I’m Grateful for Bad Virtual Life

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Having to live virtually stinks. But not having virtual life would be worse.

Now that many people around the world are weeks or months into staying home as much as possible, the flaws of working, schooling and socializing through screens are starting to grate.

Some of my friends are even starting to complain that the video game “Animal Crossing: New Horizons” has flipped from a charming distraction to a nagging time-suck.

But for those of us who can access and afford fast internet connections and services, I’m glad we have technologies that let us video chat with colleagues and get coached through home haircuts. Imperfect as these technologies are, they help us make the best of our more physically isolated lives.

As we settle in, though, we need to lower our expectations for virtual life, figure out new social norms and sometimes fall back to old-school ways of connecting.

When shelter-in-place orders started in some U.S. cities, Geoffrey Fowler, a Washington Post columnist who lived in Hong Kong during a 2003 SARS outbreak, said the ubiquity of technology makes it far more tolerable to pull back from real life for a while. That made me feel better. A little.

But many of us are finding that it’s easy to overload on the virtual professional and social obligations. Fancy experts say these online activities can feel less fulfilling and more exhausting than interacting in real life.

We need to set limits, and give each other a break. If you need to, blame your brain for choosing to watch a garbage movie alone instead of stuffing your calendar with another social activity. And employers — but not my employer, which IS PERFECT — should stop expecting workers to be hyper-connected all the time.

I’m still struggling to figure out social niceties in our mostly virtual lives. In a gathering with friends over Zoom last weekend, I said I needed to drop off to soak kidney beans before I went to bed. (My life is very exciting.)

I don’t want to socialize without end, even if I have nowhere to go and nothing to do. I guess legumes and bread dough are the go-to excuses now?

I suspect we’ll learn how to navigate the constraints of virtual life. And sometimes, as the novelist Jessica Gross wrote in The Times, old-school technologies like phone calls are better than virtual video hangouts.

Despite the serious drawbacks of the online-everything life and economy, I’m grateful I am able to write this newsletter away from the office, get some essentials delivered at the touch of an app, read escapist e-books and feel relatively connected to friends and family.

I used most of these technologies in our pre-pandemic days. The difference is I no longer take them for granted.

You probably aren’t taking rides with Uber or Lyft these days, if you ever did. That’s a problem for those companies and for people who rely on them for a paycheck.

But this crisis is simply exposing cracks that already existed. These businesses may never have been able to last.

Lyft is laying off about one in five of its employees, and Uber is contemplating doing the same. As my colleague Kate Conger foreshadowed a couple of weeks ago, the companies’ cost cutting suggests they don’t expect us to return to our usual amount of riding with strangers anytime soon.

Even before the pandemic, Uber and Lyft were not good businesses. Each time last year that someone paid Uber for a ride, a scooter rental or to deliver dinner, the company bled 63 cents of cash on average. Each customer also cost Lyft more cash than it took in. Yep, the companies would have been better off if they did nothing.

Uber and Lyft have said this was a temporary condition on the way to riches. It’s possible, but Uber has been around for 11 years and it’s still not clear it can stand on its feet financially.

The companies’ leaders also haven’t been perfect in a crisis. Before announcing layoffs and pay cuts on Wednesday, Lyft’s founders had assured workers that job cuts weren’t imminent, according to Kate’s reporting from two people who were familiar with the discussions.

And over the weekend, according to Kate, an employment lawyer at Lyft accidentally invited much of the work force to a meeting titled “Jetty,” in what workers took as a reference to jettisoning jobs. Yeah. Not great.

You HAVE to be impressed with these ball-spinning skills and the hand-eye coordination.

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