Last Friday, quarantine day 1,379 (okay, maybe a little less), we watched The Matrix with our daughter. She’d never seen it, and it had been a while since we had as well. While she suddenly understood all the Gen X quotes (“red pill or blue pill,” “I know Kung-Fu!” and “free your mind.”), I was caught by other things: all the reflective surfaces, and one very different quote.
The quote is the one where Cypher says “Ignorance is bliss,” after relishing a steak he knows isn’t real. And those reflective surfaces? They’re the ones that give us a choice, over and over again—are we inside or outside? Are we going to look at the mirror, or at the real image? Will we see what we’re supposed to, or what we want to see? The steak is a reflection too, in a way: the system of The Matrix allows those inside to taste something delicious. Outside, they get pale slop in a tin—“all the protein and amino acids a body needs.” Blechhhh.
These days, many are feeling little like they’ve stepped into the Matrix (and/or been suddenly pushed online). The effect has been jarring but expansive for education1, many white collar jobs2, and all our distancing survival tactics3—group-watching movies, isolation concerts, even ordering groceries by app. The expansion has made available online a whole lot of things that up until now weren’t considered practical (working from home, virtual doctor check-ups, etc.).
For many others, it may feel as if online has suddenly gotten a lot more crowded, especially with people who aren’t used to using the tools available, or who want to build all-new tools, or who think the whole situation sucks and want to tell us so, repeatedly.
For those of us in the latter group, watching the world discover (again) what’s possible online carries with it a lot of hope and some trepidation. The hope—at least for me—is for easier access to possibility and resources, for better and stronger communities, and with more people participating who can’t necessarily easily be present in person. The trepidation is a bit more layered, and it has to do with that steak Cypher’s eating in The Matrix.
That steak is delicious. It’s perfect—juicy and gorgeous on the screen. And its richness is impossible, outside of The Matrix. And Cypher knows it, even if most people don’t.
For our purposes—and those of the pandemic world—that steak is presence.
We love feeling present—there’s nothing quite like being somewhere cool. We love the crowd—or we did—and being part of an event. Whether it’s a concert, or a protest, or a lecture, we are all together, doing the same thing, and that’s cool.
Many people have for years believed that it is impossible to serve that steak online. Yet, most of them have now decided that—at least for the moment—it’s not impossible. Those of us who were already here are excited to welcome them (free your mind)…but we hope that they’ll understand that the steak was never really a steak.
A lifetime ago, which was December, I gave a talk about using virtual spaces for education, the risks and the rewards.4
I began teaching online via email in 1997 for the Center for Talented Youth at Johns Hopkins, and then for a series of schools and programs using online classrooms. Last year, I accepted the role of Director of the Genre MFA program at University of Western Colorado. Western’s been teaching genre fiction students online for ten years. Low-residency education and distance education allows students to be present while also remaining at home and continuing careers. From correspondence classes in the 19th century all the way up to now, at its best, this kind of learning also provides models for outreach and inclusion across geography, economics, and, increasingly, disability. Recent improvements include attention to text-based learning that works on a phone or over a reader, transcription access for video and audio, and tools that enhance experiences across learning styles.
But what this kind of environment offers most is presence: the opportunity to be part of a group engaged in something, together, from anywhere.
I’ve been working with software that explored the idea of presence for a long time. From immersive storytelling to 3-D telepresence5. And while it’s not always perfect, I’ve seen how technology can offer the same feeling of presence via different cues (gaming has made numerous strides this way). In the meantime, this imperfect technology has evolved over many years to be more accessible and inclusive6. As a case in point, the popular software Zoom has accessibility tools, including captioning for D/deaf colleagues—which is an exciting evolution.
As someone with mobility issues, I value the opportunity to participate in work, events, and classes online, even when my body doesn’t want to, and without that being a big deal to my colleagues. I’ve wished for a long time that more options were available—from blended telepresence for professional conferences to doctors’ visits.
That’s because the real world and my presence in it has sometimes seemed as inaccessible and unwieldy as others are now finding the online world. And for several of my friends and colleagues, that ‘sometimes’ is an ‘always.’
So when I and others see more people discovering what is possible and what’s available online, that trepidation comes up—will it work? Will we keep these tools once we believe we don’t need them any longer? Will we make it possible for more people—across all geographic and socioeconomic levels—to access them by making wifi a public utility, for instance; allowing students and faculty to attend class virtually if they’re feverish or unable to be there in person; or giving telework the same respect as cubicle-work, with as many options for collaboration?
We’re already seeing frustration as teachers, employers, librarians, and many more are being asked to do a lot of extra work with limited resources (time being the main one), even as tech support personnel are doing their best to give individual help to everyone who needs it (seriously, you all, thank you). Others are discovering there are people online who will happily disrupt your meeting or event if you don’t give thought to protecting it (something we’ve known as far back as text and dial-up modems). Sometimes that frustration comes out as: this is awful. We can’t wait to go back to the way things were.
“Ignorance is bliss.”
The way things were? That big juicy steak? That includes big auditoriums with inaccessible stairs, doors too narrow for wheelchairs, traffic jams on the way to class. It includes situations where people who weren’t feeling well felt it still necessary to be at work, in order to keep their jobs. Or to go to a convention, because they didn’t want to (or couldn’t afford to) be left out—besides, they weren’t that sick7.
The way things were was also frustrating, but mainly in ways that impacted people not already privileged with regards to money, mobility, health, access, or commuting time.
When we go back outside, and I fervently hope we will as soon as it’s safe, I’m hoping we can bring the virtual with us—across events, classrooms, everything. That mirroring effect—where the real world and the virtual world meet and include each other in The Matrix? That’s part of presence too. Because while the steak isn’t real, the options available to us—ways that we can make presence a possibility for as many people as possible, and not just for the lucky few—are real. In both the online and offline worlds, and the spaces in between.
 That is, if you have the bandwidth.
 ” Teaching the Future – Synchronous and Asynchronous Online Learning” by Fran Wilde. Posted March 10, 2020. https://franwilde.wordpress.com/2020/03/10/teaching-the-future-synchronous-and-asynchronous-online-learning/
 ” Another Word: Very Close Now” by Fran Wilde. Clarkesworld Issue 113, February 2016. http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/another_word_02_16/
 ” Another Word: A Brief Parable about Exchanges Between Time, Independence, Technology, and Privacy” by Fran Wilde. Clarkesworld Issue 137, February 2018. http://clarkesworldmagazine.com/another_word_02_18/
 “Cons, Crud, and Coronavirus” by Kelly Lagor. Uncanny Magazine Issue 34. Originally posted March 13, 2020. https://www.uncannymagazine.com/cons-crud-and-coronavirus-by-kelly-lagor/
© 2020 Fran Wilde