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Digital Depersonalization in the Time of Social Isolation

The reality and unreality of quarantine.

 engin akyurt - Unsplash
Source: engin akyurt - Unsplash

The coronavirus crisis has locked us in our rooms and confined us to our digital devices. Running through this new routine with morning yoga on YouTube, breakfast with a friend by FaceTime, class by Zoom followed a job interview by Skype – and that’s not even counting dating apps, Instagram, and TikTok – a person is suddenly caught by a strange feeling of unreality. The world outside the window looks lifeless. Her own room seems oddly different. Her own “I” feels unfamiliar, “as if it is not mine, but rather the 'I' that I project in my digital lives.”

These eerie experiences of unreality are known as depersonalization (unreality of “I”) and derealization (unreality of the world). Digital depersonalization designates feelings of unreality associated with digital activity.

The pandemic has changed the balance between the real world and virtual imagery, making a person more susceptible to digital depersonalization. The pre-pandemic world of freedom of movement and human relationships has become a paradise lost. What we once experienced as a human world with optional digital interaction has now become a cyberspace with allowed doses of human interaction. For a birthday party, a physician’s consult, or a meeting with a friend, we now have to go to nonexistent virtuality. There is something disturbingly depersonalizing and derealizing in this twisted way of relating to yourself, others, and the world around you.

Some people have adjusted to these restrictions and adapted to the digital substitutions for real human life. They enjoy the efficiency of work by Skype, the convenience of education by Zoom, and the comfort of family gatherings by FaceTime. Many of these people are “hands-on,” reasonable practical “doers,” with stable inner balance and high stress tolerance.

However, others feel suffocated by the surroundings of “false digital surrogacy.” They miss the freedom and authenticity of real life with friendly handshakes and caring hugs. They feel lost, incomplete, and different. A student reports, “I feel like a strange copy of me is participating in a Zoom class, while another me is watching this from the side. It is like in a dream. As if I need to wake up to get myself back.”

Among those who struggle with virtual captivity and develop digital depersonalization are sensitive “dreamers” with excessive imagination and deep self-analysis. The intensity of digital depersonalization varies significantly: from light, almost unregistered flashes of unreality to distinctive experiences of depersonalization and derealization; to severe bouts with debilitating anxiety and dissociation.

Digital depersonalization is closely linked to a lack of “wholeness of perception” and “wholeness of relatedness.” Digital imagery is always incomplete. An object in a cyber world is a partial object.

Relationships with partial objects are experienced as partial, insufficient, and lacking. This constitutes the depersonalization quality of unreality. In terms of perceptions, digital imagery lacks the oldest and most profound olfactory and tactile properties. In terms of spatial organization, it lacks a natural three-dimensional presentation. In terms of time organization, it suffers from disturbing image-sound asynchrony. In terms of object organization, it provides only part-object relatedness, revealing a perceptual void that triggers the feeling of unreality.

The most palpable source of the feeling of virtual unreality is the “emotional gap” between real and digital experiences. The emotional roots of feeling real are hidden beyond cognitive formulas in deeper unconscious layers of the psyche. The emotional and the intuitive are organic components of the entirety of any "alive" human experience.

And here is the line between the practical usefulness of digital communication that keeps feeling togetherness with or without the coronavirus crisis, and the troubling depersonalized effect of digital communication in the moments that call for true existential authenticity. An example of the former is an extended family Zoom to celebrate Mother’s Day: a warm gathering with spontaneous jokes, sincere emotions, and real connectedness. The example of the latter is another extended family Zoom funeral, an event that was so infamously introduced by the coronavirus crisis. For some attendees, this could turn into surreal estrangement, chilling feelings of disconnection, and discontent on the edge of dream and phantasmagoria.

The coronavirus crisis has turned the page of our knowledge on what it means to be a human and to be a person. We are ready to “re-open,” to turn over another page and free ourselves from digital captivity, leaving behind our couches, coffee mugs, and carefully preserved toilet paper. How will we feel personalized then?