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Returning to Village Life: Lessons from the Pandemic – Part 9

This is Part 9 of a series – click here to read other Parts!

Touchstone 9

Reconnecting with VILLAGE LIFE:

Putting Tech to the Test

Decades before COVID-19, humanity began a strange experiment: seeing if we could replace work, learning, and recreation in intimate community – as we have practiced for millions of years – with work, learning, and recreation in relatively impersonal settings, via technology.

This experiment began with television, progressed to computers, video games, and the internet, and has culminated with smartphones, social media, and online offices, classrooms, and communities. In other words, we’ve been testing whether we could abandon the “village life” ingrained in our bodies, brains, genes, and societies in favor of an unprecedented “virtual life.”

Proponents of the new virtual paradigm have predicted this would be a more fulfilling arrangement for everyone all around, putting forward at least four hypotheses that a tech-mediated social world would:

  1. Reduce the “relational friction that characterizes in-person interaction in work and schooling

  2. Enable people to find a healthier balance between socializing and solitude

  3. Increase the efficiency of labor

  4. Prove to be the same but betterat enabling communal connections compared to traditional village life

Then when the coronavirus hit in 2020, we had to restrict much of village life to preserve public health, but had the virtual world infrastructure to avoid a social standstill. Consequently, we were able to truly put the technologists’ hypotheses to a full, all-encompassing trial as never before. With virtual life in extremis, we could now prove or disprove it as a viable alternative to village life.

So what were the results of this grand experiment? Let’s see how the hypotheses above fared.

Relational Friction: Facts & Fictions

What is relational friction? To many people in the fields of economics, business, and technology, it means “inconvenient or time-wasting interpersonal interactions” or “obligatory socializing.”

  • A classic example is “water-cooler-talk” – happenstance conversations in an office environment, that at best seem to add little recognizable value to our work, and at worst actively distract from valuable working time.

  • Another example is students’ age-old love of talking to each other in and out of class, which is assumed by many to be an unqualified obstruction to learning.

These are examples of what virtual life, and what tech companies that promote and sell virtual life, promise to minimize or eliminate for us altogether.

And the pandemic seemed to offer a chance to make good on this promise once and for all.

  • Now working from home, every office employee was finally forced to confine all their conversations to the business-only, goal-oriented venues of email and accompanying apps – finally, an efficient work environment!

  • Now schooling from home, students could simply receive instruction and complete assignments, free from their peers’ distractions – finally, an efficient learning environment!

Liberated from unnecessary chatting, how productive we would now be! Or so the theory went.

Of course, everyone on whom this theory was actually tested is already laughing at the how far off the mark it was.

  • Despite the absence of water-cooler-talk, the number of meetings, workplace chatrooms, and time spent in these ballooned.[1]

  • Without their peers, students from kindergarten to continuing education suffered immensely, in their studies as much as their social lives. And their stressed parents weren’t ready to take on the interactive role usually filled by classmates.[2]

With these ineffective replacements for real village life, mental health declined across the board.[3] Why?

It turns out much, though not all, of our “unnecessary” chatting is really quite necessary.

  • It alleviates our loneliness and isolation.

  • It facilitates the bonding and belonging required for teamwork. It thereby propels the exchange of novel ideas and connections that drive innovation.

In short, a reasonable amount of friction is good for our jobs and certainly for our education.[5] Deep down, we know this to be true, and are hence wired for friction – so even when it’s curtailed, we seek it out.

But what is a reasonable amount; how much is too much? At what point do unplanned conversations with others detract from the deeper, more intentional interactions our hearts long for? At what point does socializing cease to ease painful loneliness and begin infringing on generative solitude, the times we need for focused creativity and self-care? And does technology help us find a better interpersonal-intrapersonal balance in this regard?


First off, is there an optimal balance between socializing and solitude for human beings? Yes, though it varies from person-to-person. Some people consistently prefer solitude and others socializing, thus we tend to skew introverted and extraverted respectively. These tendencies are stable throughout our lives, but not fixed – everyone has times of both introversion and extraversion, and the interplay between these fluctuates over time for each person. In all cases, when we get overwhelmed with socializing and “friction,” we call it burnout, and when overwhelmed with solitude, we call it loneliness. Both sap our passion.

In general – and especially during the Pandemic Era experiment – virtual life has tended to exacerbate both burnout and loneliness. The benefits that technology contributes to socializing and solitude might not compensate proportionally for the damage.[6] It’s true there are plenty of upsides to technology. But I’ve found that because it’s so normalized and ubiquitous, we usually shy away from talking about the downsides.

As we move from the online-saturated Pandemic Era into the Recovery Era, now is an opportune time to give tech its due scrutiny.

Socializing and Burnout

Undeniably, modern technology enables an astounding breadth of social connections. The proliferation of computers, smartphones, the internet, and media makes it seem like the gamut of human experience is at our fingertips, along with the possibility for relationship with anyone on Earth.

But for every mile of relational breadth tech adds to our lives, it seems to rob a mile of relational depth, and gives us the impression that the social world is shallow, infinitely wide but only an inch deep.

  • With the bombardments of social media, email, and online events and meetings, most of virtual relationality feels like a constant stream of mere fleeting glimpses into others’ experiences. The stream only ever enlarges and intensifies, while the glimpses only becoming more ephemeral.

  • And tragically, this leaves us feeling like the wild diversity of vocational, educational, and social life has somehow dissolved into a bland, tedious sameness.

These phenomena may be their own, more insidious types of relational friction.

To top it off, with our attention spans stretched too thin, cultivating real, deep relationship and community amidst all this becomes overwhelming. Thus, much of our real-world relational friction really does begin to feel more taxing, less like the positive connectedness it truly is.

The pandemic only escalated all these tensions, to the point where people began burning out and withdrawing from work, school, and relational life in droves.[7] Hence what we covered in Part 1 of this series: the Great Resignation, and the Greater Resignation.

Solitude and Loneliness

With all this strain to our extraversion, has virtual life at least compensated by enabling healthy introversion – solitude, and solitude without loneliness?

This too is one of the bold promises of tech: Every individual – now unfettered by relational friction, with every conceivable opportunity for creative self-expression, self-development, and self-directed labor and learning in the palm of their hand – can finally tap the true potential of their solitary consciousness; and as you do, you’ll never have to feel alone, with like-minded folks a few clicks away. Unfortunately tech’s reality hasn’t quite lived up to these huge promises. For one, the virtual world does not in fact offer as much or as varied opportunities for consciousness-growth as it claims to.

  • Text, images, videos, and computational data are the “matter” – aka “content” – from which the virtual world is constructed, but are not real matter. As mere representation of actual things and events in the physical world, or ethereal pseudo-things and -events, “content” is fundamentally somewhat foreign to our flesh and blood bodies and minds.[8]

  • "Content” tends to engage only a small bandwidth of our innate, multiple forms of human intelligence (verbal-linguistic and logical-mathematical) and does not directly empower, and can even interfere with, the rest (kinesthetic, naturalistic, etc.).[9] Even in the most interactive case of – a live video call between two people – the technology that facilitates the conversation also constitutes an obstruction to it.

In summary, it feels qualitatively different to connect with someone or something in the virtual world, and can leave us feeling more isolated and dislocated than real-world connection.

  • Additionally, there is such a mind-numbing amount of content in cyberspace, such a staggering morass of information, that it requires immense time and concentration to sift through. This, as much as curiosity, is what sends us down virtual “rabbit holes” or scrolling feeds for hours. And this behavior is what tech companies exploit to keep us on their apps and siphon our time, money, and attention.

  • When we do find something that sparks our curiosity, the medium through which we interact with it affects our experience. In the real world, all cognition is conversation, with others, with our environment, or just with ourselves. Or even with an author or artist – reading a great book feels like being in conversation. The virtual world operates more on a model of “performance” or “uploading” in the case of authors and influencers vying for our attention, and passive “spectatorship” or “downloading” in the case of everyone else.

Added up over time, these are lonely ways of exploring knowledge, and tend to foster a consumeristic dynamic: We take in far more content than we actually interact with.


There is even a relative solitariness to the process of making relationships virtually.

  • To our brains – which are literally shaped from birth by touch and face-to-face contact – interacting with others through a screen, app, or mere text, images, and videos entails layers of separation, abstraction, and anonymity. It’s no wonder online political discourse is so acrimonious, no wonder there’s so much “ghosting” in online dating, so much cyberbullying and so many conspiracy theorist groups – it’s easier to other others.[10]

Loneliness and the in-group-out-group dynamic feed each other. Just as virtual socializing tends to infringe on our solitude, it infringes on healthy socializing.[11] Finally, all the above tends to foster alienation in our solitude, rather than replenishment:

  • It is hard to be in true, generative solitude if you cannot be your full self – internally and externally connected in ways that are fundamental to being human. And it is usually harder to be your full self while plugged into the virtual world.[12]

  • Not to mention, all this wading through the internet and social media, or doing anything virtual, has opportunity costs – it's time not spent in more fulfilling activities in the real world.

It’s true that the annoying kind of relational friction – like boring small-talk with strangers or acquaintances – is alienating too. These shallow ways of socializing also carry opportunity costs, impinging on vital solitude and deep relationships, and in high doses, burning us out.[13] But most people are better at keeping their own healthy boundaries with friction in village life, than they are at staving off loneliness and burnout in virtual life.[14]

The Pandemic Era tech experiment demonstrated that virtual life tends to push introversion and extraversion to their extremes – toward burnout and loneliness – to everyone’s detriment.

It’s also true that relational friction carries opportunity costs in the workplace – too much water-cooler-talk is a drain on people’s time and efficiency. And so technologists have hypothesized they can boost efficiency by doing away with the water cooler altogether and offering virtual offices. They seek to streamline the workday to a simple matter of small-talk-free toggling between apps, making the business environment truly business-only and therefore more productive. We can now look back on the pandemic to see the outcome of this part of the virtual-life experiment. How efficient is remote work?


The data shows that even if productivity temporarily increased for people working from home at the very beginning of the pandemic, by now remote work productivity has slowed.[15] In fact, office productivity was already slowing long before 2020, a trend which has lasted, suspiciously, as long as social media has been in popular use.[16]

  • So even if the data does indicate an efficiency spike in the short-term, the true test for remote work is staying power: Is the spike sustained? Unfortunately, no.[17]

  • And for work on screens in general, it may never have been there in the first place.

To explain these phenomena, researchers cite the proliferation of perfunctory emails, the ease of workday distraction by media and social media, and other unnecessary cognitive strains.[18] Technology may indeed introduce just a different, less social, less productive kind of friction. This calls into question the very premise that the virtual world has really offered net productivity benefits, or even decreased relational friction.

  • It may be that the whir of technology simply makes things feel faster and more productive than they actually are, and that tech corporations hype the illusion of efficiency because it’s profitable rather than because it’s true. It may be that we’d all be more productive if we didn’t spend so much time in front of small, glowing rectangles. It may be that screens are only easy, not actually efficient.[19]

  • And “relational friction” may merely be a euphemism for relationships and communal activities that don't obviously add to a tech company’s quarterly earnings.

Such relationships and communal activities are what everything else – our whole society – is built on. Anti-friction technologists have mis-conceptualized human beings as atomized cogs in an economic machine, rather than seeing us as we really are – social, spiritual animals. They have underestimated how much of productivity and creativity at work are dependent on our ability to learn, and how much learning is dependent on our ability to socialize in-person.[20] A robust amount of friction makes the world go ‘round.

The Same But Better?

This is even truer outside of work contexts, in the realm of raw relationship- and community-building. Here too COVID-19 presented a chance to prove whether technology could be a viable substitute for good-old-fashioned in-person socializing. Could video calls, online events, social media, and “the apps” be fulfilling replacements for village life in its most basic sense? Could virtual life offer equivalent venues for:

  • communicating with loved ones,

  • meeting potential friends and romantic partners, and

  • generally sharing life with other people?

As we examine the technologists’ final hypothesis – that virtual life is “the same but better” than village life – let’s look more deeply at how technology impacts each of these social circles. Each one is like a concentric ring in our relational lives. We already addressed the dynamics around the inner ring, communicating with loved ones, in Part 8 on radical presence. Now we’ll focus on the middle and outer circles.

In general, we saw all of these rings curtailed during the pandemic tech experiment. We reported this contraction to be a painful experience, thrusting us into loneliness and isolation. It did not, as some speculated it might, improve our quality of life via “streamlining” our attention into fewer but deeper relationships. It wore away at our sense of passion rather than making more room for it.

These findings are more evidence supporting the case against migrating most of our social worlds online, and the case for returning to village life...

The Middle Ring:
Potential Friends, Partners, and Acquaintances

To meet new people during the pandemic, we were forced to rely on video conferencing (for work and school friendships), “the apps” (for dating), and social media (in general). Of course, our increasing use of these was already in motion long before COVID, but suddenly it became the only option for most people. Again, these tools have largely failed as replacements for village-life milieus.

Without the ability to spend time with others predominantly in-person, the average number of new friends made in the last few years plummeted.[21] People also report more dissatisfaction with friendships mediated by video and social media, and difficulty making new friends now that these new norms are in place.[22,23] It seems fulfilling friendships must, almost as a rule, be made face-to-face, and maintained that way to significant degree.

Additionally, now that in-person dating has fully resumed, but dating apps are still entrenched as the primary venue for potential partners to meet and begin courtship, we truly get to see how well online dating stacks up against village-life dating. It seems meeting via an app might not be as successful as meeting in school, work, and community contexts.[24] The reasons for this are complex, require much more research by social scientists, and will be explored in future articles on this blog!

The obvious but underestimated reason why village life is so much more effective at introducing us to new friends and partners is that it introduces us to acquaintances. In face-to-face contexts, we get to meet more and a wider variety of people, can more easily have spontaneous, surprising conversations with them.

And the dynamic of being among a crowd or group of people while these interactions are happening aids the process of one-on-one relationship-building. Most people feel greater permission to strike up a connection when others around them are doing the same. This is much less palpable in online settings, where every individual interacts from a disparate interface. Being clannish creatures, our instincts for romantic and platonic attraction are wired for village life, and the internet offers only paltry stand-ins.

The Outer Ring:
Broader Community

To meet and connect with acquaintances during the pandemic, and participate in community in a broader sense, we were forced to rely on online events. Everything from faith services to community meetings, orientations to graduations was absorbed into the virtual world, which, again, proved it will not serve us well as the default social sphere.

Online events are most comparable to in-person ones in contexts that are meant for unidirectional communication, like a lecture or presentation. These at most require active listening from the audience. Unfortunately this is exactly the kind of event people are least interested in attending, whether virtually or in-person. Participants tune out of such events more quickly online than in the flesh, and retain less information from them in comparison.[25,26] This is compounded by the fact that in virtual events, participants are distracted as never before, able to work, scroll social media, join audio-only – or do all these at once – while a presenter is speaking.[27]

Besides, mere assimilation of “content,” no matter how fascinating, is low on the list of reasons people attend an event in the first place; they could just read the article or watch the video.[28] Most often they go to participate in all the things that happen beyond being talked at. These include official agenda items like group discussions, but also the human sociality that happens off-script: mingling in the hallways, meeting up after the programming, whispering ideas and jokes while someone important is talking.

These things can’t really happen to during online events, in part because participants can’t control who or how many people they’re interacting with in any given moment. (How many people have ever struck up a conversation in the chat with someone they didn’t know, simply because their rectangles were next to each other on the screen? How many people have even been able to host their own makeshift video breakout room?)

It turns out the seemingly trivial relating we do in collective gatherings is not trivial at all. It is how we meet new acquaintances and therefore friends, colleagues, partners, and mentors. It is how we bathe ourselves in the awareness that society is – and strangers are – welcoming, dynamic, exciting, and full of possibility. This has huge implications for our mental health and social trust, without which nothing can function.

It Takes a Village

To sum up, let’s look back at how the hypotheses of our Pandemic Era experiment with virtual life held up:

  1. To the extent that tech reduces “relational friction,” it also reduces other essential benefits that can only be gained from happenstance socializing.

  2. Rather than helping us find balance, virtual life pushes us to the unhealthy extremes of socializing and solitude, breeding burnout and loneliness.

  3. Tech decreases some of the efficiency of labor.

  4. Virtual life is an all-around dissatisfying substitute for the social activities of village life.

It’s also worth noting that the results of the experiment turned out even worse for the people most harmed by the pandemic and most in need of social support: bereaved people, children, adolescents, elders, and people with many different kinds of disabilities.[29,30] For these folks especially – who together make up to the majority of the population – technology proved to be a staggering failure at enabling healthy solitude and socializing, alleviating loneliness and burnout, and helping maintain and grow circles of social support.

All of these clear results add up to a compelling conclusion: At best, virtual life can be a helpful fallback when village life is restricted, but it can never equate, and certainly should never be considered as a replacement. It’s great as an option for socializing, solitude, work, school, and community, but is detrimental as a default.

Yet, tragically, instead of veering away from a technology, we seem to be driving our lives deeper into it. Every year we’re only spending more time in front of screens. We're interfacing with computers and smartphones rather than corporeal human beings. We're spending our days in online offices, classrooms, and communities. We're spending our evenings with TV, video games, the internet, and social media rather than pursuing real recreation and creative hobbies.[31]

At what point will we accept that we’re headed in the wrong direction, and wrest back our lives from the lure of tech? At what point will we choose healthy, Soul-nourishing, passion-filled village life over unhealthy, Soul-stifling, passion-scarce virtual “life?” At what point will we forsake the impersonal (im-personal – literally “person negating”) and embrace the in-personal?

How about now? We’ve given tech its due, given virtual “life” the chance to show its true colors. The results are in: the village life is the fulfilling life.

So the choice is clear, but by no means easy. We will have to choose. We’ll have to resist the siren’s call of technology, fight our own inertia, disrupt the slide into ceding all of our magnificent human energy to little, colorful rectangles. We’ll have to limit how much time and money we give to the corporations singing the siren’s song, profiting off our burnout and loneliness and love of shiny new things. We’ll have to regulate and boycott them and let their stock prices sag.

And we’ll have to show up to real-world relationship and community again. We’ll have to do the things we know are good for us:

  • Going into the office and classroom, and indulging small-talk and distractions

  • Meeting people known and unknown out at the wild frontiers of public places and community gatherings

  • Rediscovering the art of learning via books and conversations

  • Pulling the plug and urging our kids to go outside with their friends, and urging ourselves to go with them

We’ll have to remember that despite the inconveniences of life off-screen, we really are happier and healthier and more passionate when we engage the world we were made for. We’ll have to get our hands dirty and our bodies busy, renewing the messy, beautiful world of village life.

Stay tuned for Part 10: Support Structures – Centering the Margins!

If you’re looking for more practical insights before then, check out the Lessons from the Pandemic Hub on my website. And if you’re looking for ways to help the Recovery, Reengagement, and Reimagination effort ASAP, share that Hub page and share this blog with people you know, especially if they’re struggling with these things or are a leader who can make a difference in your community.

Works Cited, Further Reading
  1. Ruth , K., Igielnik, R., & Horowitz, J. (2020, December 9). How the coronavirus outbreak has – and hasn't – changed the way Americans work. Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project.

  2. Anderson, M., McClain, C., & Faverio, M. (2022, June 2). How teens navigate school during covid-19. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech.

  3. Clair, R., Gordon, M., Kroon, M., & Reilly, C. (2021). The effects of social isolation on well-being and life satisfaction during pandemic. Humanities and Social Sciences Communications, 8.

  4. Kulcar, V., Bork-Hüffer, T., & Schneider, A.-M. (2022). Getting through the crisis together: Do friendships contribute to university students’ resilience during the COVID-19 pandemic? Frontiers in Psychology, 13.

  5. Luo, P., LaPalme, M. L., Cipriano, C., & Brackett, M. A. (2022). The association between sociability and covid-19 pandemic stress. Frontiers in Psychology, 13.

  6. Jones, S. E., Ethier, K. A., Hertz, M., DeGue, S., Le, V. D., Thornton, J., Lim, C., Dittus, P. J., & Geda, S. (2022). Mental health, suicidality, and connectedness among high school students during the COVID-19 pandemic — adolescent behaviors and experiences survey, United States, January–June 2021. MMWR Supplements, 71(3), 16–21.

  7. McClain, C., Vogels, E. A., Perrin, A., Sechopoulos, S., & Rainie, L. (2021, September 1). The internet and the pandemic. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech.

  8. Ciaunica, A., McEllin, L., Kiverstein, J., Gallese, V., Hohwy, J., & Woźniak, M. (2022). Zoomed out: Digital Media use and depersonalization experiences during the COVID-19 lockdown. Scientific Reports, 12.

  9. Wikimedia Foundation. (2023, March 21). Theory of multiple intelligences. Wikipedia.

  10. Doherty, C., Kiley, J., & Oliphant, B. (2022, August 9). As partisan hostility grows, signs of frustration with the two-Party system. Pew Research Center - U.S. Politics & Policy.

  11. Auxier, B. (2020, October 15). 64% of Americans say social media have a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the U.S. Today. Pew Research Center.

  12. Anderson, M., Vogels, E. A., Perrin, A., & Rainie, L. (2022, November 16). Connection, creativity and drama: Teen life on social media in 2022. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech.

  13. Vogels, E. A., Gelles-Watnick, R., & Massarat, N. (2022, August 10). Teens, social media and technology 2022. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech.

  14. Edwards , E., & Fox, M. (2018, September 10). More teens addicted to social media, prefer texting to talking. NBCNews.

  15. Escudero, C., & Kleinman, M. (2022, December 19). The shift to working from home: How has it affected productivity? Economics Observatory.

  16. Long-term labor productivity in the nonfarm business sector since 1947. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2023, March 2).

  17. Parker, K., Horowitz, J., & Minkin, R. (2022, February 16). Covid-19 pandemic continues to reshape work in America. Pew Research Center's Social & Demographic Trends Project.

  18. MacKay, J. (2018, May 29). Interruptions at work are killing your focus, productivity, and motivation. RescueTime Blog.

  19. MacKay, J. (2018, October 17). Communication overload: Most workers can't go 6 minutes without checking email. RescueTime Blog.

  20. Harter, J. (2022, April 25). U.S. employee engagement slump continues. Gallup.

  21. Patulny, R., & Bower, M. (2022, June 23). Beware the “loneliness gap”? Examining emerging inequalities and long-term risks of loneliness and isolation emerging from COVID-19. Wiley Online Library.

  22. Lippke, S., Fischer, M. A., & Ratz, T. (2021, January 12). Physical activity, loneliness, and meaning of friendship in young individuals – a mixed-methods investigation prior to and during the COVID-19 pandemic with three cross-sectional studies. Frontiers.

  23. Davis, S. (2022, July 12). 59% of U.S. adults find it harder to form relationships since covid-19, survey reveals - here's how that can harm your health. Forbes.

  24. Anderson, M., Vogels, E. A., & Turner, E. (2023, February 6). The virtues and downsides of online dating. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech.

  25. Loeb, S. (2020, March 20). How effective is online learning? what the research does and doesn't tell us (opinion). Education Week.

  26. Cellini, S. R. (2021, August 13). How does virtual learning impact students in higher education? Brookings.

  27. Nguyen, T., Netto, C. L., Wilkins, J. F., Bröker, P., Vargas, E. E., Sealfon, C. D., Puthipiroj, P., Li, K. S., Bowler, J. E., Hinson, H. R., Pujar, M., & Stein, G. M. (2021). Insights into students’ experiences and perceptions of remote learning methods: From the COVID-19 pandemic to best practice for the future. Frontiers in Education, 6.

  28. Bawa, P. (2016). Retention in online courses: Exploring issues and solutions - a literature review. SAGE Open, 6(1).

  29. Schaeffer, K. (2022, April 25). In CDC survey, 37% of U.S. high school students report regular mental health struggles during COVID-19 pandemic. Pew Research Center.

  30. McClain, C., Vogels, E. A., Perrin, A., Sechopoulos, S., & Rainie, L. (2021, September 1). The internet and the pandemic. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech.

  31. Auxier, B., Anderson, M., Perrin, A., & Turner, E. (2020, July 28). Parenting children in the age of screens. Pew Research Center: Internet, Science & Tech.

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