The strange, new circumstances of 2020 entailed a number of strange, new behaviors — “social distancing”, wearing masks, working from home, “toobin” (for some). I think I uttered the phrase “public health” more in one month than I had in my entire life until March 2020. Suddenly, my blissfully unaware self was inundated with a string of strange, new directives, necessitating strange, new thoughts and behaviors.
Of course, the strange, new thing was a little understood, highly contagious virus that was spreading rapidly. Our governments were thoroughly unprepared for it. The United States, historically seen as an economic, diplomatic, and military leader, found itself less equipped to handle the disaster than a Texas grocery store chain. In a scramble to maintain the stability of our health care system, we forced ourselves minimize embodiment. The bodies and breath of others, those essential, irreducible aspects of their humanity, became “transmission vectors” to avoid. Hugging and singing suddenly entailed considerable risk. Of course, covering the lower half of our faces and leaving six feet of space between each other were ways of acknowledging and honoring our embodiment. By striving to protect one another in this way for a time, we recognized that life is bound up in our bodies.
Nonetheless, I think that many people have come to realize that such a way of living and relating is fundamentally undesirable and unsustainable. Most people I talk with, even those who adjusted quite well at the start of the pandemic, are eager to get vaccinated and once again embrace a grandparent, work in an office, go to a basketball game, or listen to live music. What was often called the “new normal” has proven to be deeply abnormal, a recognition I’ve heard echoed by many people. But there are also subtle and not-so-subtle advocates for the normalization of our new habits. I don’t think theirs is the dominant preference; it seems to be a view espoused by the very online, the future-oriented, for whom human life is more experiment than experience.
A commercial I recently saw for Amazon Web Services, the cloud infrastructure platform provided by Amazon, illustrates such an attitude. It was narrated by a young girl. We see her waving to and thanking a Doordash delivery-woman as she drops off some food on her family’s porch. We see her father riding a Peloton, followed by her submitting school assignments on Blackboard, watching a movie on a projector in the backyard, and chatting with elderly relatives on Zoom. “Well, things are different these days, but we’re figuring it out”, she says. She tells us that her dad’s made some new workout buddies, and that, while doing school online, she’s “learning a lot”. The ad closes with text telling the viewer that AWS is how Zoom, Doordash, Peloton, etc. keep us all “connected”.
I saw this ad while visiting in-laws in rural Texas. I can only speculate as to why this ad was on cable television, whose audience is unlikely to have any direct use for AWS’s offerings. Neither can I imagine that anyone who actually would use AWS infrastructure to host a digital product would be swayed either way by this commercial. I don’t think cute ads play much of a role in enterprise software decision-making. The ad’s very existence only makes sense as a propaganda piece — it isn’t selling a service, but a worldview. “Food, health, learning, human interaction — whatever your need, we make possible its fulfillment”, the ad implies. “Everything is okay because of us”. Never mind that the family in the ad lives in a spacious suburban home, replete with devices. Never mind that the masked Doordash driver “smiling with her eyes” probably cannot make a living wage. Never mind the lost work, the closure of locally owned business, the economic devastation of communities, the well-documented shortcomings in education for the most vulnerable. The frightening dissonance between the experiences of our society’s technocratically-minded professional class and those most acutely afflicted by the pandemic’s effects is on full display.
This economic, political, and cultural disconnect existed well before a virus jumped from a bat to a pangolin to a human. But the alienation and fear that were already embedded in people’s psyches were exacerbated as we had to turn away from one another and toward the black mirrors in our hands and homes. I don’t think it requires much imagination to see how such compounding circumstances could make a large number of people vulnerable to believing and internalizing a set of delusions — delusions that, in turn, compel their believers to do something like invading the seat of American democracy in the hopes of overturning a presidential election.
Countless thinkpieces explore the whys and hows of such an event. “It’s the evangelicals”. “It’s the Democratic party’s betrayal of the working class”. “It’s the president’s rhetoric”. “It’s cowardly Republican politicians who want to be reelected”. “It’s disinformation and radicalization on social media platform XYZ”. I think all of these theses are correct to some degree. But I think that the last one points to a latent malaise that exacerbated the others.
The winners in our current economic and technological order have an incentive to perpetuate the conditions that make the events of January 6th possible. To shift away from the physical toward the virtual is to shift away from one reality to another. These virtual realities enrich their maintainers though engagement; the veracity of the realities that users are engaging with is irrelevant. Their business models necessitate the perpetuation of falsehood, since falsehood has proved effective in maintaining engagement.
I think repairing these virtual realities is impossible. Their viability as a product for their true customers (advertisers) requires them to double-down on the same features that cause profound psychological harm to their users. If we cannot fix virtual realities, then we must walk away from them altogether. We must return to one another in the real world, from “cyberspace” to “meatspace”, from abstractions to bodies.
The return to embodiment enabled by vaccinations will not fix all our societal ills, but it is a necessary condition. John Inazu, recognizing the necessity of embodiment to defeat “information viruses”, writes,
This pandemic season has forced on many of us the painful absence of face-to-face relationships. When we are once again free to pursue these embodied relationships, we might discover that they also represent our best antidote to the information virus: other human beings who force us to confront complexity rather than caricature, and who challenge us to maintain friends, not just followers. But antidotes, like vaccines, don’t always come easily. They take work, risk, and perseverance.
Work, risk, and perseverance are, of course, the very necessities that the purveyors of technologically mediated ease want to nullify. Why talk with waitstaff and wait for a meal when it can be brought to you? Why go to a smelly gym or risk the discomfort of the elements when you can ride an exercise bike in the comfort of your own home? Why crowd into a theater and bump elbows with strangers when a personally optimized algorithm suggests viewing options to you from the comfort of your couch?
The pandemic allowed those fortunate enough to afford it the opportunity to eliminate considerable friction from their lives. But in order to recover our communities and ourselves, more friction may be the very thing we need. We learn patience as we wait on food, await our turn for the squat rack, and try to find a seat in the theater. When we go to a restaurant, we are slightly less removed from the hands that prepared our food. We can observe and mimic the form of another when working out in a gym or class in a way that we can’t while watching a workout video. And we share collective laughter and tears when we watch a movie in a theater.
Friction is not a guarantor of virtue, but neither is ease. Friction can break us out of our solipsism and myopia; it opens us to otherness and expands our horizons. It both disenchants us of our illusions and re-enchants the world with the mystery of the unfamiliar. For many, this pandemic has exacerbated the friction of existence to a nigh intolerable degree — the healthcare workers facing death daily, the already disadvantaged students regressing in their learning, the small business owners who have lost their livelihoods, and those who have lost loved ones or their very lives to this disease. But for the rest of us who haven’t experienced such loss, it afforded us the opportunity to mitigate a lot of friction.
Such frictionless-ness has hidden costs. When the complexity of things is abstracted away, it doesn’t cease to exist; it is simply placed out of sight. As we eliminate friction from our lives, we replace it with illusion. And collective illusions, about our own righteousness, about the wickedness of others, about our lack of responsibility for ourselves and our communities, have brought us here. As the risk of this new virus is mitigated, we need to embrace friction and embodiment again. Drink a cup of coffee with a neighbor. See a movie. Meet a stranger and shake their hand. Hug a grandparent. Sing songs in church. Smell the sweat of another. Wait in a line. And while you wait, try not to check your phone.