Every day is Sunday. The parking lot at the busiest commuter station in Mass Bay Transit Authority’s light rail system is vacant except for one Honda and one Subaru Impreza. The streets are deserted under the glorious sun of a New England spring day. There will be a brief surge of joggers and parents pushing prams at a respectful, and sanitary social distance in local parks, and in the downtown common around 10:00 am, but then… Nothing. They will all be back behind doors before lunch. It’s Friday morning in a time of plague.
It is all to be expected, and it is all for the greater good. We – all humans on the planet – face a pandemic threat unprecedented in the extent and rapidity of its spread that has infected more than a million people worldwide, and killed more than 60,000. Not even the Spanish Influenza of 1918, not even the Black Death of the 14th century spread so far and so quickly and, if we are going to avoid those plagues’ horrific butcher’s bills, we know, we must self-isolate, shelter-in-place: stay home on a perpetual Sunday.
So there we sit, ensconced within the walls of our homes and apartments, making do. It is, to be sure, a privilege to be able to make do; those of us who can work from home, continue to work, those who cannot, and are not employed in an essential service or industry, worry about the money running out. Others enjoy private Decamerons of Netflix binge-watching, interminable sessions of Fornite with endless deaths and resurrections, or the stack of Kindle books that you’ve always wanted to get to. And all of us feel that something fundamental, even elemental, is irrevocably different; the world has changed in a subtly profound way.
It almost goes without saying that our global quarantine could not have happened at a more fortuitous moment in human history. “The lockdown is doing immense damage to the economy,” BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones wrote last week, “but think how much worse it could have been.” We are stuck at home, to be sure, but it is not like we don’t have anything to do and it is not like we are cut off from the worlds of work, school, or social interactions. Imagine if this had all happened in 2005, Cellan-Jones observed, at the very dawn of Facebook, Skype, and online teaching.
There is much to this. Over the last few weeks, we have all mobilized the vast array of technologies and services at our disposal to ease the isolation and inconvenience of social distancing. Even if you can’t get out to your favorite restaurant, you can still order a pizza from the Slice app, or something more elevated on Seamless, and have it delivered to your door. Amazon.com, the interface par-excellence to global capitalism, is still dropping off packages and satisfying consumer desires as if nothing has happened.
Elementary school kids have been sent into homeschooling, and the often-dubious pedagogical skills of their parents, but college students sheltering-in-place in their family homes will not lose their spring terms; the educational technology, if not their professors’ enthusiasm for it, has been robust enough to bring classrooms online around the globe.
Even the delicate dance of personal and social interaction has migrated to what we used to call “cyberspace” with relatively little fuss. Our social media friends are just as real – often moreso – as friends next door. Ubiquitous videoconferencing technologies like Zoom, not to mention the network infrastructure on which they rely, have allowed us to enjoy the real-time company of people we would normally only post messages to. Even The Typescript has been hosting a weekly virtual happy hour. (Visit our Facebook page to learn more.)
The ease with which we have made the transition to online living is a reflection of how thoroughly the Internet has pervaded even the most intimate parts of our lives. A decade ago, “met on the Internet” was a smirking insult for mismatched couples – remember Kip and LaFawnduh in Napoleon Dynamite – but today those of us who haven’t at least tried OKCupid or Tinder are a tiny community of lonely hearts. There are even online means of consummating these relationships. I first heard the term “teledildonics” at the International Symposium of Electronic Arts in Montreal in 1995. Most people laughed at the absurdity of internet-mediated sexual stimulation technologies a quarter of a century ago but, in the age of lockdown, the search term is trending, and vendors are scrambling to meet the booming demand.
For the privileged among us, it’s not too bad, and even business-as-usual; for others, it is just another reality of late-stage capitalism that we have to get used to – and we have had decades to get used to it. “The Internet subverts geography,” I wrote in my 1997 book Fuzzy Logic: Dispatches From the Information Revolution, “it is nowhere because location is irrelevant. Conversely, as they say in retail, location is everything, and the Internet is everywhere. Every point is equidistant from every other point on-line, and every off-line geographical location is just as close…”
But there is much more to it than making do. For those of us who are able to combine our physical and geographical isolation with virtual connectivity with no loss of livelihood, sheltering-in-place is not without its charms. There is no maddening rush out the door to an endless commute, no business clothes, no abjuring the comforts of home, even temporarily. You can work in your pajamas, eschew shaving and makeup on days with no Zoom meetings, and turn the video off when you want to ignore your professor, your boss, your classmates, or your coworkers.
Hell, this is something that we can get used to and, with no end to the pandemic in sight, we might have to. President Trump’s absurdly-optimistic plan to have the country “opened up” by Easter was scotched the moment the words left his mouth. All public events through June have been cancelled; the Democratic National Convention, originally scheduled to start on July 13, has been pushed back more than a month to August 17; the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo have been postponed until 2021; and the virus continues to spread. All indications are that this lockdown is going to continue for a long time yet.
This is significant because virtually every one of the social and economic interactions that sustain us – indeed, that we enjoy – in the perpetual Sunday of our collective self-isolation is mediated by corporate capital. We buy all of our groceries online, using InstaCart and Shipd, from Whole Foods, Wegmans, Kroger, or Target because they deliver, and the local grocery store does not. We meet colleagues in Zoom Rooms rather than offices and class rooms. We download books to our Kindle and Nook readers from the websites of trillion dollar corporations. And for the early-adopters, even sexual pleasure can be mediated through WeVibe’s Sync networked “couples’ vibrator” (now marked down 25 percent).
There is even a moral imperative to isolate ourselves in internet-mediated, social-distanced bunkers, with any number of self-appointed Gladys Kravitzes policing their neighbors’ comings and goings, both real and virtual. While the imperative is real, the effect of the moralizing is to embed us ever more deeply in late-stage capitalism.
Already, consumers spend more than 12 cents of every dollar online and, with the pandemic stifling brick-and-mortar business, that number is set to go through the roof. Vast e-commerce-based corporations, for whom geography is irrelevant, are set to benefit from the lockdown, while local businesses who are are tied to place, can only suffer. The moral ultimatum to stay home and off the streets is a demand to patronize conglomerates like Amazon.com, which after all are able to stay open during the crisis, at the expense of the neighborhood emporium down the street.
Already, the online boom produced by the coronavirus has industry pundits eagerly speculating about what it all means for the “digital economy.” For many, this is the long-awaited proof-of-concept opportunity for the promise that electronic commerce pioneers extended a quarter century ago. “If you’re not an active Internet citizen by the mid-1990s, you’re likely to be out of business by the turn of the century,” e-commerce evangelist Patricia Seybold wrote in 1994, the year that Jeff Bezos founded Amazon.com. While there might have been some truth to that, it is nonetheless equally true that electronic commerce accounts for only 12 percent of consumer spending a generation later.
Make no mistake, people like Bezos will only be happy when that number is much, much higher and, with consumers sheltering-in-place, and most brick-and-mortar shops shuttered for the duration, they look to this moment as the fulfilment of their dreams, if not prophecy.
Indeed, the pandemic’s forever-Sunday has been widely-touted as a great social and economic experiment. The hypothesis being tested is whether we can adjust to living our social and, above all, economic lives without place. That was question posed by Jonathan Zimmerman in an enthusiastic article in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “This year’s biggest news story provides us with an opportunity to find out,” he gushed, “if we’re wise enough to seize it.”
Over the last few years, colleges and universities around the world have been among the most eager proponents of using the Internet to deliver their product – in this case, education, or at least college credentials. Since the first MOOCs of a decade ago, university administrators, though rarely the educators themselves, have been enthralled by the potential of online teaching.
In the age of the corporatized university, ever conscious of its profit margins and committed to a consumer model of education, online teaching has some obvious attractions: It obviates the need to maintain costly campus facilities; in many cases, faculty contracts give employers ownership of intellectual property published on the university servers; it is ideally suited to expanding contingent teaching positions at the expense of tenured faculty lines. Most importantly, it introduces an economy of scale that makes it a winning proposition for the 21st century education factory.
When done well, online learning can have significant benefits, producing a more inclusive space, and providing access to students who would not normally have the opportunity to go to college even if, as Zimmerman noted, “people with less academic opportunity and skill were likely to suffer more from online instruction.” Before the pandemic, fully a third of all American college students had taken at least one course online. Now, virtually every college student in the world is taking all of their courses online, and whether or not it is being done well seems quite beside the point. You can bet that college presidents and provosts are watching the experiment closely.
If we can do without places like shops, offices, restaurants, and college campuses for the duration of the pandemic, then think of how those retailers, companies, and corporate universities who are set up to go completely online can save on their costs. The ROI speaks for itself.
The danger is that we can get used to it and, if the lockdowns continue long enough, we almost certainly will. No one really knows how long the lockdown will last; health officials in the US are planning for an 18-month pandemic and, even if it is unlikely that we will be sheltering-in-place for quite that long, it is clear that this is not going to end any time soon. And it might last long enough for our Internet-mediated lives to become habit before we finally get back to normal.
But here’s the catch: There will be no going back to normal, as Gideon Litchfield noted in the MIT Technology Review. “The world has changed many times, and it is changing again,” he wrote. “All of us will have to adapt to a new way of living, working, and forging relationships.” Adaptation is inevitably accompanied by loss, and it is worth noting what we stand to lose in the wake of the enormous changes the coronavirus has thrust upon us.
One need only walk through the half-deserted streets of any moderately-sized city to realize that we are losing place.
It almost goes without saying that, when the all-clear sounds in July, or October, or next year, we will rush en-masse to the beaches, parks, commons, and city centers that we once occupied before being shut inside. We will be desperate to be somewhere, to be with other people who are not disembodied heads in boxes on a computer screen. There will be a social explosion driven by billions of human beings seeking each other out. But what then?
After learning to satisfy our basic economic, social, and educational needs by remote control, and from the comfort of our own homes, will it all then go offline? And what will there be left to go offline to, months after the corner grocery, the local pub, and that great Thai restaurant have closed their doors because they could not meet their rent, and after the universities have found online classes more expedient than costly campuses?
The future only promises to accelerate the cultural transformation of the gentrified city that sociologist Sharon Zukin noted in 2010. “If this is not the end of history,” she wrote in Naked City: The Death and Life of Authentic Urban Places, “at least it is the end of place-bound cultures that we thought, mistakenly, would last forever.”
Certainly, there will always be places to which we can intentionally go, but what of the unintentional places. In The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs noted that the sidewalk is the most important urban space. It is the place where relationships are formed and negotiated, where the neighborhood communicates with itself, monitors its security, and welcomes its permanent and transient members. And the sidewalk can be all of these things only because it is an unintentional space – a space we pass through on the way to intentionally do other things.
It is here that we stop on the way home from the market to pet a passing dog, where we run into an old friend who has just moved back to the neighborhood in that brief moment on the way to work, where you see the love of your life for the first time as they drop off some clothes at the dry-cleaner. The sidewalk has analogies in other places: the university Quads where college radicals discovered common cause and mobilized against the Vietnam War, New York’s Zuccotti Park, where passers-by were interpellated into Occupy Wall Street.
These are spaces that we do not go to, but pass through unguarded and unintentional, they are the places where serendipity happens. What do we stand to lose when we lose them?