I hope you’re doing well! I spent a good chunk of this week focusing on my health. I’ve been biking and exercising more, and got a chance to catch up with a few friends (outdoors and socially distanced). I’ve been pretty conservative in terms of isolation in the lockdown so far, so it’s been great to actually see folks in person again. I’m still trying to find the right balance.
This week I share thoughts on the human need for connection, along with illustrations of some lovely birds.
The Body Knows
Following up on my learnings from last week about the onset of fatigue I experienced, I’ve been thinking a lot about the unique power of in-person interactions. For many months during lockdown I’ve been meeting with folks fairly often throughout the week. This gave me the impression that was I being ‘social’, and so I didn’t need to worry about loneliness. Of course, almost all of those interactions were online. As we’re all discovering, online interactions (e.g. Zoom calls) just aren’t the same as in-person interactions. I ignored the signs for too long. Eventually, my body sent me a signal I couldn’t ignore (by starting to shut down).
There’s lots of research (social baseline theory is one example) that suggests we are happier and healthier when we’re with other people. It’s not just that we value social connection — it’s tied to our sense of safety, security and happiness.
“Across many studies of mammals, from the smallest rodents all the way to us humans, the data suggests that we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and that we suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed … But because of how social pain and pleasure are wired into our operating system, these are motivational ends in and of themselves. We don’t focus on being connected solely in order to extract money and other resources from people – being connected needs no ulterior motive.” —Scientific American
We know that the current state of technology fails to nourish us the same way in-person interactions do. Zoom calls have made that abundantly clear. But what if technology evolved to a point where it matched in-person interactions perfectly? Could we trick our bodies into believing they are the same thing?
Imagine a world where we have virtual reality technology sophisticated enough to perfectly simulate human interactions. In that world, our movements, gestures and non-verbal cues would be preserved and communicated seamlessly. We already have some VR technology that does this at a rudimentary level, but imagine that it is far more mature and availability is widespread. We would have perfected the emulation of sight, sound and touch that come with human interaction. Such a feat is not simple, but at the same time seems entirely possible.
If we managed to build that world, two potential outcomes come to mind:
The first outcome is that we can no longer tell the difference between what’s ‘real’ and what’s ‘virtual’. The sensations in such an environment would be so convincing that our bodies interpret them the same way as in-person interactions. Since everything we experience today is essentially an electrical signal to the brain, this would mean we had perfected the simulation process for all those signals. In this scenario, we would find such experiences just as ‘nourishing’ as being with each other in real life. This is effectively scenario behind the film The Matrix, where people are living their entire lives in such an environment without even knowing it. Someone ‘born into’ such a scenario would never be able to tell the difference. The movie explores many possible implications of this kind of outcome.
The second outcome is that even with perfect technology for virtual interactions, we would still be able to tell the difference. Despite the best simulations of touch, sight and sound, the ‘missing ingredient’ would be noticeable. This would imply the existence of some hidden layer of interaction between humans. Perhaps then, we could start to more carefully observe it, learn from it, and even theorize about it. I imagine each of us having our own human energy field, similar to a magnetic field, which triggers unique reactions when in proximity with other humans.
Paradoxically, technology replacing human interactions could expose the underlying fabric of what makes us human.
This weekend I attended a workshop on illustrating birds using just a ballpoint pen. The best part about drawing with pen and paper (versus my iPad) is that I get a break from screens. Also, I love the unique style that comes with pen illustrations.
The first drawing we did is of a magpie. It took about an hour and a half to draw this one! We used a reference image, started with a very light pencil outline, focused on dark areas first, and then used hatching to contour the bird’s feathers. My arm was a tired afterward but I felt mentally refreshed — this kind of detail-oriented drawing is very meditative and relaxing.
Fun Fact: When I shared this drawing, a friend wondered how the heck I knew about the ‘dangerous’ magpies (apparently they are infamous for swoop attacks!) I wondered how on Earth this fluffy little bird could be so dangerous. As it turns out, the Australian magpie my friend was familiar with is not at all related to the magpies from the rest of the world. Phew!
The second exercise involved using both blue and black pen, this time using a reference of a Blue Jay (shoutout to my hometown, Toronto!) We had a lot less time for this one, so I wasn’t able to focus as much on the details, but still finished enough of it to call it done.
I enjoyed the additional depth that a second color brought, but it also made the drawing more challenging. You have to spend a lot more time making decisions on which colors to use where, when to mix them, and so on. It’s yet another reminder that creative constraints can often be liberating. I think I’ll stick to black for now.
P.S. Substack just added support for custom domains, so I was finally able to move this newsletter to be under my main site’s domain. All existing links to the old brownfox.substack.com address should redirect appropriately. Quick Brown Fox has officially moved to letter.salman.io! 🎉
Until next time,