What Is an Office For?
The pandemic is forcing society to ask new existential questions. What is the value of real presence and how does it impact one’s missional goals? We have spent a year in real presence isolation; shifting work, worship, and other forms of social interaction into a virtual world. Technology, specifically the Internet, has enabled a kind of social life that would have been unimaginable in all previous pandemics.
The gradual transition back to some form of normalcy is forcing many to ask previously assumed and yet unexplored existential questions. Namely, what is the value of physical presence? It is as if all of society has taken a decidedly Gnostic turn, eschewing embodiment, furthering the escape velocity of cyberspace. We are increasingly embracing without much resistance a transhuman experience of a disembodied existence. Mark Dery warned of this societal turn in his provocative book Escape Velocity: Cyberculture at the End of the Century. “Escape velocity is the speed at which a body overcomes the gravitational pull of another body. More and more, computer culture, or cyberculture, seems as if it is on the verge of attaining escape velocity.” What we are escaping is the need to be physically present with another human being. From a purely business point of view, this is not necessarily a bad thing. If work can be accomplished without the expense of an office, if worship can be done without the inflexibility of a church building, if education can be accomplished without a campus, then the economic benefits are all on the side of furthering escape velocity.
Many are now suggesting that the pandemic has fundamentally and permanently changed the nature of work. John Seabrook writing in The New Yorker observes “Digital tools such as e-mail, Excel, Google Docs, video conferencing, virtual whiteboarding, and chat channels like Slack have made a worker’s presence in offices less essential. The pandemic has collapsed these divergent trends into an existential question: What’s an office for?”
Even before the pandemic in the typical office, workers communicate with their colleagues down the hall most frequently via phone text or email, rarely face-to-face over a cup of coffee. The pandemic has only reinforced and accelerated this form of communication. The traditional office, particularly as it was once conceived, is likely gone for good. This will have significant visible economic benefits but may also carry significant less visible costs in creativity, collaboration, and job satisfaction. Technological innovation is always a double-edged sword. Typically its benefits mask its hidden dangers. It is for this reason that Christians need to be wary of systemic patterns of disembodiment.
It is a medical fact that babies die from the lack of touch. Physical presence is an existential necessity for human flourishing. So in a culture that increasingly makes this optional, we may have to be those who stand against this transhuman trend.
Mother Teresa tells the story of Nigel, a volunteer serving the dying and destitute in Calcutta.
“When I went to help at Nirmal Hyiday I hated the place because of the suffering, and I felt absolutely useless. I thought, What am I doing here?
Later, when I got back to Britain, I had a long conversation with one of the sisters about it. I told her I’d quickly learned sign language so I could sort out the difference between someone asking for a drink or water or for a bedpan and get it right way round. But, apart from that, I hadn’t done a lot. I mostly sat on people’s beds and stroked them or fed them. You got some recognition sometimes, but not a lot other times, because they’re on their last legs. So when the sister asked me how I’d got on I said, ‘I was there.’ And she said to me, ‘What was St. John or Our Blessed Mother doing at the foot of the cross?”
Sometimes real presence—human-to-human—is all that is needed to express love. It is a value that we need to recapture in our spiritual pilgrimages as we live in a world that is increasing de-emphasizing physical presence. A mere economic benefit may not offset the subtle loss in incarnational humanness.