When Virtual Life Turns Into Quarantine
National Geographic Magazine India|August 2020
MY GENERATION THRIVES IN THE VIRTUAL WORLD. BUT WHEN COVID-19 CUT US OFF FROM THE PHYSICAL WORLD, SOMETHING WAS LOST
OLIVER WHANG

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.

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?

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