almost as soon as humans could speak. Fables to warn of dangers, myths to explain the mysterious, tales to mark an occasion, celebrate a victory. Wherever a people gathered, storytellers were sure to emerge, and audiences devoured it all. Without an audience, the storyteller, the playwright, the troubadour did not exist. Without an audience—to listen and remember—Homer, Shakespeare, Mozart would likely have died with their age.

Maybe the most significant aspect of live performance is the community it forges through a shared experience. Now we have video streaming, but the virtual is experienced by the individual. The lonely I instead of the we. Ephemeral, it tends to get lost in the “next thing.”    

Hold Onto Your Seat, We’re Traveling by Armchair?!

Collins Dictionary defines an armchair traveler as “someone who finds out what a place or location is like by watching travel programs on television, looking at internet websites about travel, or reading books about travel.” I can only add “and viewing virtual tours.”

Perhaps nothing has been so altered by the pandemic as travel. With each nation compiling its own specific no-fly zones, both for its citizens and those of other countries, the result is a jigsaw even Einstein would be hard-pressed to untangle. Thus (drum roll) … virtual travel! But we don’t need the brains behind the Theory of Relativity to drop the penny on this one: If you don’t leave your armchair, you ain’t really going anywhere.   

Nevertheless, when has truth stopped anyone from making a buck? offers something called Amazon Explore. For $69, you can “hear the legends and tales of the Spanish Inquisition in Madrid” (60 minute session). Aside from flirting with redundancy—legends and tales (Is that like gravy and sauce, Pepsi and Coke?)—you get to “see” a couple of palaces and the Plaza Mayor, once the site of torture and execution.

Also running 60 minutes, but far cheaper at ten bucks, is a virtual tour through the “Tango-infused La Boca neighborhood of Buenos Aires.” On this tour, or “experience” as it’s called in the Web ad, “we will insert ourselves [ouch!] in the heart of La Boca… walk through Caminito street and … show you inside what was formerly a tenement for immigrants, today turned into a shopping destination.” Okay…

For no dollars at all, offers a 3-minute virtual tour (don’t blink!) through “some of Japan’s most popular sights—Kyoto’s bamboo forest, Nara Deer Park, and even a sumo exhibition!”

Yes, you can find out about the climate of a country or the architecture of its towns from a TV program. You can peruse the list of a city’s museums, art galleries, and eateries online. You can read about the history and peoples of a region. And you can also do all of these “virtually”—but you can never discover what a place is like unless you go there and walk its streets, talk to its people, eat the local food, and take in what it has thought worth preserving. No video, book, or website can ever give you the feel of sitting in a café on the cascading hillside of Santorini, overlooking the Aegean Sea with its underwater caldera, a crater from a volcano that erupted 3,700 years ago and left today’s beaches black with lava pebbles. No virtual tour can duplicate the awe of the Alhambra, the 13th century royal residence and court of the Nasrid Kingdom in what is today Granada, Andalusia, Spain—an architectural gem the Moorish poets called “a pearl set in emeralds.” And an English pub is a British cultural institution you must experience firsthand, as unlike a Parisian café as ale is to wine.  

A Tweet Ain’t No Feet in the Street

One of the most flummoxing notions to emerge during COVID—ranking just below TheRUMP’s touting of bleach as a cure—has been the idea that virtual protest is anything like… well, protest. I mean, the whole history of protest has been putting our bodies where our values are. Literally walking the talk. In the streets.

The year-long Montgomery bus boycott (1955/56), inspired by Rosa Park’s refusal to give up her seat to a white passenger, required that Black citizens—a sizeable share of the city’s bus riders—actively not ride the public buses. Instead, some 40,000 Black men and women walked to work and back every day, in all kinds of weather, for a year. It was a highly visible, striking image that television news cameras broadcast and the bus company could not ignore. All the likes in the world on Facebook pale in comparison. Feet in the street.    

It took hundreds of protests and hundreds of thousands of protesters—some nine years of feet in street—to stop the Vietnam War. A generation of Americans came of age in that unflagging effort and was forever shaped by it. Their numbers continue to be well-represented in Real Life actions today.

Could four Black students protesting segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina (1960) have built a national movement with tweets alone? It took derrieres on lunch-counter stools at the local Woolworth’s—where the official policy was to refuse service to anyone who wasn’t white—to achieve that. It was the first of the legendary sit-ins, but not the last. Within four days, 300+ students had joined in, bringing business to a halt at Woolworth’s and other local racist venues. Eight weeks later, the fight for de-segregation had spread to 55 cities in 13 states.

The 1963 March on Washington—a quarter million people at the Lincoln Memorial. The 1965 March to Montgomery with its iconic crossing of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Can you imagine these milestones in history as virtual online events? Without hundreds of thousands of feet in the street this past year, it’s highly doubtful that Derek Chauvin would ever have been convicted of George Floyd’s murder. Real people on the streets in real time make real change.  

I began this post with Zoom, that substitute for hugging-your-kids-for-which-there-is-no-substitute. The highlight of my COVID Zoom experiences was a family wedding. Despite a number of pauses early in the proceedings to restore the sound, it was a sunny day, in a lovely setting. The teary toasts to the radiant bride and groom, the reading of a powerful poem, the performance of a song—all were beautiful, brilliant, moving—but I couldn’t hug the bride and groom, couldn’t taste the cake. Ed and I were just two heads in a tiny square amid a sea of other tiny heads in tiny squares, lifting the beverage of our choice to toast the newlyweds.

If this post’s title “Do Androids Dream of a Virtual Life?” tripped a familiar switch in your brain, it’s a riff on Philip K. Dick’s immortal novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, the basis for the blockbuster 1982 film Blade Runner.

I feel pretty sure Philip K. Dick understood and would agree: There ain’t nothing like the real thing.