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  • Writer's pictureJohn Favaro

Virtualisation in a World Made by Covid: the GRASP Approach

Updated: Dec 2, 2020

As readers of this blog know, GRASPnetwork was created nearly three years ago in a reaction to the increasing virtualization of our society. We wanted to explore the use of artful thinking as a potential tool for helping us to cope by discovering new perspectives and (ideally) new solutions. We wrote extensively about the essential dichotomy of mind and body, and how we suffer when deprived of one or the other. Frankly, back then in 2018, as we pondered the virtualization of society and what to do about it, none of us imagined in our wildest dreams what the year 2020 would bring.

But then, neither did Yuval Noah Harari, author (in 2014) of the blockbuster book Sapiens., the first (followed by Homo Deus in 2015) of his trio of books about humankind. In 2018, in his 21 Lessons for the 21st Century, he didn’t have much to say about viral pandemics. But like us, he was thinking a lot about the dangers of too much separation of mind from body – and brought his typical analytical insight and razor-like precision of thought into the discussion.

“People estranged from their bodies, senses and physical environment are likely to feel alienated and disoriented. Pundits often blame such feelings of alienation on the decline of religious and national bonds, but losing touch with your body is probably more important.”

This statement was made in the context of a discussion about people spending too much time on social media, substituting virtual friendships for real, physical ones. As Harari correctly points out, intimate relationships are probably a zero-sum game: the more time you spend on your virtual friendships in cyberspace, the less time you spend with your real ones on the ground, to the detriment of your psychological well-being.

In spite of a lot of pious nodding of heads, not everybody really believed this – at least in 2018 when it was written. And then, suddenly, in 2020, we had a jarring, unwelcome opportunity to confirm it, as the COVID-19 pandemic locked us down into our houses and removed us from contact with our friends and, in many cases, even our closest loved ones. It didn’t take long for the stories of frustration, distress, and depression to come out. Young people – ironically, the most enthusiastic fans of the online world – began to complain about not being able to mix it up with their friends.

Thanks to the coronavirus, I don’t think anybody doubts any longer that our physical relationship with society and the world is fundamental. But the coronavirus has, perhaps perversely, given us another gift: it has forced us to come to terms with the virtual world in ways we were unwilling to even consider before. For all the problems they have caused, I don’t think anybody doubts that the Internet, social media, and videoconferencing have been instrumental in avoiding an even more calamitous effect of the pandemic.

And the pandemic has given an unexpected opportunity to GRASPnetwork, which was founded on the very premise of seeking new ways to cope with the virtualization that has occurred in this strange 2020. That puts us in GRASP squarely in the spotlight now, and we are doing everything possible to rise to the occasion. Our series of Knowledge Huddles – originally conceived in the traditional mode of direct interaction within a group in intimate physical proximity – has gone online now (see the K-Huddle we carried out recently with the Art4Science initiative for an example). We have experimented with different delivery modes, including breakout rooms, virtual art galleries, and other forms of art (such as music) that are adaptable to a virtual context.

We have moved also to exploit the advantages of a virtual environment: for example, a virtual Knowledge Huddle removes the barriers to participation that are inherent in a physical context. Now it is feasible to have a K-Huddle with an even broader diversity of participants – an essential characteristic of creative interaction – who may be participating simultaneously from different nations and representing different backgrounds.

One particularly interesting experiment we are conducting in this direction is the exploration of the “second wave” of Virtual Reality technology (after the “first wave” launched by Second Life nearly two decades ago, and still with us today) as a possible hosting environment for virtual K-Huddles.

With or without new virtual environments, one question remains: can GRASP fulfill its ambition to find new perspectives on our collective situation through artful thinking? Harari also provides some very insightful observations on the role of art in such endeavors: in Sapiens, he explained with his usual clarity just exactly why Homo Sapiens came to dominate all other species (including its cousins the Neanderthals). It wasn’t a matter of strength or skill, but rather the ability to cooperate in great numbers – even with other people we don’t even know. This is made possible through a shared belief in stories, in fictions – for example, money, laws, and corporate persons such as Peugeot. Harari:

“Humans control the world because they can cooperate better than any other animal, and they can cooperate so well because they believe in fictions. Poets, painters and playwrights are therefore at least as important as soldiers and engineers.”

Facts, of course, are essential in dealing with our physical world. But our shared stories, our shared fictions, are what allow us to deal with them in the best possible way. And here is where art of all kinds is important, Harari observes:

“Art plays a key role in shaping people’s view of the world, and in the twenty-first century science fiction is arguably the most important genre of all, for it shapes how most people understand things like AI, bioengineering and climate change. We certainly need good science, but from a political perspective, a good science-fiction movie is worth far more than an article in Science or Nature.”

That is the premise of GRASPnetwork: artful thinking can help us create the stories that shape our view of the world we find in front of us, and lead us toward new perspectives and new solutions.


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