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The pandemic didn’t shatter society, Zoom did During lockdown technology has exacerbated difference and atomised lives

Imagine a vision of the future. Photo by JACOB KING/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Imagine a vision of the future. Photo by JACOB KING/POOL/AFP via Getty Images


January 4, 2021   4 mins

Thank you science. Last February, predicting a working Covid-19 vaccine within 18 months seemed wildly optimistic. Less than a year later, we have two ready for injection, and another well on the way. When today’s teenagers can get back into their school or university laboratories, we could see a new generation inspired to become scientists.

Science will get us out of a lockdown that technology made possible. The assumption that everyone now has internet access let governments tell people to work from home, consult their doctor through a screen, claim emergency handouts online, and stay in touch with relatives and friends via Zoom.

In reality, a significant minority of UK adults were not online. In 2019, 7.5% had never used the internet. Almost a third of retired people, and over 10% of disabled adults, were not internet users before the pandemic. But in March 2020, many reluctant late adopters were faced with the choice of virtual or nothing.

In parallel with the global boost to vaccine development, Covid-19 has accelerated our shift to online relationships. When physical shops closed, consumers moved online, and we won’t entirely move back again. Remote consultations with doctors and other professionals are also here to stay.

Our personal relationships were increasingly conducted through screens even before 2020. Now, the same parents who were baffled by the always-connected, never-actually-present nature of their children’s friendships are running family WhatsApp groups and setting up Zoom quizzes.

As we emerge, blinking like bears, into a post-Covid summer, those devices which connected us will still be clutched firmly in our paws. Although I foresee a euphoric embrace of face-to-face, not to mention skin-to-skin, human contact, I also predict that interaction through the safe filter of technology will be more firmly embedded than ever in most people’s lives.

New divides emerged in 2020, as existing social differences were catalysed by crisis into visible cracks. Those who embraced working from home, and are not keen to return to the commute and the office routine, are generally older people with families and bigger houses. They have enjoyed the freedom to fit the school run into their day, spend less time on the train and more in the garden, less time with annoying colleagues and more with Lockdown Puppy. Younger workers, hunched over laptops in shared flats and houses, show less enthusiasm. For them, going out to work is an opportunity to learn informally about the job and workplace culture, to meet people, to explore the wider world beyond their front door.

Then there are the workers whose jobs cannot be done from home. Less than half of UK employees worked remotely during the pandemic. Unfortunately, most of the media fell into the working-from-home side of that divide. That skewed the narrative of 2020 towards questions of sourdough and birdsong, and away from the continuing reality of people whose jobs still had to be done in worse conditions, or those whose work evaporated overnight.

These divides won’t continue in exactly these forms, though they will add to the many fractures in society. What will persist, exacerbating the splits and hampering our ability to recover from both pandemic and economic shock, is the atomisation of society.

Instead of a country united in the face of Nature’s novel threat, we split into millions of individuals, separated into households or “support bubbles” (as if every single person is only a mental health patient waiting to happen). The normal, informal, everyday encounters that remind us we’re all human, and not so very different, were severely restricted by law.

Instead, we built connections online, seeking out what scratched our itch, whether that was friendly networks to lift our spirits, or groups whose analysis of the crazy world confirmed our own instincts.

Little wonder that rational scepticism about politicians or medical authorities slid so easily into conspiracy theories. In the pub, or across the workplace coffee machine, the idea that Bill Gates is microchipping the population is quickly laughed out of existence. On the internet, you can always find a YouTube video to tell you it’s true.

The shift towards more working from home, for those who can, makes it hard to build any workplace ethos of professionalism, of teaching younger colleagues, or of solidarity with your fellow employees. Universities may be able to deliver lectures online, but it’s hard to cultivate any sense of a shared project of scholarship in virtual seminars, especially with no trip to the bar afterwards.

Transferring cultural, or political, or sporting events online revealed how much more an audience is than a number of individuals who watch and listen. Without them, performers, speakers, or players, have no focus, no feedback, and no sense that this occasion is unique in happening here, now, with this specific group of people, transformed into a whole greater than its parts.

I hope that we enter 2021 with a much deeper sense of why shared, public, social life is important, and a commitment to restoring it as fast as possible. I fear that there are long-lived social forces moving against that. Re-starting the economy is going to be much easier than knitting together the unravelled strands of a society that already lacked coherence and trust.

There are practical reasons why managers might welcome the persistence of virtual, individual connections, instead of shared spaces. Employers can save on rent and bills, universities sell their educational products to a worldwide audience. Routine interactions are on the record, so everything can be supervised and surveilled. There are also good reasons for continuing to accommodate online participation. Obstacles of geography, physical disability or family responsibilities need no longer exclude. Travel time and expense can be slashed.

But the trend towards relating to the world as individuals, through technology that makes even informal conversation more controllable, was already well under way. We, the individuals in question, have often been willing to embrace it. American teenagers, surveyed before Covid, slightly preferred texting their friends to meeting them in person. In a world that often feels out of our control, we can at least edit our selfies and choose our words carefully as we “chat”. Spontaneous, real world situations are more risky.

This unwillingness to engage with risk also underlies official reluctance to allow group situations to resume. The tendency to see crowds, or even crowded pubs, as unsafe for Covid reasons was built on a suspicion of crowds as unpredictable gatherings of people who might get an idea into their collective mind, and act on it. How much safer, and easier, to gather people on Zoom, or to relate to them as individuals, each in their private space, through an app.

For better and worse, our immediate future will be more atomised, more mediated by technology, than ever before. How far 2021 goes towards restoring what is valuable about shared, unmediated human life, whether intimate or public, is an open question.


Timandra Harkness presents the BBC Radio 4 series, FutureProofing and How To Disagree. Her book, Big Data: Does Size Matter? is published by Bloomsbury Sigma.

TimandraHarknes

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Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
3 years ago

This unwillingness to engage with risk also underlies official reluctance to allow group situations to resume.
There is always risk. For the people able to work remotely, they stood a bigger risk from their daily commute than from covid. And for those unable to work remotely, well, we see how that’s turned out. Maybe outsourcing every risk in life to an unaccountable third party is not the best approach to take.

i doubt anyone can give an honest answer on when group situations will be seen as normal again, and a lot of people in positions of power seem to like it that way. Humans were not designed for perpetual isolation and the issues stemming from that have already reared their heads. I shudder to think of the scarring done to children who are being conditioned to view other people as mortal threats.

angersbeagle
PA
angersbeagle
3 years ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Your last sentence is very pertinent.
Unherd published a very interesting essay on the subject of Social Media Conditioning, putting forward the view that our younger generation are very much at risk from other online users. To merely upvote a minor conversation is to risk a backlash from the Twittersphere and even public censure. To cap it all, these events are there for posterity, which could come back to bite 20, 30 years down the line.

Jonathan Bagley
Jonathan Bagley
3 years ago

I’m looking forward to making 40 fifteen minute videos over the next 3 weeks. We’ve been told this “blended learning” is to be permanent – “research” has proved it a good idea. So, in future, university students will spend 6 hours of their 36 hour “working week” watching videos, rather than attending lectures. I don’t envy them.

Ethniciodo Rodenydo
Ethniciodo Rodenydo
3 years ago

How do you sell that for £9k pa?

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago

Teaching jobs are toast I guess. The little monsters will have to go somewhere though, just to keep them from wrecking the city, so some kind of ‘school’ will be needed for them, but more of a day-care scene where they can watch the bought education videos.

Samuel Klonimos
SK
Samuel Klonimos
3 years ago

Electronic communication is irremediably dangerous to individuals, as I experience speedy implementation of top-down IT communication from government to individuals here in France. Such communication increases powers of the already powerful more and faster than it increases rights, powers and opportunities of individuals. A government department, or an employer, can send you a message without affording right of reply, and where right of reply exists, its content may be controlled/censored/manipulated by electronic communication ( using multiple ‘choice’ tricks: ‘which of the following is your complaint’) to an extent impossible where the individual composes her/his own reply, choosing her/his language, terms of reference and evidence submitted. It makes it easier to fix legal responsibility for ‘having received notice’ on individuals and more difficult to fix responsibility on the powerful ‘sender’ of messages. It makes it possible for the powerful to simply destroy record of an exchange where the exchange is inconvenient.

Electronic communications are like mirrored windows used in police interrogations: those on the powerful side can ‘see’ the individual, but not vice versa.

In my view, all individuals have political, ethical and material stakes in such big changes in power relationships, all the more so when changes are rapid and dressed up as ‘progress’, and it seems to me critical for individuals to retain the right (power) to communicate via alternative modes if preferred -letter, via legal counsel, via face-to-face confrontations.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago

Hate those ‘Do Not Reply’ emails.

Alexandra Thrift
Alexandra Thrift
3 years ago

Excellent post and so very, very true. I have already experienced misuse of these revamped electronic systems.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago

yea, well, you miss the biggie. If you can do your drudge computer based job at home so can someone in Manila and Mumbai in their homes. Most workers cost about double their pay through the pension, NI, tax, facilities, and so on. These guys will contract to do your job without any of these costs, and at half the pay equaling 1/4 your cost.

As TVs manufacturing 100% offshored so will drudge computer based work.

Once long distance phone calls got reduced India set up colleges to teach call center qualifications. Language, social norms, and so on in English, and off shore went the call centers. Same as with TVs and call centers will go your job. The office was your protector! It took a work visa to get in it. No longer with work from home. You sheep just invited the wolves into your safe paddock and you are doomed!

David J
David J
3 years ago

My Oxford literary society has used Zoom for get-togethers.
Without it, we would have been forced to rely on the post or telephone, with no group meetings possible.
However, the moment it’s possible again, we will return to renewing human contacts, as will everyone else, except for perhaps a few socially challenged individuals.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  David J

Pandora said that.

Sean Arthur Joyce
Sean Arthur Joyce
3 years ago

Harkness unfortunately wastes a good opportunity to illustrate the fallacy of replacing human contact with virtual by starting from false premises. 1) That the virus is as deadly as claimed: At worst, an Infection Fatality Rate of 0.2% according to Stanford University medical experts; even less on the US CDC chart, especially the younger the age group; 2) that the vaccines now being rolled out will “save” us: given that both placebo controls and animal experiments have been skipped, and that a hitherto unprecedented RNA vaccine is being developed, the COVID vaccines can only be described as “experimental drugs,” already shown to have a high rate of adverse reactions even among healthy 35-year-old test subjects; and 3) by implication, that screen learning and work will somehow replace human contact; many neurological studies show the reverse: that educational outcomes are reduced, not enhanced, by immersive screen tutoring.
She does however get it right about the social consequences; humans are social animals and here again, neurological studies show that touch is vital to a child’s brain development, not to mention to emotionally healthy adults. Her point about the impact on the arts is a vital one: without direct contact with an audience, performing artists are performing in a vacuum and their art will suffer accordingly. Having already watched one “concert” via Zoom I’m not eager to tune into another one: you could tell the musicians were suffering for want of the energy of a room filled with people, their performances stilted and uninspired.

D Ward
D Ward
3 years ago

Genuine question- if the virus is as deadly and virulent as it seems to be, why aren’t there millions of people in China succumbing to it (and corresponding deaths?).

It can’t surely have been eliminated over there?

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  D Ward

West Pacific has 0.3 to 4 deaths per million to the West having about a thousand, 1000 per million, or 250 times more deaths per million. If you go to worldometers, and look you will see this is primarily a disease of the West. That it was designed to be like this is very much of the walks, quacks, looks like a duck thing.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago

Chinese are basically immune, and their neighbors too, from 0 in Cambodia to 4 deaths per million in China and 0.4 in Vietnam it all is clear.

valleydawnltd
RH
valleydawnltd
3 years ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

Interesting. i wonder what the physiological differences are, and I wonder we have seen a significantly smaller rate of infections amongst sino-Asian communities here in the West. It should be a very simple thing to find out-we already know that BAME individuals are adversely affected.

angersbeagle
angersbeagle
3 years ago
Reply to  valleydawnltd

I have two very good friends in Vietnam, one in Hue City and the other in Hanoi. They simply say that when the Govt instructs them to wear face coverings and avoid large gatherings, they do so, no arguments.
Perhaps their advantage is then societal as opposed to the individual.

Michael Cowling
Michael Cowling
3 years ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

1) New Zealanders and Australians are not all east Asians, but there is low mortality in those places.
2) Maps in Western Europe (including the UK) all focus on Europe, and Africa and Asia get a page or so each. Similarly in the USA. So people outside Asia see Cambodia and Korea as close to each other. But try walking! You can’t just lump all East Asian and South East Asian people in the same genetic (or political) basket.
3) Death rates in Indonesia are higher than in Malaysia, but the populations are very similar. So how does that fit into your theory?

Margaret Donaldson
Margaret Donaldson
3 years ago

As I write, our roads are covered in black ice but thanks to Zoom, my Rural aka WI, no longer has to worry about cancelling its meeting. We will have our talk on eye care regardless. Ditto our Guide meetings. Far from weakening social interaction, Zoom has kept it going. For that most of my elderly contemporaries and Guiding colleagues are grateful. In winter, we should have had it years ago! Yes we are longing for face to face again but Zoom is better than nothing at all.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago

In my youth, London, the best day of the year, and it would be a couple a year, were ‘Fog Days’. Back then London still had the pea soup fogs occasionally where evin walking was dangerous as you could walk into a lamp post as that has how thick the fog was, no vehicles could drive, so no bus, what a joy it was!

ard10027
JF
ard10027
3 years ago

Never mind the internet. So long as there are jet skis, there is hope.

Anthony Rossomando
Anthony Rossomando
3 years ago

Humans are NOT that advanced physically or psychologically. I can see the naivete through the attempt at intellectual “cleverness “. Our ultimate desire is to connect, protect and procreate. My point is this; whatever our frontal lobe it’s telling us about risk, human nature will prevail.

Andrew Giles
Andrew Giles
3 years ago

Yes, and one big aspect: even health diagnosis and advice has moved online.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

“Nature’s novel threat”?

Swiveleyed Loon
Swiveleyed Loon
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

Must keep the narrative going. Chaos will ensue if the narrative fails.

stephen f.
stephen f.
3 years ago

Truly.

7882 fremic
7882 fremic
3 years ago
Reply to  stephen f.

All comes from nature as basic materials, but as oil is made into plastic by industry and science, so is likely for the virus. You may note China has 3 (Three!) deaths per million and USA UK have about 1100, (Eleven Hundred!) it means it targets the West at about 400 times more! But nothing to see here, our enemy has a booming economy as ours tanks, and they are economically colonizing the third world as we are distracted, and buying up our assets for pennies on the pound, but not to worry, they likely have no culpability, that it came from one of their bio labs, from an indigenous virus they are basically immune to wile it kills us, well that is all coincidence.

valleydawnltd
valleydawnltd
3 years ago
Reply to  7882 fremic

Of course that might be due to the East’s differing cultural values, and in particular China’s authoritarian and draconian Government machinery.

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago
Reply to  valleydawnltd

I also loath China’s authoritarian and draconian approach to governing, but it is achieving far more than our democracies. This is immensely frustrating, and I wonder if western cultures will ever get a handle on just how destructive it is to allow absolutely anything to be accommodated under the umbrella of “freedom of speech”…

joel.simbrow
joel.simbrow
3 years ago
Reply to  valleydawnltd

Yes cultural values and even genetics may play in, but mostly it’s
the freedom of media tilting the number scales. Statistics always being
biased, here we have 2 inconceivably powerful polar opposite media
biases; in the west it’s splintered sensationalism, virtue signalling
and profit, while in China it’s the narrative of the party. The latter
being vastly better suited to handling/controlling group consciousness.

GA Woolley
GA Woolley
3 years ago

‘The tendency to see crowds, or even crowded pubs, as unsafe for Covid reasons was built on a suspicion of crowds as unpredictable gatherings of people who might get an idea into their collective mind, and act on it.’ Those damn lizards, eh Timandra?

Peter KE
Peter KE
3 years ago

Maybe our leaders are influenced by a civil service that just wants to stay at home in their comfortable London suburban house. Not really caring about work output just as long as the monthly payment is in the bank. Why take any risk or inconvenience when they still get paid.

valleydawnltd
valleydawnltd
3 years ago
Reply to  Peter KE

They have KPIs too, you know….it is easy to see who falls behind in their workload.

Charles Rae
Charles Rae
3 years ago

I must admit to agreeing with those teenagers. As someone who is a chatty introvert, I love chatting with people but find online one on one chats more comfortable. I am not a fan of zoom meetings tho’. It’s an odd sensation when you are being seen but do not know if someone is looking at you ( and wondering about that clutter behind in my case!!!). I have discovered a love of llve chat on youtube too, as I listen to music or go on a virtual walk. The virtual world enables me to interact more comfortably with others.
I have enjoyed having email and phone contact with friends over lockdown. Maximum communication without any of the usual anxiety Likewise I have savoured the general quietness of streets round me ( no screaming kids of noisy cars). Selfish perhaps, but I have relished this, with trepidation for the return of “normality”.

Maria Bogris
Maria Bogris
3 years ago

And this is why I somewhat hope for another Carrington Event

Andre Lower
Andre Lower
3 years ago

I think it’s only fair to point out the many upsides of remote working. Among others, workplace bullying is significantly reduced, the need to take notes is all but eliminated and most significantly people are much easier to reach.
Perhaps we should acknowledge that once the Covid threat is gone, physical interaction will keep existing as a choice for whenever all parties involved prefer that over a telemeeting. And that is not a bad thing.

valleydawnltd
valleydawnltd
3 years ago
Reply to  Andre Lower

I would be reluctant to say that workplace bullying has stopped or reduced. If it can be done online to teenage girls (like my daughter) to the point of self harming, it can be done to vulnerable work colleagues.