Sorry, But There Is No ‘After’

Instead of waiting impatiently for the future to arrive, use the concept of ‘dual reality’ to find peace in this weird pandemic moment

Photo: dowell/Getty Images

If 2020 was the worst year ever, 2021 is on track to be the weirdest. Not bad, per se — or at least, not as bad as what we’ve all survived to date. More like, a year that’s shaping up to be more than a little bit… off.

As I write this, most U.S. states have freshly expanded Covid-19 vaccine eligibility to all adults over the age of 18. Yet, at the very same time, states across the country are seeing an alarming surge in cases. The same is happening across Europe and in Canada. In Brazil, the pandemic is at its worst point yet. So while for many of us, it may feel as though the end is in sight, it’s hard to ignore that “the after” is still a target we’re collectively chasing. Navigating this moment can seem like you’re straddling two competing realities, strategizing where to put your weight.

Ambiguity is not a state that the human brain particularly enjoys dwelling in (more on that here). But, as luck would have it, there’s an old web theory concept that offers a perfect analog for this strange moment in pandemic reality — and provides a path through it. It’s called “dual reality,” and by understanding it, you can restore your sense of late-pandemic direction.

Is it all a simulation?

Allow me to explain. In 2009, a pair of researchers at the MIT Media Lab presented a paper that introduced the concept of dual reality, which hypothesized that the virtual world we all inhabit online coexists with the real world that our bodies move through. Both worlds are complete and real unto themselves. But each world also has the ability to influence the other, and they can even merge together. The researchers predicted that the experience of a dual reality would play a greater and greater role in shaping the ways we absorb and produce media. Technological advancements would, they wrote, increasingly blur the lines between human beings’ sensory, meat-suit existences and the reality we partake in online.

Dual reality anticipated how smartphones and social media would change the way we communicate and consume information. But the concept can also apply to the experience of reality at this very moment.

We tend to think of the pandemic in terms of a “before” and an “after.” The “before times” represent, loosely, everything prior to March of last year; “the after” will come when life looks more or less like it did before.

And now, at last, there are glimmers of an “after” within sight. Spring has come to the northern hemisphere! Vaccines, glorious vaccines, are journeying from freezer to human arm, by the millions!

At the same time, the pandemic remains a very real threat. The premature eagerness, from individuals and governing bodies alike, to return to business as usual, is feeding worldwide spikes in viral transmission. We are living in two parallel realities, one melding into — and informing — the other.

Hacking our dual reality

“In a completely fabricated virtual world, the entropy of a real-world data stream can dramatically alter the virtual ambiance,” wrote the MIT researchers. They were arguing that the ways we interact with our virtual worlds, in the here and now, can fundamentally alter the meaning of any story that a virtual platform might let us co-create. Mess with the nuts and bolts, and you might end up changing the whole narrative.

It may seem like a stretch to apply this idea to the present moment. But think of it this way: The “after” is a virtual world. It is a creation of the collective imagination, a projection of our shared hopes and educated guesses. Our actions and understandings now, in the real world, will affect how we envision the virtual reality of post-pandemic life and how that reality ends up playing out once we get there. We can’t guarantee any particular outcome. What we can do is tool around in our present, real-life moment to change the future narrative — potentially for the better.

The MIT researchers called this act of virtual narrative-changing through real-world action “the dual reality creative process.” The examples they gave in their paper sound a lot like what we would describe nowadays as “building an online presence” — that is, using online tools to create a story with implications both on- and offline. They hypothesized that “our everyday experiences in the real world” would become “content shared and experienced in the virtual world” years before “influencer” became a real-life job description. Without pinning their predictions on a single explicit outcome, the researchers understood that virtual worlds would become “a canvas” for new forms of mass communication.

The “after” is a canvas, too. Each of us is in a position to determine what it will be on an individual scale and as members of a society. We can use the tools at our disposal to affect the outcomes we hope to see, whether tried-and-true or speculative. We can, for instance, keep wearing our masks and behaving responsibly to limit the viral spread. We can get vaccinated. We can keep ourselves informed.

We can also reflect on the parts of our lives that the pandemic made clearer: the newfound rituals we plan to keep, the people we’d like to see more of. The things that matter most versus the stuff we’ve come to realize isn’t as important as we once thought. We’ve all had some time to think about what happens next even if we don’t know quite what it’ll look like.

In this transitional time, let your intentions fill your palette. The masterpiece is yet to come. But when it gets here, you’ll know.

Currently: Writer, editor, author at-large | Recently: Senior Books Editor @ Forge