Trump's refusal to virtually debate reminds us that virtual life is not real life

Trump is right on this: A virtual debate, just like everything we have done virtually, is a waste of time.

Nicole Russell Texas US

On Thursday, President Trump told Fox News’ Maria Bartiromo he would not do a virtual debate for the next round between him and Democrat nominee Joe Biden. The Commission on Presidential Debates announced that the upcoming debate, scheduled October 15, would be virtual and that both candidates would “take the form of a town meeting, in which the candidates would participate from separate remote locations.” Trump stated unequivocally that he is “not going to waste [his] time” on a virtual debate. Trump is right on this: A virtual debate, just like everything we have done virtually, is a waste of time.

Conservatives and liberals alike are insinuating that Trump must be reckless to want to do an in-person debate since he was diagnosed as COVID-positive nearly a week ago. What about staff and their health, they rail. For starters, according to the Centers for Disease Control’s suggestions about adults who test positive for COVID, “isolation and precautions can generally be discontinued 10 days after symptom onset” provided the individual remains symptom free. If this is accurate, the President wouldn’t be contagious by October 15 and of course, staff with COVID would remain quarantined whilst anyone else traveling with him would do so under an abundance of caution, with protective wear and the like. So let’s not pretend this is really about COVID.

Trump’s refusal to engage in a virtual debate is wise on multiple fronts, probably even more than he knows: A virtual debate would give Biden, or even him, the advantage of a script or even a teleprompter. Technological problems would be frustrating. Not to mention, if the candidates talked over each other last time, why wouldn’t they do so all the more in a virtual setting?

But there’s another reason Trump’s firm rebuttal matters: It will resonate with Americans who are sick of living a virtual life. Virtual encounters, whether Zoom meetings, Facetime with a boss or coworker, virtual school through Remind, Canvas, or TEAMS, have all proven to be a trash heap of faux connectivity.

At first, we were more than willing to do things virtually. Who among us would want to have or spread COVID, especially to our elderly or immunocompromised? We jumped on the quarantine bandwagon and made the best of it sharing tips on how best to work from home, parent from home, school from home, and, well, anything else that matters from home. We did it to slow the spread and slow the spread we did. But now over six months have passed and we have learned a few things. Not only does it look like we didn’t have to lockdown, but turns out, lockdowns have serious economic, mental health, and academic consequences for our younger generations. Also: we do need genuine connectivity after all.

In a 2004 interview, Apple founder Steve Jobs said, “Our personal belief is that while there's an opportunity to apply software to the living room, the merging of the computer and the TV isn't going to happen. They're really different things. So yes, you want to share some information [between the two], but people who are planning to put computers into the living room, like they are today, I'm not sure they're going to have a big success.” Perhaps Jobs was specifically speaking about physical logistics, but as a philosophical point, Jobs had no idea 16 years later we would not only physically merge the TV and the computer but our lives as well. And it has had devastating consequences on the mental health of the most fragile among us.

We sat here staring at our computers for six months, alone in our homes wearing slippers on the bottom and a blouse on top, an apropos analogy for 2020 if I ever saw one, pretending every Zoom call had meaning, relevancy, and actual community. Sure, sometimes it did seem that way. I like to Facetime a friend as much as anyone. But eventually we need more. In the end it was an illusion, especially when it continued over a long period of time.

We as human beings weren’t meant to be isolated long term. We weren’t meant to live through devices: We need to talk to one another, to sip wine, to hold hands, to see the beauty in nature, to hear a waterfall, to argue passionately about politics, religion, philosophy over pizza and beer. Our kids need to laugh with other kids, scrape their knees on the playground, and share their lunch with the kid at school who forgot his.

If I know Trump, he wasn’t thinking of all of this when he turned down the opportunity to do a virtual debate, he was surely thinking about the advantage it might give Joe Biden, who has fitted his basement out into the perfect virtual studio. But whether he realized it or not, the concept that virtual reality is in fact not reality, and is indeed a colossal waste of time, couldn’t have hit home more.


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