Going virtual is really no substitute for the real thing

A screencap of the virtual tour - Spooky Ghost Tales in Prague. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB BY JOHN LUI

SINGAPORE - Going virtual as a substitute for the real thing has been pretty dismal.

A few weeks ago, I went on an online guided tour of old Prague. It was meant to be a spooky tour and to her credit, the guide used the spookiest of all the presentation software: Microsoft PowerPoint.

On this slide show - made up of drab tourist shots of crypts, gallows and haunted vestibules - the part that filled me and three friends with the most dread was the thought that our guide might catch us mid-yawn.

You can do a lot of things online, but sending scares from the Czech Republic to Singapore isn't one of them. Maybe if she had used a creepier font?

Then I was asked to look into the other thing that was going online because of the pandemic: Clubbing.

Local clubs have organised virtual parties, but what could that possibly look like?

One Saturday night, I logged in to find out. I guess my expectations were too high. With the shutdown of clubs leading to massive revenue losses, I reckoned organisers would jump into making the online experience a shot of pure adrenaline to the eyeballs. Maybe there would be crazy outfits, writhing bodies, a menagerie of exotic animals, fire breathers and contortionists. Maybe even fire-breathing contortionists.

I saw a guy on a turntable. And that was it.

The online club experience had the energy of a dentist's waiting room and the vibe of a tax accountancy Zoom conference dragging into its second hour.

A screencap of the virtual tour - Spooky Ghost Tales in Prague.. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB BY JOHN LUI

From the text scrolling down next to the image, there appeared to be fewer than a dozen participants logged in, reminding me of Chinese street opera performances playing to empty grass fields. Everyone was fine with it because the ghosts were the real audience.

Clubbing when stripped of crowds feels tragic because crowds are the electricity generators. As with every kind of live event, including political rallies and protest marches, dancing without bodies feels like the emperor's new clothes. It is a guy standing at a console looking at a black disc going round and round, playing for ghosts.

But the biggest use of virtual conferencing has been for conducting interviews. With the camera switched on, I become a double act. It's me and my background, leading to questions such as: "Are you in a cupboard?" and "Is your office in a storeroom?"

The answer to both is no. I am in my bedroom. My taste in storage solutions runs to industrial chic, sometimes called brutalist; namely,

I got a deal on 50 yellow bins of the kind seen in hardware stores for screws and bottles of cleaning fluid, which were then lined up on bolted steel shelving, which were also going cheap.

I should hang a bed sheet behind me if I am that annoyed by questions about whether my home is an underground bunker or refurbished abattoir.

A screencap of the virtual tour - Spooky Ghost Tales in Prague.. PHOTO: SCREENGRAB BY JOHN LUI

But of late, I have become proud of my oppressive surroundings, which serve as a reminder of the human condition in 2020. Also, it's easy to reach behind me and grab a screwdriver should my diesel generator need a quick tune-up in the middle of a Zoom call.

The move to virtuality caused by the pandemic has exposed a couple of facts. People stuck at home want to watch, but they also want to participate. Live-streamed durian and seafood auctions are booming because of the two-way interaction.

The host matters. I can look as glum as I want at Zoom meetings, but deejays and tour guides should know they are putting on a show.

At least smile and make eye contact with the camera once in a while. They need to look like they want to be there, that this is their playground. They should not behave as if they are slumming it because it's not "real".

For those of us stuck at home, in our industrial tool sheds and factory warehouses enclosed by steel shelves, it is all the reality we have.

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