My generation grew up online. Endless ‘virtual life’ would be terrifying

College students thrive in a digital, virtual existence. But when COVID-19 cuts them off from the physical world, something important is lost.

This story appears in the August 2020 issue of National Geographic magazine.

My first name comes from the children’s books about Thomas the Tank Engine, The Railway Series. My eldest brother had been reading the books, and Oliver the Western Engine was one of his favorites. My mother thought the name was beautiful, and so I was named after a train.

The name also served a poetic purpose: I was born an identical twin, which placed me onto a set of parallel tracks with my brother, Ethan. If you’ve known twins, you’ve heard a version of this story before. We were dressed in matching outfits, our hair cut into identical shiny black bowls. We looked the same and were treated the same, always together.

As we grew, Ethan and I were eager to establish separate identities. We made different friends, wore different clothes. In high school we often avoided talking to each other. Then we chose different colleges and were living apart for the first time in our lives.

This was exciting to me: life without a twin, without people mixing me up with someone else, without this invisible force holding us together. But the change also terrified me. Even when I had pushed Ethan away, it was comforting knowing he was there. And he was always there. Alone at college, I felt like I had lost something. (See how college students are documenting their disrupted education.)

I often think about that moment of separation now, since normal life has been upended and people everywhere have been forced apart by the unseen peril of COVID-19. Suddenly the physical proximity in our day-to-day lives, which many of us took for granted, has been ripped away. I wonder what this will mean for my future, for the future in general, and for the future of my generation.

I’m studying philosophy, and in one of my first courses I came across a thought experiment, devised by philosopher Frank Jackson, that’s widely known as Mary’s Room. The premise is that Mary, a brilliant scientist, has lived her whole life in a colorless room where her only sensory input is through a black-and-white television screen.

Mary has access to tons of information and knows everything about color perception; she’s just never experienced it. Then one day, let’s say she walks out of the room—sees the blue sky, feels the bark of a tree. Jackson’s question is: Does she learn anything new? Does experiencing the world tell us something that we couldn’t have learned by reading up on it?

Jackson says yes. Those things we miss by not living in the physical world he calls qualia, and they’re everywhere—in the sun, the earth, other people. They’re what’s lacking in a strictly virtual life.

For years I’ve had this nagging intuition that almost everything I need to do can be done virtually. I can talk to my friends, write, read, report stories, watch television, listen to a lecture, scroll through social media. When all my university’s classes went online in late March, there were actually more things I could do. My professors were more available online. I had fewer distractions and easier access to a lot of materials.

In lockdown, I moved back to my family home but my life went on much as it was. My mother, a therapist, still sees her patients; my sister uses Zoom for her high school classes. It’s just all virtual, a different reality. (Read why ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain.)

This kind of virtual life is home turf to my generation. I grew up with computers; I got bigger as they got smaller and more accessible. My peers learned how to surf the internet before our parents, figured out how to flirt through text messages, formed cliques with instant-messaging group chats. Even before the pandemic, I spent some Saturday nights alone in my room, face lit by the glowing screens of my laptop and phone, chatting with friends online and watching sports highlights.

After college, I’ll enter an increasingly virtual workforce. Computers are—or will be—replacing humans across the economy: bankers, truck drivers, factory workers. Many of the jobs that aren’t disappearing are moving online. I assume that most of my friends will work in professions that involve staring at computer screens or talking on phones. As a writer, I could end up working from home every day. I’m already spending half my life online, so that prospect doesn’t feel all that jarring. Still, it’s a pretty strange reality.

For many young people like me—with healthy bodies and outsize beliefs of invincibility—the primary fear hasn’t been that we will contract the virus. What we fear more is the profound uncertainty of our future. There are a lot of frightening possibilities; new ones seem to emerge every day. But I think the scariest possibility—beyond this disease never going away—is that this ubiquity of virtual living might never go away either.

I worry that the experience of this pandemic might convince people that we can keep living just fine while physically isolated from others. I find myself slipping toward that reality. There are entire days when I don’t leave the house, when my only human contact is with my brother as we await a turn in the bathroom.

What if this level of isolation is the future? In this environment, something clearly is lost. I’m sure of it, because I feel different when I experience things directly rather than virtually.

In some ways, being apart brought Ethan and me closer together. Once we were at colleges in different states, we began calling each other. I can’t remember who called who first, and we never talked about emotions, or about girls, or about philosophy. We’d just give little updates: “I haven’t slept in 24 hours.” “I just killed a huge burger.”

I’d never say this to him now—it’s too cheesy—but it’s true: The distance allowed us to figure out what we actually like about each other. So we gained something by crossing the miles virtually.

There’s something you can’t simulate, though, about the physical presence of another human being. No screen will ever replace the feeling of an arm around your shoulders. At the end of my long-distance chats with Ethan, he’d hang up, and I’d be alone again in my room, staring at a blank screen.

My fear is that, going forward, some of us will never completely come out of self-quarantine; that dread and uncertainty will cause us to lose part of our physical connection to the world. The qualia.

Ethan and I are living together again for now, back in our childhood home. We are forced together—along with my mother, father, sister, older brother and his girlfriend—just as the rest of the world is being forced apart. Proximity with my twin isn’t bothersome anymore. We stay up late playing video games, cracking jokes, belly-laughing softly so we don’t wake others. It’s nice, not being alone.

We still rarely talk about serious topics. When I told Ethan about Mary’s Room, he just shrugged: “Yeah, I guess it makes sense.” I was relieved. Ethan often makes fun of my philosophizing. I’ll go on and on, confident that I’m exposing some deeper truth, and he’ll say, “That’s just stupid, dude.”

But our relationship isn’t about what’s said; it’s about being connected. In the spring we bleached our hair together, in the same sink, turning it from black to almost white. I don’t really know why we did it—it was Ethan’s idea. We look the same now, but different.

On a warm night a few weeks into the pandemic, we walked out to the train tracks behind our house and tried to balance on the thin metal rails, as we did sometimes when we were kids. Ethan was much better at this than I was. I kept falling off the side, losing my balance; Oliver the Western Engine, derailed.

Ethan, though, could keep going for minutes at a time. Occasionally, we’d end up next to each other and walk forward for a moment, together. The way was dark ahead of us, a little scary. But some kind of instinct kept us going, and we moved ahead on parallel tracks.

Whang (second from left) poses with fellow staffers of radio station WPRB.

Had COVID-19 not canceled National Geographic’s summer internships, Oliver Whang would have been in Washington, D.C., working on our podcast, Overheard at National Geographic. Instead, he’s at home in New Jersey, freelance writing and preparing for his senior year at Princeton, where he’ll be news director for the campus public radio station, WPRB.