Quarantine Diaries: Chapter 14 — The New [Virtual] Reality

Chaos Central Control. Keeping track of virtual meetings calls for immersive technology.

It has been six months since the COVID-19 lockdown ended Life As We Know It.  With no Plan B, all of our activities that involved gatherings of people: school, business, entertainment, picnics, lunch meetings, dining out, and social and hobby organizations, etc., stopped.  We ordered food delivered by UPS.  We engaged with others only on social media, telephone, and email.  There was still television for entertainment, but soon devolved to reruns, as production companies shut down also.  Attempts to return to the Lost World–essentially ignoring the world-wide pandemic–failed miserably as each mass gathering resulted in a spike of new cases. Our children and grandchildren who could work remotely did, the essential medical workers carried on, and the rest scrambled for other work, switched to take-out food service, or were forced into early retirement.

But, gradually, through the spring and over the strange summer,  schools and organizations experimented with on-line learning and meeting, via video conferencing.  To it’s credit, the most advanced and popular of these services, Zoom, rose to the challenge (and the massive infusion of revenue) to meet the demand.  People of all ages, some who were still challenged by email and who eschewed social media, found themselves pointing and clicking on microphone and camera icons and struggling with volume and presentation layouts on the Zoom screens.

We belong to an organization that sponsors residency retreats for women in the arts, Hypatia-In-The-Woods.  After cancellation of most of the residencies until a suitable cleaning and turnover procedure could be developed, the retreat cottage, Holly House, reopened in mid-summer for those applicants who lived close enough to travel safely.  We lamented the loss of a venue for the artists to show their work, with the closure of the public library meeting rooms, but the program continues, with the aid of a grant to make up for lost revenue during the regrouping period.

We also belong to two fiber arts guilds, the Tacoma Weavers Guild, and the Olympia Weavers Guild, and an ad hoc art quilt study group loosely affiliated with but separate from a quilting guild in Olympia.  The Ruby Street Art Quilters (RAQ), having lost a meeting place with the closing of Ruby Street Quiltworks last year, and shifting around from Annie’s Quilt Shoppe in Shelton and fire station to fire station in Lacey, essentially went silent, though still a fleeting presence on Facebook.  There’s simply no budget, no charter, and no dues, and not a close enough association with the regular quilt guild.

The two well-funded and much larger weaving guilds, however, embraced the new virtual technologies, though slowly.  The Guilds don’t meet over the summer, but members worked behind the scenes to develop a plan to continue to thrive and survive, as both have for 85 and 75 years, respectively.  New program plans were developed to adapt to  online presentations, though most presenters were unprepared and cancelled.  Board meetings were held online to formalize the new reality, and practice sessions were held to familiarize members new to the technology and to work out procedures for conducting business and social meetings.  Meanwhile, the Timberland Regional Library developed a plan to offer public presentations on-line as well, which promises to bring back the artist showcase to Hypatia, but without the meet-and-greet potluck dinners: bring-your-own-fare with social distancing just hasn’t caught on as a satisfying social outlet.

By the time September arrived, everything was in place with most organizations.  So far, both weaving guilds have had very successful meetings, with nearly 40 members participating in each, of the 65 and 115 total members, respectively, and the first Hypatia resident artist on-line presentation is scheduled for next week.  The results have been most interesting.  No longer do we have to drive for 30 minutes to an hour to attend meetings.   The formalism imposed by the electronic medium ensures the business meetings move smoothly and keep within the schedule.  A major draw for the fiber arts groups is the sharing of work by members.  While we can’t examine the works in person, everyone has a front seat at the presentation, and many of us prefer to share previously taken photographs on-screen, which gives an added dimension, with closeups.  Committee reports are easily displayed on-screen rather than just read.  The tool includes a mechanism for voting on motions, with an exact count.  As one participant noted, we’re all face-to-face, where the in-person meetings take place with half the members looking at the backs of heads, and the rest craning backwards to see and hear a speaker at the back of the room.  It’s also easier to “mingle” before the meeting, since we don’t have to thread through the crowd to get to a person on the other side of the room.  There are still details and procedures to work out, but there are definite advantages along with the minor disadvantages to meeting in virtual space.

One of the other activities we’ve been missing out on is our yoga practice with the Senior Center.  A few weeks ago, the Senior Center started up scheduled Zoom sessions for some of the activities during this period when the center is closed to members.  Obviously, participating in a physical activity online is a bit different than sitting in the office with talking heads.  The first week we were able to participate, we set up in Judy’s craft room, which also serves as our TV room, with the big-screen monitor on which she watches her craft tutorials.  It’s not a big room.  For the second week’s session, our regular practice leader couldn’t be there, so I was tapped to lead the group (consisting of four of us–we’re hoping to build up to our usual 8 to 20 folks like we had at the Center over the last 10 years).  For this, I set up a computer in the sewing/quilting/weaving side of the fiber arts studios in the basement.  I use a setup with three cameras, so I had the “talking head” camera, one focused on the mat, and one for standing forms.  All went pretty well, except the ceiling, at a bit over 2 meters, didn’t permit full overhead stretches (I’m 186 cm), and, to get enough vertical field of view, my mat was too close to the bookcase to do side-twist arm and leg extensions from the mat.  Hopefully, our regular leader will be back next week: she has a bigger house with an empty room.

So, our real-time social world  is almost completely virtual.  In Episode 13 of the Quarantine Diaries, I described our breakdown of our aging network infrastructure.  Since we were spending money, I splurged on a docking adapter for my new laptop.  Today, for our on-line meeting, where both Judy and I had committee reports to present and a joint Show and Share slideshow of fiber projects we’ve been working on, I rearranged the workspace to configure three monitors on my laptop, extending the virtual world across the width of our work table.  We’re approaching the Internet Wall seen in the last century in such science fiction films like Fahrenheit 451 (1966), (Total Recall (1990), and Minority Report (2002).

In other areas, I’ve been spending more time mentoring on-line to computer students and budding software developers, most of whom appear to be in other than the United States, judging from the names, via questions posed on the Quora knowledge-sharing site.  We may be physically isolated in this era of closed borders and travel restrictions, but we still extend across the world, via the virtual environment.